Southern Liberation

Excerpts from Barbara Love’s1 talks at the Southern2 Liberation Workshop she led in January 2006 

Beloved Southerners,I want you to know how good it is for us to be here together to celebrate our liberation. Part of our liberation is remembering who we are. Part of it is reclaiming who we are. Part of it is reclaiming our connection to each other. Part of it is noticing what’s true about us, particularly those things that the oppression tries to make us forget. We are beautiful, brilliant, powerful, loving, completely good, completely connected Southerners. We get to celebrate this. No matter how thoroughly historical circumstances conspired to cause us to lose sight of these truths, they never ceased to be true.

This location, the South, has significance and meaning for us. We get to remember that there was nothing about the South itself that produced the historical confusions. There is nothing wrong with the South. The South is a good place. It is our home—currently, historically—and it supports our liberation. It supports our ever reaching for complete connection, with fuller and fuller portions of our humanness.

While historical confusions have been draped around us, they have never been true of us. By confusions, I mean the efforts of an oppressive society to establish patterns of subordination and domination and to secure our collusion with these patterns. The patterns were draped around us with the purpose of causing us to mistake them for reality. They were meant to fill the entire scope of our vision. They were installed on us very early in our lives, and they can get in the way of our remembering our beauty as Southern people, as well as the beauty of this land. They were installed so heavily and so early that we have associated them with the land and speak of the oppression as though its existence were tied to this location. Though the oppression was maintained on this land, it is not of this land, and it is not inherent to Southern people.

We are together this weekend to make a statement to ourselves, to each other, and to the universe that we will never again be confused. We will never again be made to forget the truth about ourselves and our place. This is our place—and it is a good place. We are good people. Our home is a totally good place, and we get to cherish each other and cherish our home.

LIVING SOUTHERN LIBERATION

We get to live liberation. This is a celebration of Southern liberation. It just so happens that Southern liberation is human liberation. We will spend a bit of time putting our attention on what it means to eliminate Southern oppression, but to move this journey forward it helps to keep talking about what we want, rather than what we don’t want. Whatever we feed tends to grow. Whatever we give our attention to grows. As we counsel and discharge, we are steadily figuring out how to manage that law of the universe. Whatever is fed and watered grows, and that which is not, does not grow. Our attention is the food and the water. What do we want to put our attention on? Do we want to put our attention on liberation, so that liberation will grow, or do we want to put our attention on the oppression? As we manage our own individual liberation, and our liberation as Southern people, we get to think carefully and strategically about where we put our attention. What we want to feed and water with our attention is liberation.

Our connection is one of love and care. Anything to the contrary is simply part of the confusions that have been waved in front of us. We forgive those who waved the confusions, while we deny the confusions any power over our present-time reality.

We are here to celebrate. (Group singing—“Celebration Time.”) There is a party going on3 right here. If, for whatever reason, you step for a moment into guilt, blame, shame, separation, isolation, disconnection, or sorrow, please do not use that as an occasion to feel bad about yourself. Do not say, “Oh, look what I did.” What you will say is, “Here is a new opportunity to decide: I am not going to feel bad about myself. I’m going to celebrate the truth about me and my fellow Southerners.”

I don’t want you to get side-tracked by the patterns. Every pattern that I have, I acquired at a time when I needed help that I could not provide for myself. I don’t have a single pattern that didn’t seem to serve me in some way, somewhere. At this time, I can say, “Thank you pattern, for the service that you provided for me. Thank you for whatever you protected me from. Perhaps you protected me from feeling bad about myself. Perhaps you protected me from noticing something that was too much for me to manage with the resources that I had available to me at the time. Whatever you protected me from, thank you. I don’t need you anymore, and I am going to let you go. Farewell.” Give it a service if you need to (group laughter). Give it a little memorial, say your goodbyes, and let it go. I expect to see a lot of “letting go” this weekend, a lot of memorials here and there.

