Emily Ruth Rutter
In these turbulent times, while a pandemic wreaks havoc on the world and particularly on its most vulnerable members, people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders have taken to the streets. Audre Lorde’s reminder that “your silences will not protect you” seems to be on everyone’s lips. I, too, have been a participant in the protests and also someone on the sidelines making phone calls, sending emails, and working with friends, colleagues, family, and students to realize the aims of #BlackSpring. Having been engaged in this work for some time, I have also felt galvanized and inspired by all of the newcomers. Practically everyone I know—childhood friends, family members, colleagues, students, neighbors, and social media “friends”—is suddenly interested in anti-racism. As we enter into a new phase in the uprising, accountability is on my mind.
Perhaps this concern with accountability stems from my own background and anxieties, along with my concern for others. I am a white woman born and raised in North Carolina who can trace my maternal ancestry back to Jamestown, Virginia. Raised in an environment shaped by both ancestral violence and deep familial traumas, I have never been able to lay claim to a fantasy of innocence. In fact, at least in some respect, the horror and shame of my family’s participation in settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow led me to pursue degrees in African American literature and the promise it holds for casting off white-supremacist modes of thought.
I have made a commitment to decolonizing my mind and behavior, and this is a promise I must keep. But accountability must also be communal if we are to remake and re-envision a society that is more prone to commodify and criminalize than it is to nurture and sustain. For example, in the midst of many self-congratulatory posts about attending protests and writing anti-racism action plans and reading this or that article or book, my mother sent my sisters and me a brief email: “Descendants of slave owners have a compelling responsibility to address racial injustice. Stand up, stand with, and stand for racial equality is a battle cry for us all.” In her own way, she was holding us accountable, reminding us to be co-conspirators in the struggle for freedom and liberation not just in this moment but as part of an ongoing movement.
Holding ourselves and our communities accountable is not predicated on calling people out but instead on calling them in, abiding by the ethic of radical love that Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, bell hooks, Cornel West, and others write about so movingly. After all, a beloved community is not one that offers warmth and affection without critique; it is one that collectively dismantles the forces of domination in order to realize our whole human selves in solidarity with one another.