Martin Luther King Day Roundtable: What’s In Your Black Justice Toolkit?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often co-opted and remembered as a pacifist, but he was a fighter for black liberation above almost all else. That’s the legacy that Autostraddle is remembering. On this holiday, we’re honoring his work by asking ourselves: What’s in your Black Justice Toolkit, right now?

What are the intellectual, emotional, physical “tools” that you’re using to fight for justice in black communities? What are the tools that you think we need to be building? Simply put, what does black liberation look like for you, and what are you prepared to do to get there?

We invite you to join our conversation in the comment section.


Natalie , Writer

Today, in Richmond, the Virginia Civilians Defense League is hosting their annual gun rights “Lobby Day.” While the event’s purpose is cloaked as pro-Second Amendment, anti-gun control event, the State is preparing for a host of militia groups, conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists to descend on the Capitol. Their intent? To kick off a new civil war in the capital of the Confederacy. The FBI has already arrested six Neo-Nazis who were en route to Richmond and a State of Emergency has been in effect in Virginia since Friday.

White supremacy does not take a single day off, not even this one.

I mean that as both a reminder and a lament. After engaging in daily battles with white supremacy, it’s hard not to feel like your tools for the fight are dulling. It’s hard not to feel like my own tools — my writing, my political acumen, my physical presence at protests, my emotional support of my community, my enthusiasm — are growing increasingly diminished by overuse. I even worry that my sense of what black liberation is, honed by years of Sunday mornings (and afternoons and the occasional night) filled with black liberation theology, is devolving. Is my ability to imagine black possibility a casualty of this constant fight? I keep thinking, All we wanna do is take the chains off/ All we wanna do is break the chains off/ All we wanna do is be free, and wondering if I’m asking too little of a world that has taken too much.

But I press on despite my confusion, remembering,  as I was reminded last week by Representative Ayanna Pressley, that “I’m not here to just occupy space, I am here to create it.” I work everyday to model empathy and inclusion for the broader queer community in hopes that it’ll inspire others to soldier on beside me.

Himani Gupta, Contributor

There’s a strong conservative streak in Asian/Asian American communities that rarely makes it into mainstream American discourse. But those of us in the community are very familiar with that conservatism and one of its most insidious aspects: anti-Black racism.

“No one is free until we are all free” is one of Dr. King’s most overused quotes. As Asians and Asian Americans navigate the discrimination and privilege we experience in America, often in the same stroke, we need to grapple with what that simple sentence really means. Yes, we experience racism. Yes, our countries, people, and heritages were ravaged by colonialism rooted in white supremacy, the effects of which still reverberate today. And yet, do we have it within us to hold the space within ourselves and our communities to try to understand the Black experience?

My family immigrated to America when I was very young, so assimilation was a foregone conclusion for me. Yet, coming into adulthood, I knew so little about Black history, art, and culture. Part of that was due to the default status that white culture and history enjoys in this country, but part of it was due to the anti-Black racism of the communities I grew up in. A critical part of my Black Justice Toolkit is consuming the work of Black writers, scholars, journalists, and artists. I’m not only talking about the people who white gatekeepers allowed into the industries they created or co-opted but also seeking out what the Black community is producing by and for itself. It’s only through these engagements that I’ve begun to understand the ways in which our histories and experiences overlap and also diverge substantially.

A hard look at those divergences reveals that far too often Asians/Asian Americans were set up to maintain the existing racist white/Black hierarchy – in the words of ALOK “brown to keep black down” – and that this isn’t always passive but rather an active indulgence of our own anti-Black racism. Continuing to engage with Black history, art, and culture enables me to ground my own experiences of racism and sexism in America within the larger dynamics at work in this country.

But understanding that context alone won’t advance Black liberation. Another part of my Black justice toolkit is using my relative power and privilege to make sure Black people are given space and have a voice. This is an ongoing work in progress for me, as I learn from Black and Asian American activists who have been leading this charge.

Abeni Jones, Contributor

I think that one of the most important theories or ideas around liberation is understanding that our everyday lives are microcosms of our politics. Like, “the personal is political,” “the revolution starts at home,” etc. Like, adrienne maree brown’s concept of fractals. It’s easy to have big ideas for political transformation, but if you can’t put those big ideas into practice in small ways in your everyday life, then what information are you getting about yourself, your circumstances, or your politics.

For example, if we’re prison abolitionists, we generally believe that people shouldn’t be violently punished, killed, locked in cages, and/or ostracized from their community because of mistakes they’ve made or harm they’ve done to others – especially when we place the lion’s share of blame for those actions on systemic, oppressive forces. Instead we want rehabilitation, restoration, transformation.

If that’s the case, how do we practice this belief in our everyday lives? Is “cancel culture” compatible with these politics? How about holding grudges, or keeping “receipts,” or having a “nemesis,” or desiring revenge, or really anything other than compassion or empathy for those who’ve harmed us? What about if it’s for fascists and racists and homophobes and TERFs? For our abusers? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to those questions but it’s absolutely essential to ask them. Is it fair to ask the criminal justice system to do something we’re not even prepared to do, or can’t conceptualize how to do, with the individuals around us?

