Some time ago I found a speech given by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon titled Coalitions Politics: Turning the Century at the West Coast Women's Music Festival in 1981. It is some of the most profound thinking I have ever read about our struggles to work together as progressives. I can't tell you how many times the content of this speech has crept into my thinking in all kinds of discussions. I'd love it if everyone would just go read the whole thing. But knowing that's not likely, I'll excerpt some quotes and try to summarize.
Reagon begins by talking about why it is so important to work at coalitions:
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. Its over. Give it up.
The main message of the speech is that we need to distinguish between places that are "home" and those that are "coalition." So first Reagon talks about "home," places that are very important to develop, especially for those who have been marginalized:
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. That place can then become a nurturing place or a very destructive place. Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or Z is very difficult, to say the least...And that's when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive...
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.
I don't know about you, but I don't think I would have survived the last 6 years, nor would I have been able to deal with some of my painful history if it were not for the various "homes" I have created to nurture and sustain myself.
But there are risks when you don't keep some perspective on the idea of "home":
Of course the problem with the experiment is that there ain't nobody in there but folk like you... Now that's nationalism. 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.
Eventually, if we are going to survive, we need to go out into the world and work in coalition. Here's how Reagon lays down the stakes for that kind of work:
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 its different from your home. You can't stay there all the time.
After talking about all of the various "movements" that started in the 60's she comes to the part that I just LOVE:
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.
So, I wonder if we have the stomach these days for coalition politics. I know I get discouraged at how most progressives seem to seek perfection in anyone they deal with and are so quick to gather in smaller and smaller groups of like-minded folks. I have no problems with creating "homes" where we can sort it all out and find a place to belong. Perhaps the problem is not being clear about when we are at home and when we need to get out in the streets and work in coalition.