HISTORY

I will talk some about how history happens. The installation of patterns of oppression did happen. What happens after that, we get to be in charge of. We were not in charge of Katrina,4 but we can be in charge of what happens after that. We were not, have not been, in charge of Southern history. Southern history happened. We get to be in charge of what happens after that. “After that” means starting right now, because everything that happened before this moment is history. None of us have figured out how to change history. We can always change right now.

Certain ways of looking at Southern history can leave us feeling as though we are victims. The notion that we are victims robs us of our power, robs us of our humanness—because our full humanness means being in touch with ourselves as powerful beings.

We will reclaim our capacity to create the world that we want, a just world that encourages and makes space for the full humanness of every one of us. We deny that our history as Southerners imposes any limitations at all on our capacity to create such a world.

BOXES AND SYSTEMS

We get to join with each other in finding ways to shake off, discharge, let go of, some of the boxes that have been superimposed on us by our history—both the history of the United States and our specific, particular history as Southerners.

This country was founded in the midst of great contradictions and juxtapositions. It was built on the back of great hurts. Extraordinary things happened to Native Americans—the Indigenous peoples of these lands, the people who were here before the Europeans and Africans, and later the Asians, arrived on these shores. The term that many people are using to describe what happened to Native peoples is genocide—the willful, determined, intentional effort to eliminate a people, to exterminate a people. This history set up a box for us, which we get to discharge. That genocide happened need not direct our present or our future. Our discharging about it will enable us to ensure that it does not shape or limit our present or our future.

To provide the labor that was required to build this nation, people in Africa were gathered wholesale, brought to these Americas, and forced into involuntary servitude. The wealth that was produced by their labor was appropriated. Then it was determined that the servitude of these people could be passed from one generation to the next. This was an extraordinary hurt for the nation as a whole, which we all get to discharge about.

The involuntary servitude of African people was a hurt for the nation as a whole. As happens in any system—whether we are talking about a family system, an institution, or a nation—one part of the system takes the weight, takes on the difficulty of the entire system, so that the system can excuse itself from culpability.

The genocide of Native people, the enforced servitude of African-heritage people, were huge inconsistencies in a system that was built, in part, on principles of freedom and equality and connection. Freedom, equality, and fraternity were the rallying cry of the “founders” of this nation: “We hold these truths to be self evident—that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”5 This nation was founded both on these principles and on the back of genocide and involuntary servitude. Systems find ways to deal with such internal inconsistencies, such internal contradictions. And the way that this system, called the United States, chose to deal with them was by pointing the finger at the South and saying, “It’s your fault; you are the bad guys!” The burden of responsibility for the troubles of this nation was laid on the South. This is at the heart of Southern oppression. The South got called on to take the weight for the internal contradictions of the system.

There was no recognition that the South got called on to perform this role. Instead, the South and Southerners were pointed to as though they were not part of the greater system but were instead the cause of the difficulties in the system. We get to discharge on where the difficulties showed up in the system as a whole, and where we as Southerners got called on to take the weight for the system, on behalf of the system. We get to discharge on this while at the same time recognizing that we are, and always have been, whole people. We were never broken. We have always been completely good. We have always reached for the very best. We did the best we could. And we get to grieve about what got handed to us.

IDENTITIES AND ROLES

African-heritage people, according to the records that are available, first arrived in what became the United States in 1619. They came initially as indentured servants.6 By 1621 laws had been passed that began the process of changing their status from indentured to indentured-for-life. Then a series of colonial codes moved their status from indentured-for-life to inheritable-indentured.

