When I think about the problem of big money in politics and the challenges we face to citizen engagement, I am reminded of a prophetic speech Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” – featured below) gave in 1981 titled: Coalition Politics: Turning the Century. She begins by summarizing the impact technology has had on our social constructs:
We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there…To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.
David Simon captured how the re-election of Barack Obama sealed this change when he talked about the death of normal.
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying…
What makes Reagon’s words so prophetic is that she talked about what our reaction would likely be to this reality. We are seeing it play out today in the tension between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. She warned that it would lead us to retreat to spaces she called “home.”
Now every once in awhile there is a need for people to try to clean out corners and bar the doors and check everybody who comes in the door, and check what they carry in and say, “Humph, inside this place the only thing we are going to deal with is X or Y or Z.” And so only the X’s or Y’s or Z’s get to come in…
But that space while it lasts should be a nurturing space where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society. In fact, in that little barred room where you check everybody at the door, you act out community. You pretend that your room is a world.
She said that there are dangers associated with pretending “that your room is a world.”
I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.
In order to survive in this world with many peoples, we have to learn how to build coalitions.
Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home! They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition. You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition. You don’t get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time. You go to the coalition for a few hours and then you go back and take your bottle wherever it is, and then you go back and coalesce some more.
It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition.
She says that forming coalitions is a matter of life and death.
It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world…And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can—it ain’t got nothing to do with that barred room. The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it.
The tensions we’re currently seeing in our politics are a direct result of people looking for a home and being fearful of a coalition. Too many of us are simply seeking out the comfort of those who are like us and/or agree with us. As a weigh station to nurture ourselves, there is value in that. But in the end, we have to leave home and face the world as it really is.
This is exactly the message President Obama gave to the young graduates of Morehouse in 2013.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share…
So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table…
President Obama’s rhetoric about this is often uplifting and visionary. That is as it should be. But Reagon got down to the nitty gritty in her speech about what this actually means for all of us. Anyone thinking it’s about some kind of kumbaya moment is very mistaken.
There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
In other words, its time to leave home, vomit for a little while about that, and get busy dealing with the world as it is rather than as we want it to be. In the end, its about survival…”Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it.”