The Compensation is Freedom

Image of the Igbo Landing of 1803

Capitalism preys on revolutionary strategy. It eats Black culture for breakfast. It siphons organic energy from the impetus of movement workers. In the 21st century, the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is its primary agent in this pursuit. That the NPIC monopolizes movement resources is accepted quite unanimously throughout radical, Black spaces. And, yet, there is a conspicuous lack of acknowledgment of Black complicity in this phenomenon. Black movement workers regard their own relationship to nonprofit malpractice as inevitable or as minimally harmful given the choices they are faced in navigating a capitalist, racialized society. The Black movement worker’s role in commercializing and commodifying movement work is not inescapable; however, and is more accurately attributed to Black collective longing to actualize The American Dream than to inexorability. Put simply, Black and colonized people do have and always have had agency in choosing their responses to systemic manipulation of the material condition. It’s imperative that The Movement looks at its current choices and dominant culture head-on and without romanticism. 

It’s impossible to fully understand how the NPIC catalyzed a devastating shift in Black movement culture without examining the history of revolutionary struggle. To say that the sacrifice of marginalized people for the sake of universal equity has been immeasurable is not to be hyperbolic. It’s to be factual. From the 16th century on, Black folx have leveraged their own lives in pursuit of freedom. 

Consider the heroic actions of the abducted Africans carried as cargo on the New Britannia, a slave ship. Said Africans conspired to seize control of the ship and reclaim their freedom. They used tools they procured covertly to slip out of chains that cut, mercilessly, into their bodies and used their regained mobility to attack the traffickers who’d captured them. The agitators’ hope was to subdue the ship’s captain and crew and render ineffective their efforts to claim Black futures. Despite their courage, those Africans on the New Britannia in 1776, were not successful in changing the trajectory of the ship. Realizing that they couldn’t avoid the fate their captors intended for them alive, they took their own lives and that of their enemy; lighting the ship aflame and blowing up one small piece of a master plan to destroy humanity through anti-Black racism. 

And what of Igbo Landing? In May of 1803, seventy-five Nigerians held captive aboard The Schooner York, a slave ship headed for the Georgia coast, resolved that they wouldn’t be sold at Savannah slave markets, as the ship crew intended. Under the deck of the ship, packed so close together that they could smell one another’s spit, the Igbo 75 decided, collectively, to stand on their own disinclination to exploitation and degradation. They successfully seized control of The Schooner and drowned their white captors. Upon reaching Georgia, the seventy-five displaced Africans, linked arms and marched slowly and intentionally into the swamp, singing “the Water Spirit brought us, the Water Spirit will take us home.” When Tula of Curacao led an African revolt in 1795, when Xiorro of Puerto Rico mobilized Africans disappointed by false promises of freedom in 1812, when Denmark Vesey inspired enslaved Africans in South Carolina to rise up and flee to Haiti in 1822, when Nat Turner slit the throats of white slave owners in 1833, they paid for their revolutionary acts with their lives. That early martyrdom proved not to be uncommon. Similar sacrifices were eventually made in the establishment of the underground railroad and during reconstruction. But life was not the only price Black revolutionaries paid for their commitment to struggle. Poverty was a common experience for revolutionary artists and intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. Afterward, trauma plagued civil rights activists and Black power movement workers. And yet, Black resistance persisted. These narratives should not inspire the fetishization of death, suffering, or sacrifice but, instead, offer insight as to what revolution requires. 

So, what of contemporary movement workers? What is required of them? 

In June 1963, Ella Baker shared her deep disregard for what she thought might be a dangerous trajectory for revolutionaries. The “foundation complex”, as she called it, was, in her estimation, an impediment to Black liberation. Ella was in conversation with Bob Moses of SNCC at the “How Free are the Free ” workshop that she organized in Atlanta. She challenged Moses after he expressed concern that being openly communist would compromise grant funding the movement was currently receiving. It could be, she posited, that the support he spoke of was ill accepted, as it required movement workers to compromise their values. 

The movement did not heed Ella’s warning. The system of relationships that exist between the state, foundations and the wealthy has, since that foreboding discussion in 1963, begun to significantly eclipse revolutionary culture and radical momentum in collective efforts to achieve Black liberation. This has occurred both through the NPIC’s function as a method of surveilling, managing, controlling, and redirecting revolutionary energy and through the effect, the industrial complex has had on Black attitudes toward uncompensated, revolutionary struggle. In short, it’s unclear, now, whether Black people are interested in getting free or getting paid.

 As organizations proclaiming themselves to be in pursuit of Black, human, or universal liberation increasingly model themselves after capitalist and white supremacist structures, the expectation of Black movement workers to be financially compensated for their efforts to free themselves continues to rise. This leaves truly revolutionary organizations, collectives, and campaigns deplorably under-resourced while they compete against pseudo-radical organizations that leverage big, white, wealth to absorb potential revolutionaries and wean them on financial stability, in-group belonging, and societal and systemic validation. This tension between freedom movements and capitalism, reinforcements of anti-Black racism disguised as opportunity is commonplace and played out. The same tension existed between enslaved, Black insurgents and the skinfolk who reported them to white slave owners and legal authorities. The same tension existed between the civil rights movement and Black nationalist movements. The same tension exists between Black reformists and Black revolutionaries. 

Capitalism, representative democracy, and other institutions of white supremacy deprive Black people of the ability to meet their basic, human needs. Then, agents of those systems conspire to establish traps to which they lure the Black masses with the illusion of progress and sustainability. Duped, the Black masses turn their backs on revolutionary efforts. Those efforts are deemed unsustainable, unrealistic and unmanageable, though they employ the very strategies and tactics that heralded, Black ancestors, utilized. 

Black people want and deserve to survive. Black people want and deserve to be comfortable. When comfort and radical change are presented as simultaneously possible by a system that has proven itself capable of actualizing its own visions, the Black choice to rebuke revolutionary strategies that require sacrifice is unsurprising. But revolution will not be catalyzed until Black movement workers make new and surprising choices. Those choices must include an investment in autonomy, no matter how long and arduous the journey toward it. They must include a decision to destabilize, as opposed to undergird, the electoral system that we’ve too long gone all-in for and the capitalist industries that simultaneously feed our families, exploit our labor, and enslave us. Organizations and individuals that profess radicalism while making no tangible steps toward autonomy and destabilization and, concurrently, making very clear steps toward electoral engagement and capitalist extraction must answer the question “whose side are you on?”. 

The Black desire for sustainability is valid and must be accounted for in developing a revolutionary strategy. A revolution that doesn’t intend to sustain itself, its agents, and the next generation of movement workers will not be successful. That being said, sustainability and quid pro quo compensation aren’t the same things. Sustainability and comfort aren’t synonymous. Even further, sustainability does not guarantee individual survival. It guarantees collective success. The goal in engaging movement work should not be to build a new, Black middle class or Black bourgeois. It should be to develop solidarity economies and alternatives to capitalism; first for movement folx who are building a new world and, then, for the masses who require a just transition to engage the work. 

The idea that the revolution will “compensate” movement workers for their time is ahistorical and counter-revolutionary. The best movements will make it possible for those most marginalized to engage in revolutionary struggle and build their capacity for leadership and participation. That said, liberation is a voluntary and collective endeavor for which the compensation is freedom.

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Njera Keith is a Black organizer whose focus is the development of movement infrastructure that supports cohesion in revolutionary struggle. She is the Founder and former Executive Director of Black Sovereign Nation. She is also the Co-Founder of 400+1, a Black cooperative federation, liberatory blueprint, and framework for dramatic economic and political shifts in global, Black life.