In many radical Black and Brown spaces on the Internet, I’ve seen many people pose the question “What radicalized you?” And, for some time, I could not bring myself to give anything close to a direct answer. When relating the struggle for African liberation to our personal lives, many of us have our own stories or narratives that push us forward into the realm of consciousness, especially when having to do with both race and class. However, for some of us (like myself), it may have taken a while to understand how the latter is connected to the former.
Growing up, I was raised in an Afrocentric environment where I was taught that racism was prevalent in the world and that I might run into some obstacles and issues because I was Black. I understood that both racism and anti-African sentiments were a global phenomenon and at some point I might have an encounter based around those exact sentiments. In spite of my awareness of white supremacy and its relationship to race, it didn’t occur to me that it also had a prevalent analysis with both classism and economics. Still, as someone who grew up in a predominantly middle-class neighborhood and had a father who was making six-figures as a school administrator, I had no real understanding of class analysis until the divorce of my parents. Of course, I understood that poverty existed, but I had no real understanding of how the system of capitalism, poverty, and exploitation worked until things fell apart for my family.
When my parents first separated, both my mother and father were both in difficult financial situations: my father had lost his job due to breaking certain important rules of conduct, and my mother now had to deal with being a single parent and making up for what we had lost since my father had been the main provider. For those first few years of their separation and eventual divorce, things had been gloomy and unsettling. My mother had rented out a small apartment for the two of us in a nearby town and I ended up attending one of the neighborhood schools where things were far more different than the previous school I had transferred from.
I started to understand that zip codes played a huge role in how resources were distributed, and without the “right” zip code, your area would simply go underserved. The school I now attended was underfunded, with smaller classrooms, ancient textbooks, and no auditorium for assemblies and announcements. There were less field trips, less extracurricular activities, and barely anything when it came to the arts, all because the budget for our district didn’t allow for it. Meanwhile, only one town over it was no secret that the schools were far more invested in and that materials and supplies were at no shortage because of the funding their district got.
Furthermore, I started to understand how finances could make or break a person’s worth and status. Under capitalism, your humanity is not inherent, but an expense that you must have the currency to afford—the white picket fence, the nice house, the luxurious car, the fancy vacations, and the “hard work pays off” mentality. This is what ultimately happened to my father after him and my mother split. After losing his job, he started an LLC which ended up being very successful and lucrative for him. And for me, it became excruciatingly painful to watch.
He went from being a kindhearted school administrator who advocated for community outreach to a pseudo-activist who promoted Black capitalism and business ownership as Black liberation. Instead of critiquing a system that prevented Black people from getting ahead and calling for the abolition of such a crooked system, he suggested that we as Black people buy into it and try to create generational wealth. He had become the same classist, bourgeois, and capitalistic institution that he used to hate, nearly developing a “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” mindset that he used to belittle others who hadn’t been as lucky as he was, including members of his own family.
Despite the obvious truth that our economy runs on employment and not business ownership, he began to advise everyone that he came across to quit their 9-5 job and start working for themselves, which was a temporary answer to a much larger problem when it came to economic inequality.
I had lost a comrade in him. And it was through my father that I had first developed an abusive relationship with capitalism.
Since my mother and I were feeling the sting of capitalism and struggle, my father was able to use this against us. My father often served as a proxy for the capitalist system, creating a world in which my mother and I served as workers who were desperate for the monetary support my father had used as leverage to control us. Though my parents were no longer together, my father realized that he had an upper hand monetarily, and that my mother still needed help when it came to provisions and the cost of living. So, if we didn’t follow his rules or agree with the way he wanted to do things, he would withhold money from our household, and we would go without. This took a heavy toll on my mental health, as well as my mother’s since she was now the sole provider. What had previously been a positive and healthy relationship between father and child had now become almost purely transactional, and quite toxic at that.
After reflecting on my parents’ divorce, my mother’s struggles, and my father’s relationship to money and prominence, I’ve come to understand something important. Capitalism is not only the system in which we live under, but it is something that we have been forced to participate in from a young age for survival. In order to attain food, clothing, and shelter we have to participate in our own exploitation in some form or fashion. This makes it difficult to break out the cycle, as our labor and contributions act as hosts in which parasitic corporations and the 1% feed off of for sustenance. So, while some people may place it on the individual to foster their own success and growth within a system that makes those things nearly impossible, I believe that we should instead create a new system where success and growth are the default.
My childhood trauma forced me to grow up at a young age and face the real world, a world which constantly brought people to their knees for basic necessities and their very humanity.