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Did Oprah Inadvertently Critique Capitalism?

January 11, 2018

oprah golden globe 2018

Update 1/11: While I appreciate Rinku Sen’s appeal to nuance, I can’t agree with a conclusion that all strategies matter. I think we can and must be specific about what we want. The Movement for Black Lives platform, for example, calls for a “minimum guaranteed livable income for all Black people.” whether or not you support that approach, the proposal’s comprehensiveness achieves something *desperately* needed in our politics right now: it puts platform before personality.

it’s one thing to honor or thank (?) people for enduring oppression. it’s another to get specific about how we imagine remedy, and why.


Like a lot of us, I’m of two minds about Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes.

On one hand, it was powerful. She is powerful. She is talented, beautiful, and historic. Like Obama, she brings many Black people joy and pride.

On the other hand, she’s a billionaire. She’s a billionaire capitalist with a network called OWN. She’s an entrepreneur philanthropist marketing classic American bootstraps ideology — neoliberal, trickle-down, swathed in an opulence that somehow manages to seem earthy. Like Obama, she gracefully and photogenically upholds a system that exploits and kills Black, Brown, and indigenous people the world over.

Paradox and contradictions: let’s not shy away from them, right? Let’s use them to build from where we are, to where we’re going. Let’s honor and borrow some of Oprah’s vision, tenacity, and fire.

What If Everyone Had Enough?

How do we grow dreams so big they can’t stay in dreamland?

—adrienne maree brown

There’s one line of Oprah’s speech that I can’t get out of my head; a line that pinpoints a key intersection of gender oppression and economic precarity. It’s when she says:

So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.

Enduring abuse and assault because they had bills to pay.

Is this not an elegant (if accidental) critique of capitalism?

Stay with me. Could we fight sexual abuse by ending poverty? [1] Not just firing creepy bosses one by one, but reorganizing society so that everyone has the essentials — including childcare, healthcare, housing, education, clean water, clean air, freedom of movement? Celebration of all the languages spoken by our ancestors? Do you think, under such circumstances, that fewer people would feel compelled to put up with sexist workplace bullshit in order to survive?

Could we encourage accountability by decolonizing Turtle Island? Not just forcing concessions from predatory politicians, but reckoning with ongoing genocide, epistemicide [2] [3], and theft of land from indigenous communities? How are we supposed to culture-shift toward ending sexual violence if we can’t make amends for the fundamentally violent patterns of the U.S. nation-state? This shit is fractal, my friends.

I’m not here to hate, but I’m here to be clear. While the #TimesUp organizing is smart and commendable, a legal defense fund is just that: defensive.

Like Oprah and Obama, I want more.

I want us to change history.


“Now Life, Though Not Exactly Easier, Is Life All The Time”

As one guide, I look to the vision of Black queer feminist poet, scholar, teacher, “troublemaker,” and organizer Alexis Pauline Gumbs. In the visionary fiction anthology Octavia’s Brood, she writes time-traveling letter from Lexi after capitalism to herself, during capitalism.

I think of this passage nearly every single day.

May it lift you the way it lifts me. May it make you feel as powerful and possible as Oprah. And then some.

Dear Lexi,

Breathe deep, baby girl, we won. Now life, though not exactly easier, is life all the time. Not chopped down into billable minutes, not narrowed into excuses to hurt and forget each other. I am writing you from the future to remind you to act on your belief, to live your life as a tribute to our victory and not as a stifling reaction to the past.


Beyond Boycotts

January 9, 2017


Don’t get me wrong: a boycott can be lovely. My birthday party last year was a festive picket line in service of an ongoing wage-theft and harassment struggle against local restaurant thief-boss Calavera.


Photos of previous Calavera actions.
all photos by Brooke Anderson.

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When done well, a boycott can of course be useful.

But how often are they actually done well? (Studies indicate: rarely.)

Is it just me, or do most boycotts these days seem like the tactical equivalent of trying to starve wild geese by withholding stale breadcrumbs?


Like I said, there are exceptions. Recent exceptions! Of boycotts done well.

But many campaigns, even high-profile ones, are not done well. Shaun King, I’m looking at you. The majority of comments from participants in your Injustice Boycott (targeting cities in the U.S. to pressure them to… ¿value Black lives more?) are basically like HEY I SUPPORT THIS BUT IT’S HELLA VAGUE — WTF DO YOU ACTUALLY WANT ME TO DO???

No clear set of demands. No clear target until launch date (December 5th, 2016). No hint of coordinated legal strategy, or mass strikes in key industries of target cities.

Look, nobody’s perfect — least of all me. But I feel like we, collectively, can do better.

Yes, there are tricky technical questions of how to boycott chains and multinationals that can absorb a hit at a handful of stores. Or how to pressure corporate or government entities that don’t much give a hoot about liberals dragging their PR. But beneath these challenges there’s also a deeper problem.

Unless it’s meaningfully part of a dramatic, long-term strategy for change, even a victorious boycott basically reduces the level of egregious fuckery from Intolerable to Possibly Bearable, returning to a baseline of ‘normal’ exploitation.

