By Amber Butts
I come from folks who organized rent parties and bail funds, who put money away for rainy days or times when mamas needed to escape dysfunctional and abusive households. I come from folks who believe in direct giving and show it.
Folks who give hugs and offer handshakes in order to exchange money discreetly. Folks who pitch in, who put out pots and bowls and hats for community food giveaways, birthday parties, baby showers and games.
I come from folks who put events together to support with medical bills, with emergency surgeries, with sudden deaths and funerals. Folks who built intricate direct giving and mutual aid networks. I come from collectors and re-distributors of wealth who paved the way long before organizations claimed that title for themselves.
And our folks did it so thoroughly. They listened. They anticipated needs. They built interconnected safe spaces where it was okay to say, “I’m short on rent this month”, “I lost my job today”, or “there are no more groceries in the kitchen.”
Most importantly, they did it without attaching or making assumptions about folks’ worth when they asked for support. They did it as a commitment to connection, relationship building, and to knowing that on any given day, those tides could flip.
I think about that often, how our folks built special kinds of ecosystems amidst all the strategies of economic instability that antiBlackness necessitates.
The surveillance state’s incessant role in shaping the conditions that require the commodification and devaluing of Black life are ever present. The very systems, policies, companies and organizations that ensured we be devastated by food deserts, redlining, over-policing, housing insecurity, poverty, pollution and high mortality rates are attempting to rebrand themselves as change makers, with loud declarations of solidarity.
Even small, family owned businesses that have anti-Black histories are now boarding up and plastering Black Lives Matter phrases on entrances. Black lives mattering is a marketing tool used to support keeping their businesses afloat by promoting and capitalizing off of faux allyship.
This is of no surprise to me. Folks regularly choose into protecting property and property “rights” over Black lives. Instead of doing the work, we are shown time and time again that it’s more important and less taxing to make blanket statements and appearances.
This phenomenon is not unlike what individual white people do when they check in on the Black folks in their lives or the well-meaning organizations and community members who buy up Black Lives Matter signs to put on their neighbors lawns. And yet somehow, still don’t talk to their Black neighbors or refuse to give unhoused Black folks money because they don’t want them to use that money “for drugs”.
In 1933 in Lorain Ohio, at the age of two, Toni Morrison watched her family’s house burn to the ground. Their landlord had set the fire while the family was inside because they’d fallen behind on the $4/ month rent for their apartment.
When interviewed, Morrison said, “It was this hysterical, out-of-the-ordinary, bizarre form of evil. If you internalized it you’d be truly and thoroughly depressed because that’s how much your life meant. For $4 a month somebody would just burn you to a crisp. So what you did instead was laugh at him, at the absurdity, at the monumental crudeness of it. That way you gave back yourself to yourself. You know what I mean? You distanced yourself from the implications of the act.”
Landlord arson is far more prevalent than is represented on paper, and communities who’ve been negatively impacted by the social construct of land ownership (read theft) are again, not surprised. This sustained, intentional, spatial and physical violence continues to this day.
Even under federally funded programs like Section 8, recipients often repair and improve the suitability of prospective units in order to pass housing inspections. Though the responsibility is on the landlord, having access to a unit, regardless of its condition, is something most folks in government housing want.
Section 8 case workers regularly check in with clients/ tenants about their job prospects, living expenses, income and any changes in household size. Some recipients are even guilt tripped for not having found a job, and then when they do, the program’s rent contribution fluctuates, which continues the cycle of choosing a familiar instability (reliance on the state). None of this is the fault of the persons seeking aid.
What isn’t made visible, however, are the close knit networks and practices that ensure folks have what they need even as the intersections of antiBlackness, classism and ableism do their best to represent cash poor folks as undeserving of care.
In April, the United States Treasury announced their attempt to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic. Stimulus checks in the amount of $1,200 would be distributed to all Americans who qualify. Individuals with children would receive an additional $500 per qualifying child.
Though $1,200 will not drastically impact even the poorest of households, a plethora of people took the opportunity to offer unsolicited advice. This advice was of course directed at Black parents, mostly single mothers, who were instructed on everything ranging from how to save money to what to spend that money on. There was also an overwhelming assumption that they’d spend it on hair, weed, shoes and nails.
Along with those cringeworthy details, parents were encouraged to use the $500 in additional funds to purchase a laptop for their children, instead of expecting schools to offer the necessary resources to support students with remote instruction. This coupled with the reality that during shelter in place, bills are rapidly multiplying in households, reads a lot like folks should stop standing in line for Jordans and instead put that money away for their children’s tuition.
The daily humiliations required by capitalism aren’t separate from the ways we’ve gotten excellent at perpetuating the work of the police state, which continues to strengthen respectability politics in our communities.
The foundations of white supremacy that rely on capitalism, consumerism and myths of scarcity have impacted who we deem worthy of getting basic needs met. Resource hoarding and the requirement that worth on both the economic and livable scale be tied up in production further perpetuates the idea that Black bodies are commodities.
But it’s not only that. When folks don’t perform gratitude (or poverty) in a certain way they are often labeled ungrateful, lazy, and ignorant. When we hide behind our actions by labeling them as preferences or belittling the responses to said actions as “not that serious”, we ignore the real consequences of these behaviors.
Mutual aid and direct giving are a part of our legacy. Ignoring that legacy and the work that our folks have been doing is antiBlack.
The refusal of giving directly to individuals because it is impossible to know how they will use that money mirrors the state’s preoccupation with surveillance, criminalization, and determining who is worthy of being doled out “care”. This compulsion is also impacted by internalized and sustained antiBlackness, and a complicity in judging the life choices of cash poor Black folks. It requires a willingness to ignore the systems that ensure these conditions play out in the first place.
Regurgitating the beggars can’t be choosers narrative doesn’t get us closer to liberation. It’s important that we continue the legacy of direct giving in our communities, and that we get away from the internal policing that happens when folks ask for what they need, which is antithetical to who we are as people. Release the expectation that folks must provide explanations for their needs and conditions, or that they do report backs when they do receive.
We can stop equating direct giving with charity and handouts. We can love each other better than that. We’ve been doing it for centuries.
Amber Butts is a writer, organizer and educator who believes that Black folk are already whole. Her work centers Black children, Black mamas and Black elders. It asks big and small questions about how we move towards actualizing spaces that center tenderness, nuance and joy while living in a world reliant on our terror.