Photo credit: Jay Coney
What follows is a transcript of the 9th Annual Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture, delivered by Alicia Garza on October 30th, 2015, in Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alicia Garza is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter network. A video of the speech can be found here.
The first thing I’d like to do is to thank — so deeply — the Phillips Brooks House Association — that’s a mouthful — PBHA, in the house! Thank you so much for being incredible hosts, and also for such a long legacy of deep and true service to the communities who make this area what it is. I also want to give a big thank you to Robert Coles. It was wonderful to meet you. I’m honored to receive this award that’s in your name, and I’m honored to be sharing space with you. I also want to thank and love on and dedicate this award to the BLM network. To folks like Daunasia [Yancey] and Lanise [Frazier], and all the folks who are really exemplifying the world that we want to live in, and not waiting for that to come, but living it right here and right now. Daring to live it right here and right now, unapologetically. Thank you for your work.
And I also want to dedicate this award more broadly, beyond the Black Lives Matter network, because we are just one component of a broader movement. This award is certainly deserved by young people who did not go home in Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown was killed. Young people who have still not gone home, and it’s been more than a year now. And even though the news cameras and the news stations have, in some ways, stopped talking about Ferguson — except to call it an “effect” — we will not. We shall not, and we must not forget that people are still fighting for their humanity, for their dignity, in Ferguson, Missouri. People are still fighting for their dignity and humanity in Baltimore. In Cleveland — where the person who murdered a twelve year old child was cleared of all charges. And that child’s mother, Tamir Rice’s mother, is still grieving. Still waiting for justice.
In a few weeks many of us will sit around a table with our families and share a lot of food, laugh together. But as we do that, we should have a moment of silence. In my tradition we take some of the food that we are about to eat, the nourishment that we are about to receive, and we set it aside for the ancestors that walk alongside of us. But we should also set that food aside for the ancestors who became ancestors way too soon.
Why is a twelve year old child an ancestor?
And so in the spirit of this award I do think it’s appropriate to call some names, and bring those folks into the room, because certainly, I’m humbled and I’m honored to receive this award, but we have to remember, it’s not about me. It’s about we. And so I want to lift up some of the names that bring us here, that bring me here today.
Otis Byrd, who was hung in Mississippi.
Aiyana Stanley-Jones. She was seven.
Kathryn Johnston. She was ninety two.
Taja Gabriel DeJesus
The list goes on and on and on and on and I can’t even keep all the names in this phone. And so we dedicate this award, this Call of Service award, to those who have activated many of us to serve. And we dedicate this award to their families, who became celebrities when they did not want to.
When we started Black Lives Matter, it was indeed written as a love note.
When we started Black Lives Matter, it was indeed written as a love note. It was written as a love note on a social media platform known as Facebook, in a moment of intense, profound rage and grief. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges for killing a child–there we go again–when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of a child–some people call it a tragedy, I call it murder–you should just tell it for what it is. When George Zimmerman was acquitted, I was sitting with friends and I had been sitting in the same place for several hours, because I had been following the trial–not of Trayvon Martin, but of George Zimmerman–and my friends and I were wondering, speculating even, on what would happen. We heard that the jury had reached a verdict, that the verdict would be announced, and so my friends and I sat around talking about what we thought would happen. Reviewing the previous few months of a trial that we had watched religiously. No pun intended.
And during that trial we watched as a child was put on trial for their own murder. We watched as that child was demonized, as his parents and their parenting skills were questioned. We watched as the last person to talk to Trayvon was demonized, ridiculed. And though we sat through those months of ridicule and demonization, we thought for sure: someone will be held accountable for the murder of a child.
It was really that basic for us. We didn’t question whether or not Trayvon was a thug. We don’t think about our people that way. We didn’t question what Trayvon must have done to cause his own death, because he was just walking home on his cell phone with Skittles and an iced tea, and he happened to encounter someone who took it upon himself to patrol the community that Trayvon was very much a part of, but not according to George Zimmerman.
And so when the verdict was announced that George Zimmerman would go home to his family, many of us, myself included, were in a state of shock. Because even though we live black in America the best that we can, even though we understand very deeply–very deeply–what it means to have to protect yourself at every single moment, what it means to have to hide yourself so you’re not scary to someone else. What it means to have to collect your dignity up off the floor when someone grabs their purse or crosses the street when you come by. Asks you if you know where you are. Asks you if you need any help finding something.
We know that feeling very well, and even though we know that feeling very well, we thought: It’s 2013. How could someone get away with the murder of a child?
When the verdict was announced, I didn’t have anything to say. I sat in a very crowded place with friends who I had known for years and we sat in silence. In fact it felt like the entire city went silent that night. I looked around and I saw people, heads down, eyes averted. Black people who I so desperately wanted to connect with and say, We’re gonna be okay.
