My Thoughts Have Value: A Radical Black Feminist Perspective on Student Activism

“Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” – Lucille Clifton

My whole life all I’ve known are private institutions. Teachers with implicit bias who punished me for being the only Black girl in the room; classmates who would pick on me at recess or hide my packed lunch; and the curriculum itself, which hid my history from me. Having now entered the realm of a liberal arts college education — a space intended for wealthy, white students — I am finding that I still feel like that little Black girl, only now, students’ and professors’ misogynoir is hidden beneath performative allyship. Too often in predominantly white spaces, my Blackness is tokenized, fetishized, and monetized for white comfort. Despite the many social justice organizations on campus and Oberlin’s long history with activism, I have felt that their missions are incredibly whitewashed. At introductory meetings, I was often one of the few, if not the only, BIPOC students in the space. Attending the following meetings made me feel small, like a subtopic in their white liberal agenda, or literally like a box to check off for their diversity requirement. I believe my purpose and the movement’s purpose are bigger than that.

The Black Radical tradition seeks to dismantle the violence of racial capitalism and is rooted in the power of imagination. This tradition is often accredited to male activists like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Kwame Ture. Their teachings have been irreplaceable to my understanding of the Black Liberation movement, but it wasn’t until I read the Combahee River Collective’s Statement that I felt like the movement spoke for me. This radical queer Black feminist organization exposed many of the weaknesses of the struggle and enlightened a path for holistic freedom. The radical Black feminists that came before me — practitioners of womanism and other movements dedicated to Black women’s liberation — have shown me my greatest possibilities. They brought words to what I could not, and have bestowed upon me the crown that was always there for my taking. Writers like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, and Toni Morrison have demonstrated the world I can create, not just with their presence, but through their love for life. 

Your thoughts have no value

That was what one student with hate in their heart wrote below an Angela Davis quote I had written to celebrate the start of Kuumba week. Their spiteful words were rained out by the storm, but that wasn’t enough to wipe away their impact. It was as though all those years of teachers kicking me out of class, classmates talking over me, and me learning to silence myself were put into the five words scrawled on the concrete. This is about more than being at a predominantly-white institution, but about being around people who do not care about you or even see you, unless they can control you.

James Baldwin once said, “It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” The education system in America had me believe I did not deserve my place — that I should not take up space. Therefore, my very existence becomes defiance, an act of rebellion in a world that wants to turn me into another hashtag. I refuse to shrink myself in the name of white fragility. To the person who wrote those five words, I will not silence myself because of your insecurity. 

Praised for being the first college in the country to accept Black people and women — processes done separately, further illuminating how Black nonmen’s intersectional identity is often disregarded — Oberlin likes to believe that racism doesn’t live here. Because the college is an institution that must maintain capital, student activists are placed in a compromising position, where questioning racial capitalism is almost hypocritical while we are receiving a privatized education. However, this critique must be made, and if it is not coupled with antiracism and the dismantling of all oppression, then it is not anti-capitalist at all. While I have been raised as a Black cis woman, this fight is with all gender identities, and the deconstruction of gender as a colonial force. White supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, transphobia, and all other forms of oppression are inherent to American capitalism and the mechanisms under it, including the education system. Therefore, if organizing on this campus falls into patterns of liberalism then queer, trans, and gender non-conforming Black students will continue to be silenced. The protection of trans and non-binary people in the Black community is essential to this movement, and their struggle is the very heart of our liberation. 

As one of the co-founders of Oberlin People’s Assembly, a name subject to change, I have committed to working from a radical Black feminist platform, because that is the only way I know how to fight oppression. By forming my own space for growth and healing and for the growth and healing of my Black and Indigenous siblings, I can be most myself. I believe this can only be done outside of white students’ perception of who we are “supposed” to be. This is not an extracurricular activity, this is not a résumé booster, and this is not for white guilt: This is how I survive and find meaning in my life. Black queer liberation is the air I breathe, and it has to be, or else, as Zora Neale Hurston once said, “They’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

For Black women and oppressed genders, the personal is political, and for me, I live my life as though I am already free, because no matter the forces of oppression against me, my life has value, my thoughts have value: that cannot be denied. I will dance and sing and run my fingers through my wet hair and infinitely love my Blackness and never stop until all of us are free and our dreams become reality — and that is my radical Black feminism.