There was also a series of codes that changed the rationale for exploiting the labor of African people. The initial rationale was, “They are not Christian. They are not civilized. They need to become civilized and they need to become Christian, and this is a good way to civilize them and make them Christian.” The codes gradually changed to clarify that the exploitation of the labor of African people had nothing to do with making them Christian or making them “civilized.” Instead, the defining characteristic became their identity as African-heritage people. The identity itself was used as a rationale for the exploitation of their labor. Race became a predictor of  “place” in society. Race as a predictor of place was then built into the fabric of the institution, into the fabric of the society, and was then passed down through the years to us. Most of us have lost track of the beginning of this construction. No “white” people came from Europe. There were English, French, Dutch, Irish, Swiss, Scots. Prior to the establishment of the institution of slavery in the United States, there were no “white” people. The identity of “white” people was “constructed” with a particular purpose. That purpose was the creation of identifiers for determining who could have which set of privileges, and who would be barred from them.

We get to discharge any notion that racial identities predict anything, or hold any inherent meaning. The only meanings they hold are those that were carefully constructed and deliberately attached to the notion of race. You get to discharge the notion that you are white. And you get to discharge the notion that you are black. These identities actually have no meaning, except to serve as identifiers for access to status, privilege, power, and participation—or lack of access. Remember, the only meaning they have is the meaning we have given to them, which is the meaning that has been given to them by the society. I want you to reach for the notion that these identities have no meaning at all. I could ask all the white people to stand up, all the black people to stand up, and you would do it, but I want you to discharge the notion that it would mean anything, that these identities have any meaning at all. I could ask all of the “black” people who have “white” ancestry to stand up, and most if not all of the “black” people would stand up. I could ask all of the “white” people with “black” ancestry to stand up, and some of you would stand and the rest of you would not really know whether you have “black” ancestry or not.

Racial identities were constructed for a purpose, and that purpose does not serve the purposes of liberation. The purpose for which they were constructed was separation, division, and the establishment of patterns of domination and subordination—in other words, oppression. Separation, so that people could be divided and made to feel alienated from each other. It is a basic principle of oppression that if people can be divided, can be made to feel alienated from each other, then they can be put into roles of domination and subordination. When people are connected, they are not playing the roles of dominant and subordinate, target and agent. People who love and cherish each other won’t do that. So you have to get people feeling separated, disconnected, and alienated and then impose those roles of domination and subordination.

I want to point us toward the ways in which we resisted the separation. I am going to have you go back and look at the history of the ways in which working-class people—working-class European-heritage, African-heritage, and Native-heritage people—were connected, stood in solidarity with each other, fought together, struggled together, resisted the oppression together. I want you to reach for that because I think that those pieces of our history have been deliberately obscured from us so that we don’t have access to them or have them as reminders of who we are, what we did, and what we were reaching for. I want you to go back and find those pieces of history. There are a lot of details, and you will have to search them out because they have been deliberately hidden from us.

Our identities form little boxes around us, and I am trying to point us in the direction of knowing that. This is the biggest piece of work we are going to do: we are going to become clear about the identities, the histories that got associated with them, and the roles we have been asked to play in conjunction with them—roles of subordinate, of dominant, of target and agent, and of victim. Victim is a role that we have been asked to play.

It is actually no great struggle to get outside of these boxes. Remember that the identities were constructed and laid on us. The human is intact. The identities got laid on us, and the roles—dominant, subordinate, agent, victim, and so on—were attached to the identities, and the historical circumstances became the glue to make the roles stick to the identities and the identities stick to us, the humans. You get enough of it on there, and you start thinking that the identity is you. It starts looking like it is who you are, and it gets harder and harder to remember that it is something that got laid on you. The one true identity we have is being human.

“COLOR BLINDNESS”

At the same time, “color blindness” is a useless concept. When people say, “You know, I don’t see color, I just see people,” I recognize that they are reaching for something, trying in the best way that they know to reach outside the constructs of oppression. They know that there is something wrong with the oppressive constructs, and they are trying their best. They know (as we all knew when we came into the world) about our connection, our love for each other, our belonging to each other.

