Celebrations, Resistance, and Us
by Matt Meyer
This week, a project six years in the making — and which many of us hope will have a significant positive impact on US movements for social change — finally shot off the presses. We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, which I had the honor of co-editing with Mandy Carter and Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, is ready for distribution. In thinking about how this fact needs to be celebrated — in addition to the very real, vital and hard work of coordinating speaking tours, loading and unloading boxes, and paying for printing costs — it is hard sometimes to remember how vital celebration actually is, and how very poor the left can often be about positive thinking. We are so mired in the depressing work of fighting against a seemingly all-powerful empire, and in the tedious work of basic survival (sometimes our own, sometimes our organizations), that our output becomes more negative than is healthy for either of those worthy goals. How then to stay positive while not getting distracted from the struggle?
Two short examples came to mind:
The first is from Africa, from a recent book by Albie Sachs, the former political prisoner, former ANC militant based in Mozambique, who had his arm blown off with damage to one eye when a car bomb intending to kill him exploded one day outside his office-in-exile in Mozambique. Albie is also a former Constitutional Court judge, who helped write and shape the foundational document for 18-year-old democracy in his country. From an early age, he has chronicled his life amidst the horrors of racist apartheid in beautiful prose contained in several books. His Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter is must-reading for anyone concerned with the art of reconciliation. But I am just now finishing a more recent work (The Free Diary of Albie Sachs) which he was challenged to write in the more positive environment of a post-apartheid society. He reflects on his own doubts at being able to coherently express his more nuanced thoughts about freedom.
One passage struck me:
In a “flash-back” describing a party held in 1956, after the detained leaders being charged during the infamous Treason Trial were released on bail just before Christmas. Sachs notes “I am being taught to dance by the pulsating joy of the bodies around me…It is as though my soul in being rattled and escapes from my tight, white, intellectual skin. South Africans of all communities love to dance. There is a happiness in our country waiting to express itself: apartheid is doomed, and I feel personally liberated as the irrepressible shared popular excitement wells up within me.”
Another memory floods through me:
In the late 1980s, with my own dancing (and social) skills quite lacking despite being in my twenties, ready for rock and roll and revolution, there were two figures I loved and respected who stubbornly insisted that we include some informal dancing after every War Resisters League meeting, conference, or event. Mandy Carter, African American lesbian feminist, and Jon Cohen, Euro-american bi dead head, dragged us onto the dance floor in celebration of I-can’t-remember-what. Despite their differences in age and culture and experiences, they knew something vital about social change and the human condition which Albie and the South African liberation movement, and Emma Goldman with her famous quote about revolution and dancing, also understood. If we don’t express joy at our accomplishments, celebrating one another at as many turns as possible in glorious defiance of the repressive, militaristic state, we lose a vital chance of pushing our movements forward.
As Mandy and I get ready to celebrate, thinking about Jon (whose early death from cancer makes him unable to join us in the flesh, but whose never-before-published essay on accountability accompanies us between the pages of the book), it will be good to think about the larger uses of celebration. No successful organizing can be sustained in the dark negativism of misery without hope, or work without a sense of at least occasional joy. There is resistance and wonder and beauty in our country waiting to express itself: US imperialism is doomed.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.