We have to figure out how to build responses to harm that don’t rely on carceral punishment and policing in our own lives, families, and communities. Whether that means accountability systems, talking circles, transformative or restorative justice, vigilantism, ostracization, retribution, or something else entirely is up to us and our community. Actually doing our politics in our day-to-day lives is one of the only ways we can really feel and experience what “justice” actually means, and doing so is crucial if we’re going to manifest liberation on a large scale.

Carmen Phillips, Senior Editor

Whenever I think about my roadmap to black liberation, my first answer is so cliché that I’m often embarrassed to saying it out-loud, but it’s no less true: Love. People like to quote Dr. King’s insistence that we love our enemies: “I just want to be there in love, and in justice and in truth, and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.” But that’s not the kind of love I mean. I don’t have the capacity to find love for those who don’t fundamentally respect my humanity or are willing to fight for it. That’s just me — I am no Dr. King. (Maybe one day, but certainly not today).

What I mean is that I believe that fighting for my community is an act of love. Caring for my community is an act of love. Black liberation, and black queer liberation specifically, comes from a place of deeply rooted love. Loving blackness is not about expecting perfection or arbitrary declarations of “excellence.” It’s about sticking our firmly boots down in the mud of struggle – and not moving or letting go.

Something that I’ve thought a lot about this year is who gets to leave a space, or “come and go” as they please. So many allies are willing to share a hashtag or say the right things in public; a few select people are willing to do the next steps of physically or emotionally putting themselves on the line when it comes to points of crisis. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thankful. Still, when the alarm bells stop ringing, they get to pick up and go about their previously privileged lives. I don’t have that choice. I can’t take off my black skin the same way an ally can hang up their activist boots at the end of a day. I’ll be here every day in between, my fully black self. Maybe that’s why I’ve found solace in loving my blackness. Love is a choice, an action. It’s not a default.

I’m black because, let’s be real, I was lucky enough to be born black. But I fight for black liberation because I love blackness. Those are not the same thing.

Kamala Puligandla, Deputy Editor

My Black justice toolkit, like any proper kit, has a full range of options — the hilarious, like the Black Lady Sketch Show; the beautifully intimate, like the work of the artist Adee Roberson; the cleverly forceful, like Colors of Change; and the greats, like Toni Morrison. But when I think about my role in Black liberation and Black justice, so much of it is about listening and hearing, about internalizing the experiences of others in a personal way, carrying them with me like they’re mine and acting accordingly.

It’s about applying the concept that we’re all human together in as many scenarios as I can — which is exactly what white supremacy and colonization and capitalism are really good at removing from us. Because Black justice and liberation are ultimately a benefit to everyone. So for me, it’s about noticing my choices and proximity to power, it’s about being accountable, and being ready to adjust my thinking to do the harder thing. Finally, it’s also about not falling into the trap of believing that because the world is fucked up, that there isn’t room for great satisfaction and joy — and nothing gives me greater satisfaction and joy than helping others find it.

The right to disengage
A dash of fear
And the power of anger

I used to be so afraid to answer questions like this or take part in these conversations. Mostly because of how nervous I was about how my responses would be interpreted. Worried they would not be intense enough for the blacktivists or too aggressive for the white folks. I forgot that there are more than two ways to take part in this ongoing fight. You don’t have to choose between being a Malcolm or a Martin, you can fight the good fight using the tools that you find work best for you.

Disengage – It took me far too long to realize that I do not have to engage with non-blacks on black issues. I don’t have to be a representative for the Republic of Black Girls just because I may be the only one in the room at any given time. I can choose not to have conversations usually lead to many still not grasping the point, and I’ll still be a part of the movement. Don’t get me wrong – you’ll get the right bitch on the wrong day here and there and then I will tell you all about yourself and then some. But other days I’ll tell these niggas to go Google or read a book and go about my day.

Fear – My mother says “you’ll die without a little fear” and coming from a bad bitch liked her I was confused; now I get it. A healthy dose of fear, in my experience, is what has kept many a black woman alive. Fear doesn’t equal weakness. To me it means you’ve assessed a situation and listened to your gut. It keeps you around longer for the cause. Black women know the rules and oftentimes we live and move through them until we can find a way to safely break them for our benefit.

Anger – Be fucking mad. It’s hard when usually we aren’t upset, we are just trying to be heard, and are painted as the angry black girl. Be mad that as queer black women we are so often rejected from a cause that’s supposed to include all of us moving forward. Be mad that black trans women are being murdered at an alarmingly fast rate. Be mad that many black men still see us as inferior beings but want us to take care of them despite it. Be mad that the medical system doesn’t listen to us and it results in our deaths. Be mad that there are still little black girls being made fun of because their skin is dark and their hips are wide. Be mad that they don’t want to allow us to be mad.

Dani Janae, Writer

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the limits of solidarity, or, better put, the ways in which people who are not black can push beyond a narrative of solidarity and move toward action. I think for justice to come about in any real way we don’t simply need allies, we need actors, people that are willing to put themselves on the physical or metaphorical line. That looks incredibly different for everyone, what you are willing to give of yourself varies from perspective to perspective, but I think I’m in this place of frustration around the sort of “black power fist emoji” solidarity I see a lot.

