I got to thinking about Sweet Honey in the Rock the other day when I was donating my clothing, and I wrote about the politics of second-hand clothing. In learning about what actually happens to donated clothes, I was left with a sick feeling about my own consumption, and how easily I succumb to buying things. I regularly feel guilty about going to Wal-Mart despite full awareness of why shopping there is so utterly wrong. I haven’t reflected on this problem the way I used to in women’s studies classes — the hopeless, “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” feeling you get when your consciousness is raised about consumption. I don’t want to donate my clothing to exploitative rag-making multinational corporations. I don’t want to toss my clothes in a landfill, either. So the only solution is to stop buying clothes, right? Or buy with a more heightened awareness.
My answer to the dilemma of consumption has always been a cop out. I could never give my students any guidance on the issue, nor could I assuage my own guilt. I only have rationalizations and alibis. You can never truly escape the system, right? Most drop-out cultures don’t really create change, right? You just do the best with what you have, right?
The connection to Sweet Honey comes from their moving song, “Are My Hands Clean.” This song demystifies the travels of a cheap shirt purchased on sale at Sears. Cynthia Enloe wrote about these lyrics in her book, Bananas, Beaches and Bases (a wonderful book, by the way), in the chapter entitled, “Blue Jeans and Bankers.” This chapter explores in more detail the politics laid bare in the song. Although the song is about new clothes, not second-hand clothes, the lyrics are still relevant to my dilemma:
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world
35% cotton, 65% polyester, the journey begins in Central America
In the cotton fields of El Salvador
In a province soaked in blood,
Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun
Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.
Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill
A top-forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton through the Panama Canal
Up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time
In South Carolina
At the Burlington mills
Joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical
Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela
riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day
Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world,
Upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago
Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas
To the factories of Dupont
On the way to the Burlington mills
In South Carolina
To meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador
In South Carolina
Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into
miles of fabric
Who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea
Headed for Haiti this time—May she be one day soon free—
Far from the Port-au-Prince palace
Third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications
For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse
It leaves the third world for the last time
Coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me
This third world sister
And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse
On sale for 20% discount
Are my hands clean?
Sweet Honey in the Rock got my mind whirling in a hundred different directions, two of which were front and center. The first one was my deeply emotional response to Sweet Honey the first time I heard them in concert. The second was the profound impact of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s 1981 speech, “Coalition Politics: Turning the century,” for me, and for feminism in general. (Bernice Johnson Reagon was the founder of Sweet Honey.)
Right now I want to focus on my emotionalism. Sweet Honey is an African American female a cappella ensemble. Their music draws from the tradition and history of black music around the world. Their songs focus on social justice, peace, freedom, and hope. Their recordings do not do them justice. They are meant to be heard live. Without the distraction of instruments, you can practically wrap yourself in the sound of their voices. The first time I heard them, I cried (discreetly, of course).
Reflecting on my tears reminded me of something Minnie Bruce Pratt wrote in her essay, “Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart,” in the book Yours in Struggle. This essay is about a southern white woman’s process of recognizing her white privilege by having lost her heterosexual privilege when she came out as a lesbian. The essay is an excellent narrative about interlocking oppression and about the insidious way that power construes identity. She writes at one point about how recognizing white privilege can strip white people of the core of their identity, leaving them to experience grief and loss, as well as disgust for their own whiteness. She explains that some people borrow the grief of others who are oppressed to process their emotions. Using herself as an example, she describes crying when she listened to black people singing in church. She describes her process:
Then I understood that I was using Black people to weep for me, to express my sorrow at my responsibility, and that of my people, for their oppression: and I was mourning because I felt they had something I didn’t, a closeness, a hope, that I and my folks had lost because we had tried to shut other people out of our hearts and lives.
Finally I understood that I could feel sorrow during their music, and yet not confuse their sorrow with mine, or use their resistance for mine. I needed to do my own work: express my sorrow and my responsibility myself, in my own words, by my own actions. I could hear their songs like a trumpet to me: a startling, an awakening, a reminder, a challenge: as were the struggles and resistance of other folk: but not take them as replacement for my own work.
In retrospect, I’m not sure that my response was entirely based in this dynamic. Sweet Honey is a powerful, spiritual force, and I don’t know how anyone could hear them live and not be touched. But it’s certainly something to reflect on, and I don’t want to deny or to dismiss too quickly my own appropriation of other people’s sorrow. I know I’ve been guilty of that on many occasions.
This appropriation and denial is one of the things that frustrates me about white people who go through the YWCA’s Dialogue on Race. Although rarely does the dialogue bring them to a point of stripping away their identities, it certainly draws out their white liberal guilt. Often the participants do not move beyond that moment of guilt, shock, and grief. They express deep empathy with the stories told by the people of color in the room (mostly black folk, since this is Louisiana). This empathy, unfortunately, complicates and perpetuates what Wendy Brown describes in States of Injury as the “wounded attachment” of oppositional identity politics that seems to play out in the Dialogues. Of course, as with any consciousness raising, it is a process, and hopefully one that extends beyond the dialogue itself.
And now to the second thought on Coalition Politics. So much can be said about this speech, but I will save that for another time. My friend Carolyn DiPalma, who co-edited a collection of essays on teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, told me that nearly all of the syllabi submissions for the book ended with Coalition Politics. The ideas from this speech have had a significant influence on feminism, pushing for the need to move beyond identity politics. Reagon makes a point that relates to my opening dilemma about what to do, about how to approach the struggle. It’s not an easy point to take, but it does provide a necessary slap in the face about our grandiosity regarding social change. After telling her audience how egotistical they are for living in the womb of their present and of their own issues, she says,
We think that the issue we have at this moment has to be addressed at this moment or we will die. It is not true. It is only a minor skirmish. It must be waged guerrilla-warfare style. You shoot it out, get behind the tree so you don’t get killed, because they ain’t gonna give you what you asked for. You must be ready to go out again tomorrow and while you’re behind the tree you must be training the people who will be carrying the message forward into the next period, when they do kill you from behind the tree.
Although I think Reagon’s point about minor skirmishes is well taken, I’m not sure that I can call giving my unwanted clothing to Connections for Life counts as guerrilla warfare. In fact, I’m fairly certain it doesn’t measure up. I’m not sure that participating in these Dialogues on Race is anything more than a palliative for white folk, or whether or not it does anything to address racism in Baton Rouge, even though many others are confident that it does. I’m not even sure anymore that the few times I raise the various dynamics of oppression in my classrooms makes much of a difference. So I return to my cop out answer. You do what you can with what you have and you try to do a little more every day.