( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I posted this essay here on Docudharma about six months ago when the site was new and I was new to the site. I thought I’d re-post it now because, at this point in the Presidential election, we are at the point where we’re going to have to do some coalition work if we’re going to stop “Mr. 100-Year War” from winning.

Some time ago I found a speech given by Bernice Johnson Reagon titled Coalitions Politics: Turning the Century (scroll down past the intro) at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981. It is some of the most profound thinking I have ever read about our struggles to work together as progressives. I can’t tell you how many times the content of this speech has crept into my thinking in all kinds of discussions. I’d love it if everyone would just go read the whole thing and then come back and talk about it in the comments. But knowing that’s not likely, I’ll excerpt some quotes and try to summarize.  

Reagon begins by talking about why it is so important to work at coalitions:

We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is”yours only”-just for the people you want to be there…To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. Its over. Give it up.

The main message of the speech is that we need to distinguish between places that are “home” and those that are “coalition.” So first Reagon talks about “home,” places that are very important to develop, especially for those who have been marginalized:

Now every once in awhile there is a need for people to try to clean out corners and bar the doors and check everybody who comes in the door, and check what they carry in and say, “Humph, inside this place the only thing we are going to deal with is X or Y or Z.” And so only the X’s or Y’s or Z’s get to come in. That place can then become a nurturing place or a very destructive place. Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or Z is very difficult, to say the least…And that’s when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive…

But that space while it lasts should be a nurturing space where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society. In fact, in that little barred room where you check everybody at the door, you act out community.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would have survived the last 6 years, nor would I have been able to deal with some of my painful history if it were not for the various “homes” I have created to nurture and sustain myself.

But there are risks when you don’t keep some perspective on the idea of “home”:

Of course the problem with the experiment is that there ain’t nobody in there but folk like you… Now that’s nationalism. I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.

Eventually, if we are going to survive, we need to go out into the world and work in coalition. Here’s how Reagon lays down the stakes for that kind of work:

Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there.They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home! They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition.You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition. You don’t get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and its different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time.

After talking about all of the various “movements” that started in the 60’s she comes to the part that I just LOVE:

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.

So, I wonder if we have the stomach these days for coalition politics. I know I get discouraged at how most progressives seem to seek perfection in anyone they deal with and are so quick to gather in smaller and smaller groups of like-minded folks. I have no problems with creating “homes” where we can sort it all out and find a place to belong. Perhaps the problem is not being clear about when we are at home and when we need to get out in the streets and work in coalition.  


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  1. again today, there’s one other quote I’d like to add:

    It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can-it ain’t got nothing to do with that barred room. The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live-if you can stand it.

  2. I like the one about not getting “fed” in a coalition and having to give instead.    

  3. …and thank you for quoting something I’d never otherwise have come across.  Frickin’ brilliant.

    I will have to think about coalition vs home for awhile.  I’m not completely bought into the difference; or rather, it seems that home is what motivates people to even want to form the coalitions in the first place; that home is perhaps formed of coalitions itself, and realizing that the ambivalence and ambiguity (quite seperate if interwingled things) that go into the coalition are also part of any sane home and workable, in our heads or the world…

    Anyway, a lot to think about.  

  4. comes from moving from a world of a few million individuals to a world with nearly seven billion individuals……

    and along the way we stil are more or less evolutionarily the same…..

    we need safety ,familiarity, belonging…….

    it reminds me of an enormous game of musical chairs…..

    with 1 or 2 billion chairs and seven billion players……

    it gets chilling at the end….

    we must recognize our common self interest…..

    we must rebuild our understanding of the commons….

    and we must take back the commons…..

    at all levels……..

  5. tendencies,and a distrust of nationalism, coalitions are sometimes coercion and maniputation. The Rebuplicans are better at it as they attract people who are fearful and seem to need authority. I always even before Bush wondered why the left could not put together coalitions. The right wing coalitions are such strange bedfellows, religious nuts and rich people.

    I see this primary as an honest and real rift in the Democratic party. Obama got all kinds of shit when he talked about Reagan’s skill at coalitions. Granted they are needed but when they are formed by someone who is saying  “I don’t plan to go no where” and is telling me that they will protect me and what they will give me, and it’s something that’s just nasty tribalism of the modern sort I will walk away and fight like hell, to stop this coalition.

    So like a lot of people I am torn. I’m really not a party loyal nor even very patriotic in the national sense. I’ve seen too much evil done by coalitions. Coalition of the willing? I also differ because I see little difference between the so called centerist Democrats and the right wing. They both want the same coalition, the one we have now and I won’t join. No need to, sometimes you gotta fight in order to even begin a coalition.

    Just some rambling thoughts about why I can’t rally around everybody get along.  The fuzzy lines around coalitions right now make me mad. Here’s one coalition I truly find bizzare:

    And then he painted this scene: “She and John McCain are very close,” he said. “They always laugh that if they wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history and they’re afraid they’d put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other.”


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