The legacy of freedom fighters and abolitionists of our past was one where I saw some real fire existed that I see lacking in a new generation. I’m totally implicating myself in this, too. I know that what I can physically do is write and bare witness but I don’t do that enough. At some point it seems like the connection between all of our oppressions got lost and there was an “every man for himself” attitude adopted. For black people, it’s hard to trust in solidarity because anti-blackness is profitable and global; it’s a beast that touches everything and makes it hard to know who really has our backs. To try and get some walls around this, my black liberation looks like blackness not being seen as a weapon or a threat, and for black people to have more than solidarity amongst other oppressed groups in a way that allows us to lift each other up. I don’t want to sound like some hippy or whatever but I do feel dismayed at what I see sometimes. Black people are dying everyday, black girls are going missing, our hair and culture are criminalized and copied in the same breath. Things have gotten better but they are still so dire, and I want people to see that more and act on it accordingly, with the fire it deserves.

That may look like voting or creating a mass movement where black voices are at the forefront depending on who you are. It can also look like using your financial privilege, your educational privilege. Use the tools you have been given.

KaeLyn , Writer

The tools in my Black justice toolkit are simple and they work together: My listening ears and my moving body. As I moved through my own understanding of race as a South Korean transracial adoptee who grew up in a white family, I was drawn over and over again to the writings and activism of Black women. I still am.

As an adult, I finally began cultivating my place in BIWOC and QTBIPOC spaces. This spurred two enormous changes for me: owning my belonging as a person of color and strengthening my resolve to center Black folx within POC spaces. Finding BIWOC and QTBIPOC space liberated me, not just from my own internalized racism, but from my fear of standing up beside and behind Black folx who are leading the way. That means I see Black liberation as part of the collective liberation of every person pushed to the margins.

Practically, it means I don’t let white people use their “model minority” bias to say or do racist shit in front of me. I work with movements and groups who are fighting for the rights of Black folks even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. I actively challenge my own biases and work on myself as an intentional accomplice, putting my power into action and always listening to what Black folx want instead of assuming my instincts are right.

Part of the “doing” of intersectional theory to me is that people are allowed to be complex. I am so lucky to have deep relationships with multigenerational Black folx who choose to have me in their spaces, from artists and writers to clergy leaders and lawyers. We don’t always agree on everything or have the same world view, but we can find commonality in seeing each others’ humanity and believing that our liberation is tied together.

Growing up in Memphis means you have to contend annually with King’s legacy. As a kid I was fairly numb to it. There were obligatory field trips to the National Civil Rights Museum, with its text-heavy exhibitions, and aged documentaries about racism as a sort of historical relic that King was almost single-handedly responsible for abolishing. As I grew older, I became weary of Martin Luther King, feeling more skeptical than anything about his legacy. He loomed larger than everything and was so easily quoted by the same White people who discriminated against me the rest of the year. It took leaving Memphis, and then returning as an adult to work for the Civil Rights Museum’s education department, that I actually immersed myself in a history I thought I knew, but that stretched far deeper than I could have realized.

Maybe the biggest shock was learning that his Poor People’s Campaign is what got him killed. To track the evolution of his politics is to see his focus on an equitable model that allowed folks a way to live out from under capitalism. It’s not entirely surprising that this remains a lesser known and discussed part of his legacy. I grew up in church and, while I no longer identify as religious, I think the Poor People’s Campaign was King’s way of caring for “the least of these,” or those most disenfranchised. This is a lesson I try to return to, a refrain I don’t play often enough but that still guides my thoughts about how I can best show up for other Black people.

I think one of the biggest takeaways from King’s later work was that he stopped talking to White people about Black people and instead started talking directly to us. And I’m sure bringing up clueless White folks in the way of the Lorde is someone’s ministry, it certainly isn’t mine. Like Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” So in the most anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and community-centered way possible, I think my Black justice toolkit is comprised of focusing on us. Like, THASSIT. I’m here for our art, our thought, our histories and cultures, our safety, our livelihoods. I can’t keep responding to what people have done and so I look for venues and platforms, like this one, that are invested in moving culture forward. One of the things I love most about being Black is how diverse we are, how many multitudes we contain. I think each of us can chart a path to our liberation, but for me it begins with centering Blackness.

The QTPOC Speakeasy is a collective of Autostraddle's writers of color.

has written 18 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you for your wisdom and anger and joy.

    Y’all asked: “Simply put, what does black liberation look like for you, and what are you prepared to do to get there?”
    For me, one of the biggest tools I have learned and that I must regularly commit to using more often is holding together two things: 1) I cannot let fear of messing up stop me from acting; Black people are dying and suffering because of white people like me and our inaction, so I don’t have the privilege of waiting until I have every piece right before I act. ANNNNNND 2) when I mess up, I don’t get to use the urgency of acting as an excuse for the harm I have caused.

    It’s listening, then diving into action with enthusiasm, then humbly listening and repairing when I have harmed people, and then not letting my sensitivity about being reprimanded and desire to not cause harm stop me from diving back into action again.

    I am grateful for y’all.

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