When they say, “I don’t notice color,” my question always is, “What’s the matter? What makes it so hard for you to notice me? What was the hurt that made it so hard to notice that not only am I a black woman, but I am going to be a black woman until I die? If you are not able to notice me as a black woman, then it is going to be hard for you to be with me.” I also ask the question, “What is so terrible about being black that you just can’t notice it? What makes it so hard to look upon that you can’t notice it at all?” And finally I ask, “How hard do you have to work to not notice what is in front of you, and how much of your energy is tied up in your not noticing? I am right here, I am black, and I am beautiful.”

WE ARE CONNECTED

It is not a big project I am asking you to take on.7 It’s really just a matter of remembering. It’s not a matter of big, new directions you have to find. You simply have to remember that you are good, powerful, brilliant, and connected—not want to be these things, not going to be, not would have been, but are. You don’t have to “reach” for connection, you don’t have to “make” connection, you are connection. We belong to each other, and we have each other.

The fact of the matter is that we are our sunshine, we are the ones we have been waiting for. We have a vision, and we know what to do about it. We have access to the means of reclaiming all that’s true about us. We are the ones who will recreate this world in our image and after our likeness. And we do this with the greatest appreciation of those who went before us. We acknowledge with gratitude what they were able to do. We also lament what they weren’t able to do.

We know everything we need to know right now to begin uncovering reality and making it visible in our lives, in our daily paths. We know everything we need to know, and we have right now all the resources we need.

Why are we holding ourselves back? If we belong to each other, and the reality is that we treasure each other, that our natural relationship with each other is loving collaboration, why do we hold ourselves apart? Let us change that, instead of focusing on why we have stayed separate in the past.

I love seeing us show ourselves to each other. I love seeing us let our love for each other show in how we are together with each other. I love noticing how we are willing to trust the truth of our connection, and discharge what could make it feel hard. Notice what I said. It is never hard. It might feel hard, and we know about feelings—we discharge, discharge, discharge. We agree that our feelings are not the basis of decision-making, not the basis of determining what we will do or how we will do it. Feelings are something to be felt and discharged.

We can practice with each other acting on the basis of our connection, on the reality that we are each other—that there is no separation between us, no division, no distinction, and that being connected is not something we have to learn how to do.

I want you to get bolder and bolder about letting somebody else know that you want him or her. Many people say that one of the things they love about us Southerners is our warmth and our ability to greet each other. It is one of the ways that we have held on to our humanness, to the reality of our connection to each other. I want you to get more and more audacious and outrageous in showing your recognition of that connection—your recognition that there is no real separation or division between us.

WE ARE CONNECTED TO THE SOUTH

We are Southern. We are also people of the universe. We belong everywhere. We belong in Massachusetts, USA, and in the Philippines. We belong in Minnesota and California, USA, and in Bogotá, Colombia. We belong in Chicago, USA, and in Cape Town, South Africa. Wherever we go, we belong there. And we never quit being Southerners. We love the South completely, totally, wherever we go. And there is a way that standing on this Southern earth, this soil, this location, gives us access to a particular piece of rootedness that helps us remember more vividly our connectedness. We get to embrace and cherish that.

My great-grandfather came to Arkansas (USA) sometime in the middle 1850s. He built a community and planted pecan and black walnut trees. When I am in Arkansas, I go out and look at those trees and touch those trees—and I’m touching him. I walk on that earth—and I am walking with him. Because of my connection to that land and to him, I am able to feel connected to the universe, and to everything, in a way that I don’t quite get in touch with in Massachusetts.

I want us to notice, acknowledge, and give ourselves some space to be in that connection. Giving ourselves permission to be in that connection is a part of celebrating Southern liberation. We are Southern liberation. Wherever we go, we are it—and we are representatives of it, symbolic representations of Southern liberation. We are it, and we are bigger than it. What happens for you when you give yourself permission to notice that I am connected to you for all time?

