“These stories invite celebration, recommitment, and dedication to everything that sustains us.”
EXCERPT FROM THE INTRODUCTION
Freedom is not a destination. It’s a process. It’s a commitment. It’s praxis. It’s an insistence on worldmaking possibilities in every moment of crisis. Freedom requires that we must make witness of our unique differences in the effort to cultivate sustained relations toward worlds driven by care, love, and transformation. Freedom requires that we reject the seductive entrapments of the colonizer, because our radical imagination insists on creating, returning to, otherwise. We make freedom with what we have, because like L.T.D.’s classic Love Ballad goes, freedom knows what we have is so much more than they can see.
James Baldwin reminded us that the path to true freedom involves staying true to our ancestral inheritance. Here we stand. “Not only was I not born to be a slave: I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave-master.” Freedom need not seek permission, nor recognition, nor validation. Freedom thrives in the “Be” class, the folkloric status of High John de Conquer elaborated by Zora Neale Hurston, as to say it shall “be here when the ruthless man comes, and be here when he is gone.” Assuredly, the occasion to grasp freedom is ever present. Toni Cade Bambara made the challenge clear for us. “What are you going to do to be free?” echoes across the maelstrom of Black life, whether in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Louisville, Bogota, Cape Town, Port-au- Prince, and elsewhere throughout the Pan-African world. It’s in our hands, feet, hearts, and souls. We win from within.
This is the premise of How We Stay Free: Notes on a Black Uprising. In immediate response to police terror and the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Walter Wallace Jr., we witnessed one of the largest networked global mobilizations of our generation, reinvigorating long-standing organizing under the banner of abolition and Black liberation. What we witnessed throughout the US in 2020 was an insurrectionary moment, a chaotic and improvised movement that exemplifies the power that Black communities can wield by practicing shared freedom, sovereignty, and ungovernability. To say that any of the strategies used over the summer—mass protest, community mobilization, coalition building, mutual aid—are unprecedented is to discredit the collective pool of Black genius that underlies the Black Radical Tradition. We’ve been here before. We cull these notes from organizers, storytellers, artists, and archivists to recognize that the 2020 Black Uprising in Philadelphia is part of the long, multifaceted, and continuously unfolding history of intelligence gathered from struggle meant to once and for all do away with the chains of an order that has never served us. Underneath the nationalist myths of founding liberty, Philadelphia has always been a groundswell of rebellious underground activity; particularly of Black conspiring and coalition-building towards true freedom. While the stories archived in these pages speak to the work in one city, they are meant to be understood as a contribution to this global tradition, for the generations ahead of us to study, extend, and renew the worthy work in their own communities.
Paul Robeson too, knew far too well that we, African people, stood to be more than victims, but victors. He knew that within our principled unity lies an incredible reservoir of power. “Don’t say it’s impossible to change this.We must know our strength.We are the decisive force.” These are the words of the tallest tree in our forest, the Great Forerunner.8 We must not forget that Eslanda Robeson, his lifelong wife, first manager, and political trailblazer in her own right, was there with Paul, a key interlocutor in developing his singular legacy. Eslanda believed “[i]n fighting a just cause, in resisting oppression, there is dignity.” We must know that none of our leaders stand on an island but are enriched by a community of freedom fighters whose full histories may never be recovered yet through the deeds of a named few. As you read what’s documented in How We Stay Free, know that it can never be the full story nor does it pretend to capture the genuine contributions of all who were there.
The Robesons’ legacy inspired Frances P. “Mama Fran” Aulston, the infinitely wise and unrelenting Black community librarian and arts administrator, to fundraise and to turn the last home Paul Robeson knew, 4951 Walnut Street, into the Paul Robeson House & Museum. As Mama Fran said, “We never had no money, but we never let that stop us.” Making a way out of no way and setting forward the futures our ancestors envisioned has been the energy keeping the Robeson House & Museum alive all these years. It is pulsing with the rhythms of West Philadelphia and generations of Philadelphia’s Black cultural workers.
We view the arts as a tool of social change and in documenting our resistance in these essays, poetry, and conversations we create mighty tools to carve new ways of being. Angela Davis, recalling the artistic contributions of Paul Robeson, once acknowledged: “Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives.” We hold on to this sacred responsibility of the arts, to anchor our aspirations in that which must awaken those affected by it to creatively transform their worlds. It’s the path that Uncle Paul and Mama Fran laid for us.
What would be the Robesons’ role in such a moment as 2020? How would they address the revolutionary possibilities floating in the wind at the same time when so many within our communities were struggling through loss and grief? The stories in this collection take many forms, reflecting the different actions and organizing practices that fueled the multilayered movement activity over the course of the year. It was important for us to not overly focus on spectacle, but strategy; nor on individuals alone, but rather their work with formal organizations in shaping collective consciousness. As Kiese Laymon says, “Collective freedom is impossible without interpersonal repair,” so we deeply consider what healing looks like for us. The communal position of these pieces allows them to speak to one another in ways that are unconcerned with outward conversation or justification. These stories invite celebration, recommitment, and dedication to everything that sustains us.