Unapologetic is an offering to our ancestors, my family, our movement, and the generations who will hold the struggle for Black liberation to come. I began writing this book over five years ago as a personal exploration of freedom, liberation, and movement building. Much like my life in general, where I landed in the book is both far away from and close to where I began. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to parents whose own parents migrated from the Deep South. Their ways of talking, eating, and dealing with life still live in my body and in the choices I make.
I left home at eighteen and spent nearly ten years exploring the United States and the world. As much as Chicago made me, the world has raised me. Whether my work took me to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to door-knock and gain support for comprehensive health-care reform or to Haiti to learn how to support nation-building efforts, I learned that change was not only possible, it was inevitable. I also learned that the change needed for my people has only come because we insisted on it. Frederick Douglass famously observed that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” I believe that we must go further and say that power concedes nothing without an organized demand.
Growing up in Chicago taught me about power even before I could define what it meant for my mother, my family, and myself as a little Black girl. My earliest memories about power come from the visits I took with my mother to the public aid office. I remember walking into a nondescript brown building on Root Street where we would enter a room full of Black and Brown women. Most of the women had children with them and, like my mother, were there to secure food stamps or cash to support their families. The room was colorful and always noisy. We would walk up to the front desk, which was placed on high, and even then the symbolism of this was evident to me, and I found the arrangement uncomfortable and odd. I also didn’t understand why we had to wait in a room all day for a conversation of no more than fifteen minutes with a caseworker. I didn’t understand why the caseworker asked my mother invasive questions about my very present father. I didn’t know the government viewed Black fathers as a barrier to need and Black mothers as unworthy of dignified treatment.
Those childhood visits to the welfare office with its fluorescent lights, along with experiences of growing up in Back of the Yards, Woodlawn, and Gage Park, stuck inside me as I began to learn about community organizing. But it was a visit to South Africa at the age of eighteen that blew my mind and was a watershed moment. As a young Black woman from the racially segregated city of Chicago, I had little understanding of what apartheid meant in a global sense. But unlike the hours of documentaries I watched about the US civil rights and Black Power movements as a child, that experience affected me viscerally and sparked my commitment to improving the conditions of oppressed people worldwide.
Reflecting back, in college, where I should have been exposed to books and materials about the Black radical tradition, I didn’t have the language I now have to understand oppression based on race, class, and gender identity. I didn’t have the words to explain why Black students had access to vastly different educational environments depending on their zip code. I surely did not understand why Blackness was most often talked about in the media as monolithic, why identities and experiences that most closely fit the dominant culture were praised, and why anyone on the margins of gender and sexuality was criminalized, degraded, or rendered invisible.
Under the guidance of Dr. Venus Evans Winters, I read sociological texts that matched my personal experiences of racism, housing segregation, and policing that helped bring global anti-Blackness, patriarchy, and capitalism into focus so I could fit the pieces together. History courses exposed me to the role of the “race women” who, at the turn of the century, practiced Black activism in the South after the disenfranchisement of Black men. I was hooked on racial justice and started to understand the expansive nature of Blackness and what it meant worldwide.
People in social justice movements taught me to think more expansively about Black freedom and collective liberation. Sitting at the feet of reproductive justice leaders, queer and transgender leaders, and elders and hearing their stories taught me what I didn’t learn as a college student. Being in movement work taught me how to take information, put it into context, and produce my own knowledge to understand current conditions and to create a vision for the future. Movement work put the histories of Black feminist and LGBTQ movements on my radar. In political education sessions, I learned about anti-Blackness.
Unapologetic is based on centuries of such information and context created by people committed to collective liberation. Black abolitionists, race women and men, nationalists, communists, socialists, feminists, theologians, and queer and transgender liberationists have built the foundation for what must be done today. our movement taught me the value of study, rigorous thinking, and discipline to take action. Thanks to the movement, I know what actions are necessary and why we must take action. The movement taught me that work for justice has always been done and that my generation has a responsibility to carry the struggle for liberation forward. And the movement taught me the necessity of showing up for all oppressed people.