The Southland—our blood is in it. Every place has its own beauty, its own special character. The South has us, and we have the South—whether it’s an oak grove, or moss hanging from a tree, or cypress trees growing up out of a bayou, or kudzu growing through the garage door (people tried to get rid of kudzu, and they put down concrete, and it grew right through it). This South, this land, our home—it belongs to us, we belong to it. Our liberation, and Southern liberation, is connected with our acknowledgement of, our celebration of, and our love of this land. I don’t want you to ever assume that it is not significant, not important. Never be seduced into believing that it is not yours to cherish and to protect.

POINTING OUR ATTENTION TOWARDS LIBERATION

There is a way, as Southerners, we have felt required to hold on to the perspective of limitation, of lack, of oppression. There have been concrete physical reasons why we have held that perspective. At this moment, we can acknowledge that it was a perspective that we had in the past, just as we now have the possibility for a different perspective.

The history I have talked about, and the boxes contained in that history—we did not create them, we did not ask for them, we did not set them up. They were created for us and handed to us with a requirement that we occupy them. They set us up to feel like we are victims, like we are limited, like we are still enduring times of struggle, separation, alienation. I would not deny that those times happened and were unfair. However, I want you to notice that another aspect of reality has also been present, has also been available to us. Today we have a way to get our minds wrapped around this reality of liberation, of connection, of love, of cherishing each other. That is what I want you to take from here. The history is interesting, and you should know it if only because it will give you better clues about the shape of the boxes. It will give you better clues about the patterns, the limitations, that we are lightly and delightedly stepping out of.

I have an image in my mind I want to share with you. I am crocheting a chain. (Demonstrates.) Tied up in this chain is all of that history, all of those boxes, all of those perspectives—all that they told us about separation and disconnection and alienation; about how we could have some of us and not others; about how we could be divided from some of us; about who could vote and who couldn’t, who could go to school where, and who could drink out of which water fountains. And here we are, aiming toward liberation. We are here to yank the threads loose, and we know that we have a tool that works. We can grab a piece of this chain, pull on it, and get a good chunk of slack. But eventually we encounter a knot that will not let go. If we pull on it from one end of the thread, it tightens. If we pull on it from the other end, it goes like this (thread unravels). That is the end that pulls our attention away from the distress.

This weekend I have been trying to get us to point our attention in the direction of liberation instead of putting it on where we got hurt, what the history was, how we got set up, how we got turned on each other, how we got separated. Those are grievous stories, and putting attention on them will result in some discharge. However, it won’t unravel the thread completely. Putting our attention on liberation, on what is true or real, will completely unravel it. We can be aware of all the oppression and at the same time point our attention in the direction of liberation, and we can decide repeatedly to do this.

One thing we get to discharge is fear. I have learned that fear will take many forms, and have many faces. Some of us will fear that we might lose access to resources if we completely eliminate the separation. Some of us will fear the loss of our culture if we completely eliminate the separation. In the end, fear is just fear. When we counsel with our attention away from distress, we will feel fear that is part of our key distresses. This is great because it allows us to go back to where we can feel it and bulldoze a chunk out.

I have gone through almost this entire workshop without saying the word “racism.” Yes, grievous things have happened, and we get to discharge on those. And we get to figure out how to not let them set us up for what is going to happen today or tomorrow or the next day. This is what I am trying to say about holding these things in our minds simultaneously. Am I clear? Keep discharging about it, and it will get clearer and clearer. Thank you so much for your willingness to hold this idea, to walk with it, and to do something with it. Keep loving Southerners. Keep loving the South. Keep pushing for Southern liberation!


1 Barbara Love is the International Liberation Reference Person for People of African Heritage.
2 Southern and the South refer to the states (in the southeastern part of the United States) that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861, leading to the U.S. Civil War—a war fought in part over whether or not slavery should be legal.
3 Going on means happening.
4 Hurricane Katrina, a devastating hurricane that hit the southeastern United States and the Caribbean in August 2005
5 A quote from the U.S. Declaration of Independence
6 An indentured servant is someone who commits to working for another person for a specified period of time—especially in return for travel and living expenses.
7 In this context, take on means embark on working on.


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00