To be fair, this is true of most campaign victories, a.k.a. reforms, regardless of the combination of tactics used. But that’s why people eventually start debating Reform or Revolution. Nowadays in U.S. movements, it’s hard to find where that debate is happening in a serious way, on a serious scale. More often the question is: How do we get reforms faster? Or: How do we take on larger targets, like Walmart, private prisons, or the police unions?

But let’s set aside reform-or-revolution for a second and get back to breadcrumbs.


Rather than just hoarding breadcrumbs and hoping the geese wither, why not hunt the killer capitalist flock in other ways (yes this metaphor is strange, and i don’t actually have anything against geese, but stay with me) and use them to make some stuffing? Topping for a baked pasta dish? A nice bread pudding?

In other words, what are we supporting with the resources we’re withdrawing from the boycott target?

(…To Be Continued…)

An Era of No Good Options

July 23, 2016


Right now, for me, it’s this question:

From what source do we derive our power?

*   *   *   *   *

As a Black and Jewish (European) mixie, two genocides mark my recent ancestry. One of them is relatively uncontested. Holocaust deniers exist, sure, but it would be difficult for most Americans to look at my Opa’s identification papers from the 1930’s, see Dachau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald written in old-timey script, and still insist that my relatives were not systematically starved, gassed, hanged, and burned in ovens, with the stated intention of ridding the world of Jews.

The approach to the question of Black genocide in the United States, though, is different. Systematic anti-Black state violence is more commonly labeled an atrocity, a violation of human or civil rights, or a category of racist oppression.

The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

“In whole or in part.” This has been the subject of debate and disagreement, even among those who consider themselves experts.

Read more…


July 2, 2016


I’ve been repotting plants lately. I know. No small feat for me. The first time I tried to adopt a seedling — a small, cheery nib of basil for my kitchen — I gently piled it and some good soil into a Mason jar, placed the quasi-terrarium on a windowsill, and tiptoed giddily away to give them privacy. When my best friend came over, saw it, and cackled, I half defended the effort, but yes: within a week or two, the match had failed, and the basil had died.

This all went down in the more recent past than I care to admit; but at least my knowledge and technique have improved since then. Still, the process of planting feels foreign to me, and a little… I don’t know… artificial. Essentially another version of retail therapy. Buy the plants, get the soil, scrounge some containers, and put it all together. Homemaking, yes, the making of a home — a chronically undervalued form of labor. Always fraught and menaced by the hallucinatory expectations of the white capitalist nuclear family, or what Coates calls “The Dream.” Like food these days, homemaking is something we need, and also something marketed to us in combinations that make us go ‘Yum’ and later feel sick, or hollow.

I’m not completely sure, but it seems like we — I, my housemates, and my larger political community, amorphous as it is — are trying to do something different with homemaking. And within the sphere of homemaking we have a range of different relationships to plant life. (As well as to home, land, homeland, and many other sub-tunnels.)

Part of what’s on my mind is: How do we continue in this era oIMG_5133f climate change?

How do we continue, knowing that the sixth mass extinction is devastating us, and so are evictions, police killings, transphobia, and imperialism?

How do we reckon with the ‘new’ peril of climate disaster (not so new to those who whose waters have long been dammed and poisoned) that not only condemns the present (our greed, waste, violence, alienation), but also dooms the future?

What does it mean to be squeezed from both sides in this way?

Black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler seemed to think it means: time to learn how to grow food and use a gun. Or: hope that pseudobenevolent alien colonizers swoop in to ambiguously save humankind from itself. Either way, shit is getting very real, very fast.

From what I understand, people in the U.S. used to similarly fear and dread nuclear escalation. Practiced hiding their small skulls under classroom chairs, at intervals. Knowing that this was a joke, mostly. Chairs can’t defend you from radioactive particles. Desks can’t protect your flesh, or your plants, soil, air, water, rain.

Now some middle-class people bike to work. Eat Paleo, Whole 30, local, whatever’s in style. Protecting not just our heads, but our lungs, our guts, our digestive bacteria.

Maybe it’s helping. I’m finding it hard to understand, these days, what helping means.

Read more…


February 27, 2016


6:45am – arrive at JFK airport wearing borrowed snow boots one size too big and 10 degrees too warm. Overshot the footwear, I guess. Maybe I’ll be grateful for them later, if I get to tramp around in real snow sometime this month.

Waiting my turn to pull luggage like fat root vegetables out of the overhead compartment. Bulky, heavy, heavy, then — quick-quick! don’t piss off the people behind you! — wrestle myself into the giant tortoise shell of a travel backpack and shimmy up the skinny airplane aisle. Already overheating. Long black chrysalis of a down coat and multiple scarves. Hauling my allotted “handbag” item stuffed with multiple other bags, all bulging with books, laptop, and non-liquid gifts for generous hosts.

Read more…

MLK, Beyond An End To Brutality

November 27, 2014


i don’t often quote MLK, but to me, this passage from 1967, not long before his assassination, points perfectly to some of the reasons that reforms will not work and a social, system-wide revolution is necessary for true change.