I am one of many who have taken up that responsibility in my generation. Since 2013, I have steered the growth and development of BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100), one of the most prolific and integral Black liberation movement organizations of the twenty-first century. Our team is full of brilliant liberationists who believe that a Black freedom movement is possible in our lifetime and that it must be Black, queer, and feminist. Following the vision of BYP100 leader Fresco Steez, we made it cool and relevant to be “unapologetically Black.” It was not popular to build an all-Black activist organization or common for a membership-based organization such as ours to be led by young, Black women and LGBTQ folks, but we did it anyway.
We intended that the organization’s chapters be its lifeblood, but even with our best efforts, we didn’t always get it right. As the sole staff member during the first year, I also helped build the Chicago chapter from the ground alongside Jasson Perez, Rose Afriyie, Asha Ransby-Sporn, Janae Bonsu, and Johnae Strong, who soon expanded their roles to become national leaders in the organization. As BYP100 developed, our roles grew and lines blurred. My efforts were split—with half in Chicago and the other half in the national organization. Sometimes it felt I couldn’t do justice to either effort, and sometimes I longed to focus on local organizing. Still, I recognized that much of our strength came from the varying perspectives and landscapes throughout the country. So, when I was not developing the Chicago chapter leadership, I traveled to support the building of chapters in New York City, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, DC. With little money at the beginning, I often slept on couches. I wasn’t a typical executive director in that I did at least as much work building chapters as I did fundraising and doing media work. It was hard to know if I always made the right call in how I spent my time, but I believe that our influence will continue to be felt for years to come. BYP100 is a part of our generation’s vanguard, and I feel blessed by our ancestors to be among its leaders.
In today’s struggle for Black liberation, I have been a witness to grave injustices against our people. Because we are not yet free, I continue to put my body on the line in Black-led uprisings and rebellions across the United States of a scale not seen since the 1960s and 1970s. Because of my experiences and what I know of history, I carry the knowledge and traumas of Black insurgency into the twenty-first century.
My journey has been mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. I’ve doubted my leadership and abilities on several occasions. When it would have been easy to boast, I remained quiet and worked. Where it would have been easy to fire back publicly against character attacks, I shared my anger and remorse with a circle of trusted comrades who are now family. Since then, though, I’ve learned that grace is an insufficient response to injustice. In the past, on occasion, I have been afraid to speak for fear of being too aggressive and taking up too much space. Unapologetic is a public declaration that I am no longer afraid to say what must be said and that our movement has a mandate that will not be silenced or disappeared.
Unapologetic exists at the crossroads of retrospection and vision. It is a testament to my own and our collective past and present, as well as a look to the future. It is a work of history, theory, practice, and vision. Use it to help expand your understanding of the Black radical tradition. Use its examples of community organizing and intellectual labor to answer old questions and ask new ones. For me, completing this book was a risk worth taking. I wanted to bear witness and to state clearly a mandate for what must be done in our movement today. Unapologetic contains histories that help tell a more complete story of the Black radical tradition. It is also a call for commitment, a call for action, a call for us all to be transformed, dismantling what doesn’t serve our collective work, and for contemporary examples that illuminate how this generation of Black activists is carrying forth the Black radical tradition.
I don’t expect my work to end here, with these pages. Whether your work begins or continues after digesting this, my greatest hope is that of any good organizer. I hope it shakes you, agitates you, and leaves you uncomfortable enough to take revolutionary action for the sake of our collective liberation. If I succeed in that, then I’ll be deeply grateful and consider this labor of love and commitment a job well done.
About the Author
One of America’s most influential activists, Charlene A. Carruthers has spent over a decade developing leaders as an effective strategist, community organizer, and educator. She is a Black lesbian feminist and founding national director of the BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100), a leading organization of young activists in the movement for Black liberation. Her work has been featured in outlets including the Nation, NBC News, BBC News, Huffington Post, the New Yorker, Al Jazeera, Ebony, USA Today, and the Washington Post. Carruthers was born, raised, and still resides on the South Side of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @CharleneCac and visit her website.