We couldn’t look at each other.
And so in an attempt to make sense of what will never, ever, ever make sense, I went on Facebook to try and see if somebody else could give a word, to help me give some words, because I didn’t have any. And what I saw was even more disturbing.
I saw people like me who are organizers, activists, revolutionaries, saying things like: We already know, this is what happens to us, why are we surprised, why are we so upset now, this has been happening all the time. I get that. But is that what you would say to Sybrina and Tracy as they mourn the loss of their child?
And then on the other hand, what we kept hearing was, Well, this a terrible tragedy. So that’s why our children need to pull their pants up. That’s why our children need to make sure and vote. That’s why we have to make sure to get a good education. That’s why we have to make sure to not wear hoodies, as if anything that you’re wearing or doing, meaning whether you vote or not, whether you have a GED or a PhD or no degree — if you’re black in this country, it doesn’t matter. And that’s exactly what that verdict said that evening–was that, not just that Trayvon’s life didn’t matter, but it was essentially saying to black people all over this country that our lives don’t matter.
And so in the grief, in the rage, in the disbelief, it felt necessary to make an intervention, to say that our lives do matter. To celebrate the resistance that is blackness. To conjure love, deep abiding, non-conditional love for one another. We are the soul of this country. We have been the soul of this country over and over and over again.
We are the soul of this country. We have been the soul of this country over and over and over again.
So I appreciate Daunasia’s introduction, because Black Lives Matter really is a love note to our people. It is a defense of our right to our humanity, and it is a celebration of all of the ways in which we re-humanize ourselves and the rest of this country every single day.
Black Lives Matter is an acknowledgement that black people are a solution and not a problem to be fixed. It’s an acknowledgement that anti-blackness, the disease of anti-blackness, has assaulted our own people for so long, that we too have internalized that notion that something is wrong with us, more than is wrong with the system of white supremacy.
It is a call to action. It is a call to fight for our people. And when we say Black Lives Matter, we don’t discriminate any lives. When we acknowledge the dignity, the humanity of black lives, we also acknowledge that everyone else’s life matters, too.
You know, it’s interesting, because somehow we twisted this narrative of Black Lives Matter into “Well, what about me?”
What would this country be without black people? My sister Heather McGhee reminded us that black lives were the first currency of this nation. Black people and the conditionality of our humanity is written into our constitution. Our labor has shaped this economy. It shapes our prison system. It shapes our education system. It shapes every system that we live under.
We are fighting for our right to live in a world of transformative humanity.
We are fighting for our right to live in a world of transformative humanity. Meaning if we’re able to rid this world of anti-blackness, everybody benefits. So the question of “What about me?” should be pretty simple there. When black people are free — truly free — everyone has the opportunity to be free.
I know we’re up against a lot. There’s one million black people behind bars, living in cages today. One million out of a total population of about 2.5; that means that we’re at about half. More than 21 trans women of color–mostly black–have been killed just since the beginning of this year, and that’s only the trans women who are acknowledged as women, and only the ones that are reported. Black women are the fastest growing population in prisons and jails. In fact we’re 30% more likely to be incarcerated than white women. Why, you ask? Well, mostly for what they call crimes of survival. Defending yourself against intimate partner violence. Sometimes getting caught up in a money-making effort with an intimate partner. Black women have the highest infection rate for HIV/AIDS amongst all women. Every 28 hours in this country, according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black person is killed by vigilantes, security guards or police.
We’re up against a lot. A heck of a lot.
But in the spirit of this conversation, I don’t just want to list all of the barriers that we’re up against.
Because it is an honor, a real honor, to be alive in this moment. And to even have this much, just this much, to do with what will certainly live in the memories of my children, and hopefully in the lives of my children’s children.
Because if that’s what we are up against, what we are up to is the business of resistance. Not just fighting back to fight back, but fighting to build something new. We don’t just want to take away. We don’t just want to invert the pyramid. I heard someone say Black Lives Matter is a supremacist movement. I had to laugh at that one. Our vision is not to have black people on top and everybody else on the bottom. We want to create a new way of being. We don’t think we have to have that. We want to transform a society that is parasitic and replace it with one that is regenerative, one that is resilient, one that allows us to live complex lives and celebrates our complexity rather than punishes our audacity to be every piece of who we are.
We want to transform a society that is parasitic and replace it with one that is regenerative, one that is resilient, one that allows us to live complex lives and celebrates our complexity rather than punishes our audacity to be every piece of who we are.
