Dr. Rose Brewer talks Black liberatory movements and sustaining them

Dr. Rose Brewer talks Black liberatory movements and sustaining them

Emma Runchey Smalley, Staff Writer

On Thursday, Feb. 16, Macalester community members gathered in the Weyerhaeuser Boardroom to hear from Dr. Rose Brewer, the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Minnesota. Brewer is a former chairperson of the department of African & African American Studies and publishes on social movements, Black feminism, social class and more. 

The talk, hosted by the Lealtad-Suzuki Center for Social Justice, began with discussion questions for the audience. Attendees were encouraged to share what they knew about Black liberatory movements, their experiences in Black organizing spaces and what it takes to sustain these movements.

Brewer began by talking about the importance of Black movements and contextualizing current movements. 

“Collective work goes a long way and sits at the heart of what it takes to sustain movements, and we must be clear that it takes a steely commitment, political will and much more to contend with the difficult realities of Black life in the U.S., across continental Africa and over the African diaspora,” Brewer said. “We must sustain political movements without losing the powerful will to resistance, transformation and creating a different order.”

“We’re in a moment of great urgency and opportunity,” Brewer explained. “Wherever we are, we must contend with the great storm of our times: the COVID-19 pandemic, war, militarism, racism, materialism, Empire, white supremacy, global capitalism and more.”

She emphasized the importance of intersectionality in this work and how capitalism and imperialism are inextricably linked, sharing a quote from political economist Samir Amin.

“‘Capitalism is not only a system based on the importation of labor, or capital,’” Brewer read, quoting Amin. “‘It is also a system based on polarization, and … on a world scale, capitalism and imperialism are [inseparable].’”

Brewer then continued to talk about the importance of education in building and sustaining Black movements. 

“We’re trying to make sense of exactly what we are up against and what [we are] building movements for, and why,” Brewer said. 

She also talked about drawing strength from past movements, sharing specific examples such as Lowndes County, Ala., which began a Black political party using a black panther as the symbol, inspiring the symbol of the wider Black Panther movement. Brewer also mentioned Ella Baker and her work in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

She emphasized that Black movements today are possible only because of previous Black movements, referencing the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. 

“And there’s another generation who has a different kind of mission to carry out, but certainly builds on what that revolutionary generation made possible,” Brewer said.

Brewer then introduced her other main message about Black movement sustainability.

“It’s long-enduring,” she said. “[The commitment to] Black movement sustainability, the commitment to the long-enduring, to the intractable nature of it until there is complete transformation of a sort, that passing of the baton [to the next generation].”

She also highlighted the importance of education, both in and out of the classroom. She focused on how Black sustainability does not just occur in the classroom, and that we must put theory into practice to create lasting change. 

Brewer then turned to local Black movements and the role of college campuses like Macalester. She mentioned that the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is still alive in the Twin Cities, and especially in young people, but that the way forward right now is unclear.

“I want to reiterate the role of [Macalester], and this issue of ‘how is it possible to keep the energy going?’” Brewer said. “We know that the job isn’t done [yet].”

She also talked about how the struggles faced in the world today and by Black movements in particular are different from those faced in the past, sharing the thoughts of writer and teacher Frank Bardacke.

“For today’s struggle in particular, there is another set of challenges,” she said. “From his perspective, this set of questions is more fundamental and will demand more fundamental changes.”

Brewer mentioned that these struggles are, in some ways, more difficult to reckon with, and that the nature of present-day struggles make it more difficult to draw specific knowledge from past movements. 

“If you talk to young folks on the street, they’re not marching for a particular concession,” Brewer said, continuing to share Bardacke’s thoughts. “They’re out there because they’re frustrated, and they know their lives are not valued by the political structure.”

Brewer then dug deeper into the connections between capitalism, imperialism and racism and xenophobia. She shared from historian Vijay Prashad’s most recent publication.

“‘There’s been a fundamental shift,’” she read. “‘It’s the idea that human beings are primarily consumers of goods and services and that human subjectivity can best be appreciated through a desire for things.’”

She underscored the need to challenge these notions, to look into the existing organization networks and interrogate practices within Black movements.

“[We must] inquire deeply into our power organizations and networks, relate to the wider policies of activism within our movements, and how these movements were conducted, [how activism] relates to the larger struggles both domestically as well as globally.”

Brewer then gave advice on how to move forward within Black movements and social movements in general. She emphasized the importance of developing skills of understanding and building solidarity within various movements. Brewer reiterated the importance of drawing on and building from past movements. 

Finally, she emphasized the importance of moving beyond momentum and the ever-changing nature of activism and movement. She shared the words of Asian-American social activist and author Grace Lee Boggs.

“‘The participants, the vision, the strategy are core pieces underpinning the movement for change,’” Brewer read. “Ms. Boggs went on to say, ‘Struggle does not end with victory or defeat because new contradictions arise, requiring new ideas and new paradigms, which are usually resisted because someone has a stake in doing it the old way.’”

“But [change] is the nature of movement,” Brewer said.

Brewer finished the talk by reiterating the most important points from her discussion, including the complications of the present moment, the unfinished nature of the work, the necessity for intersectionality and the importance of continuing to do the work to force change.

“The system will not transform itself,” Brewer said. “This has to come from us, the bottom-up, forcing change … [and we] must be built as a tough, robust movement, aligning multiple complexities at the center [of those movements].”

Brewer then opened the floor to questions, and attendees asked her questions about why doing the work of building Black movements feels difficult, on individualism versus interdependence, about searching for urgency within movements and society as a whole and the importance of physical gathering locations. 

In closing, she shared a quote from the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral about Black movement sustainability.

“‘We must mask no difficulties, tell no lies, claim no easy victories,’” she read. “You must build a tough, hard, revolutionary road for Black sustainability.”


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