For those who don’t remember the Sister Souljah of the 90s, or never learned about it as they came of age, a short summary:
Bill Clinton referenced activist and rapper Sister Souljah at the Rainbow Coalition Dinner and criticized her for a quote printed in the Washington Post that positioned her as having said, devoid of any context: “If we’re going to kill black people, why not take a week and kill white people?” Clinton compared Sister Souljah to David Duke, and was praised at large by the press years later for having “political courage”.
The pervasiveness of this moment was so strong- so distinct in the American mindset- that to this day people still praise Clinton’s bravery for having said. I know this because I was among them doing just that as recently as early this year when I referenced the incident as an example of the need for power to point to its own worst actors.
I was wrong.
See, the thing is the time period in which I grew up and the place in which I grew up positioned me in such a way that I would hear out the Clintons but never listened to Sister Souljah’s response to the President at the time. They accepted Clinton's contextual frame outright.
Never accept a politician's message without question.
This week I listened to her response from back when it happened in ’92 on CSPAN. And it turns out that we didn’t really give her proper due. Her take is that the Washington Post misquoted her, and she delivered a fairly long rebuke unpacking that. And if Clinton had done his research on her (and if I had done mine), then we likely would have come away with different interpretations of what she was actually saying.
The LA Riots were the classic cry of the unheard like most other riots in history have been. Her language was explanatory, not a command or call to arms. In the heat of that news cycle, it makes sense that the press would chop that quotation and turn it into a call to arms… but it wasn’t.
Bill Clinton would become President that year, and be reelected four years later. He failed to break 50% both times. That first cycle, he hit 40%. Had Ross Perot not split the conservative white vote, he would have lost by a landslide.
And yet the mythos of that moment survives so powerfully that those who grew up through it- even me, *EVEN THIS YEAR* as I stumble through the dark in the world of activism nearly blind to dynamics in spite of trying to do my best amidst the thick of them- have come to accept it as fact.
It’s this kind of thinking that lays the groundwork for the sort of decisions that have been made in Washington this week and what will follow later. Many of us who can be counted in the top left corner of your precinct plan box as bankable votes that will never fold in spite of sharp ideological differences. You can count on us when the chips are down because we know what’s at stake. Even if it pisses us off to no end, you can count on us. Black Women, poor people, trans and gay communities, immigrants all keep bailing everyone out. We know that. We see that. It's math.
But our resistance siblings and the general activist community don’t get the same love in return. We’re told to compromise values. We’re told it’s not politically sound to keep a promise to DREAMers. And we’re told that Sister Souljah is David Duke. And it’s potent enough that we grow up with it and worship powerful people who don’t really need our praise, but accept it anyway because we are so dependable in their precinct plans.
And even then, it is the activists who get called “divisive”.
To truly start healing, I encourage those in the power structure who have not yet done so to do what I’m doing here: acknowledge missteps, reflect, do better, open the door to difficult conversations, follow the wisdom of people who have been cut out of the process for decades, and build a real coalition. Because 2018 is coming, and 2020, and the hundred years after that, too, and it counts for a helluva lot. And we have to be better than this.
Make that your New Year’s Resolution.
Love and Resistance,
Daniel Cohen is the President of Indivisible Houston and all around activist in Houston Texas.