When I say “what we are up to is resistance,” what i mean is, at least for the network — that in one year we have grown 29 chapters of black people and our allies organizing around anything you can think of. Police brutality, police violence, poverty, unemployment, disenfranchisement, gender-based violence, access to health care, the social wage, fighting gentrification and displacement. As our friends at the Black Youth Project 100 say, we are unapologetically black. And we are creating new space to make the impossible possible. What we mean by that is, because of our efforts and many, many, many, many others, there have been 40 new laws passed in 28 states relating to criminal justice. Because of our efforts and that of many, many, many, many others.
We are growing a new bench of leaders who are changing the very landscape of this country. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
My mom said to me the other day, “I never thought that I would see another moment like this in my lifetime.” I never thought I would see another moment like this in my lifetime. What I imagine that means for her is that there was a time not too long ago when people believed that something else was possible, felt that it was right around the corner, if we could just get there, if we could just grab it, if we could just, just, touch it — that we might be able to alter the future.
I don’t think it’s around the corner, but I do believe, and I believe because of the incredible fighters that I get to work with every single day.
Now. I don’t have a lot of time left. So I want to spend my last moments with a few words about service. I wanted to talk to you all about the work I’m doing with the Domestic Workers Alliance, and we’ll do that, person to person — but I will say we’re building a multiracial movement that is fighting the legacy of anti-black racism. I’m so proud of our team. Women who are courageous enough to say “We got this. We’re not waiting for you to do anything.” That’s how we have poor women, black women, Latinas, Filipinos, so many women, winning. Creating our own laws. Passing them. Five statewide bills in five states in five years. Why? Because we will no longer wait.
I wanted to tell you all about how domestic workers and agricultural workers ended up getting the short end of the stick when it came to labor protections. How it wasn’t on accident. How black workers were excluded so that other workers could thrive. And how those workers are still working in the shadows today.
One of our leaders told me a story about how she came here from Brazil. She was told that if she came and worked for a family here, that they would pay for her to go to school. And how when she got here they made her sleep on the porch. With an alarm clock. That wasn’t that long ago.
But instead I’m gonna wrap up with some words about service.
So I had an opportunity to have a beautiful dinner with some really powerful leaders, and I was reflecting after we left about the spirit of this award, at least how I understand it. You know, the call to serve is more necessary now than it’s been in a long time. Service, as i see it, is about meeting immediate needs, but it’s also very, very much about creating our own legacy. Even more than that, it’s about the will to stay connected to our very humanity. What it means to acknowledge that there is a purpose bigger than ourselves. That we are not the center of the universe. That in order to live in a just society, we have to contribute to it. Now unfortunately we live in a context where the individual is privileged. Get yours before anybody else gets theirs. It’s a race. You know, in our conversation over dinner, we were having this conversation about, “What do we do when we leave here? How do I stay active, how do I continue to serve, and can I serve and still eat? And maybe once I get there, once I take care of myself, once I succeed, then I can help others. I want to help others.”
And my sister I was talking to, I was like, “Yes!” We had a great dialogue about what it means to serve. And can we redefine service, not as being selfless, but being the truest form of ourselves?
We talked about priorities, and we talked about how there’s many different ways to serve. Service is not just being in the street with picket signs, shutting things down — although that is a service. Service is about prioritizing, at every moment, the desire for us to free ourselves of the chains that keep us from being our fullest selves. Service is about interdependence.
Service is about prioritizing, at every moment, the desire for us to free ourselves of the chains that keep us from being our fullest selves. Service is about interdependence.
See, we live in a world that is certainly interdependent, but of the parasitic variety. Most of the world depends on the United States and Europe to survive. That is interdependent, certainly, but it is not regenerative.
We want to fight for that kind of interdependence that allows us to create new ways of being.
I was thinking to myself, after this conversation, that today the call to service can be perverted. I know when I was in high school, I was required to serve. I had to serve to graduate. and then of course there was all of this impetus, right? To pad your resume. If you’re gonna serve, serve somewhere that will get you prestige, aspiration, a career, more money, status. But what if we returned to the call of service as our basic duty? What some would say is our rent to live on this planet? What if the call to service was rooted in a deep and fundamental belief that we can live a different world in our lifetime? What would be different about the world that we live in now?
What if the call to service said that any profession that I’m in, anything that I’m doing, will be geared towards making sure that my children and my children’s children inherit a different world?
What if the call to service said that any profession that I’m in, anything that I’m doing, will be geared towards making sure that my children and my children’s children inherit a different world? What if the call to service fundamentally disrupted the notion of individualism over the collective? I believe that this award is in that spirit. The spirit of serving more than just ourselves. Serving because we want to be the fullest form of ourselves. Serving because we believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. Thank you, thank you, thank you.