With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade — the first phase — had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor…

When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. …the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance. The result was havoc. The Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the Negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.

The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge. Up to Selma there had been unity to eliminate barbaric conduct. Beyond it the unity had to be based on the fulfillment of equality, and in the absence of agreement the paths began inexorably to move apart.

– Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr.

to me this is a story not only about anti-Black racism, but also about the mechanisms of capitalism, its roots in exploitation, and its tendency to, rather than encourage us toward fairness and sharing, *exacerbate* economic disparities and concentrate power in the hands of a few. (a tendency that, for instance, Picketty points out in his bestselling recent book, Capital in the 21st Century.) in other words, the betrayal (a.k.a. tepid support) of white liberals (or liberals of any color) is not only a story of racism, but also a story of wealth and economics.

it is a story about U.S. colonialism, imperialism, rampant resource extraction, and environmental destruction, all necessary to maintain the “high” (read: wasteful) standards of living in the middle-class U.S. that set the bar for what racial equality should look like.

it is a story of what King calls, in this same piece, a “fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity” that falsely portrays the U.S. as “essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony.”

fact: without the mass-scale “looting” of indigenous peoples and other nations around the globe, not to mention the enslavement of africans, the U.S. would have accumulated a mere fraction of its current wealth. this is the basis of the middle-class melting-pot Utopia to which we aspire.

this is the looted wealth that built the mansions i drove past tonight in suburban Maryland: twelve-bedroom monstrosities that cost godless amounts of money to heat in the winter. one place reminded me of the house in Clueless: staircase spiraling down to the enormous front doors.

this is also the looted wealth on which my small rented home in oakland stands. it’s the looted wealth that pays my wages. i’m not separate from this history, or above it; i inherit it every day.

i guess what i want to know is: what do we mean when we insist that Black Lives Matter? are we talking about stopping the worst of the terror, the extrajudicial executions of teenagers? is this all we want “allies” to support, or do we want something else, something more?

if we take King’s words to heart, how do we work for complete freedom, fairness, and self-determination for all beings, not just an end to the most acute forms of suffering, degradation, and oppression?

are complete freedom, fairness, and self-determination for Black people possible without completely restructuring our economy and society?

this other, bigger thing — the new phase 2 — obviously will not happen overnight, and not without deadly resistance from the people currently in power. but let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what’s necessary. sympathy and sentimentality do not help. to use a Buddhist teaching, pity is the near enemy of compassion. even if we somehow stopped the epidemic of police murder against black people, black children, how long before the giant X of diverging priorities reappears?

thanks to Adam Claytor for sending me this book in the mail. lots to think about.

Visits From Good People Are The Best

November 17, 2014

henry hangout

for years and years, by skype and screen

a friendship did maintain its sheen



’til reunion found its time

out in california climes



telling stories, counting rings

catching up on all the things



 re-exploring classic texts



taking up arboreal nests



celebrating impish moods



eating lots of tasty foods


henry new orleans

from way, way back in new orleans

a friendship has maintained its sheen.


text: On Violence by Frantz Fanon (from Wretched of the Earth)

food: eggplant by Lauren

friend: Henry Mills, no stranger to this blog


November 11, 2014

a lot of sorrow lately. not particularly mine, but here in me, with me, shadowing.

all around, death and pre-death. loss, grieving.

friends losing parents.

friends breaking up.

friends leaving their job.

friends who come from méxico, watching from here as the country burns. (for a long time the fire has been in the walls; now it’s billowing out in the open.)

i’m seeing video of entire towns in guerrero arming themselves. every single person, cradling a crappy-looking but well-intentioned weapon. this isn’t just david v. goliath, the working class against the state, but david v. goliath and a rattlesnake at david’s ankles.

and pneumonia in david’s lungs.

and even if he beats this giant, david’s got ptsd for the rest of his life.

what i’m saying is david’s got it rough.

and see? like i said, this isn’t even my sorrow. i’m not directly connected. i just see around me and the sorrow comes.

it’s bittersweet, with the unity here, yeah? they want peace, he says. they want peace. i wish it for them. the peace that will come from a way out of capitalism, on a world scale. the peace that will come from transforming our way out of oppression, healing the karma of thousands of years of keeping each other down.

thankful to the people of guerrero and all of méxico who keep trying to fight and heal.

more on the situation following the mass murder of 43 students in Guerrero.

“Como Tú” por Roque Dalton

November 10, 2014
Roque Dalton

Revolutionary Salvadoran poet and journalist.

Like You

By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)


Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.


Como Tú

Por Roque Dalton


Yo como tú amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto de las cosas el paisaje celeste de los días de enero.

También mi sangre bulle y río por los ojos que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas. Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

Y que mis venas no terminan en mí, sino en la sangre unánime de los que luchan por la vida, el amor, las cosas, el paisaje y el pan, la poesía de todos.


via Kasama.



November 10, 2014


chickpea stew and herby quinoa in the morning.