UNC student Maya Little explains why her protest against ‘Silent Sam’ was a rallying cry for black, queer women’s liberation
For her guest edit in the Infinite Identities issue of Dazed, Chelsea Manning selected seven vital activist voices from around the US to answer a single question: What, for you, is the most under-discussed issue affecting the trans and non-binary communities in America today? Here, PhD student Maya Little explains why her protest against the Confederate statue Silent Sam last year was a rallying cry for black queer women’s liberation everywhere.
Last year, I joined with students to lead the fight against white supremacy through protest at the Confederate monument called Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina. The successes of our movement came with new support from the community, from student athletes to graduate students and anti-fascist activists. But this wasn’t the first anti-racist protest at UNC, and we are not suddenly living under fascism.
White supremacy, hetero-patriarchal oppression and the inhumanity of capitalism have murdered millions. And millions have already given their lives to building resistance. More find themselves affected by fascist governments as well as climate change and global crises, therefore we must listen to those who have already been struggling, who have been calling for years for a radical transformation of our unequal societies. For me this means believing, listening, funding and taking action to support the vision that so many black women and black queers have already struggled for.
Journalists have called the situation in Charlottesville and the rallying of Nazis around Confederate monuments the turning point in American white supremacy. But our resistance is not simply a reaction to white supremacists marching through our streets. In fact, white supremacists marching on Charlottesville was a reaction to the work of young black women like Zyahna Bryant, who, at just 15 years of age, challenged the white supremacist power structure in the city government by demanding that Charlotteville’s public spaces honour black resistance rather than slave owners. In Chapel Hill, the fight against Silent Sam and racist monuments was a 20-year struggle led chiefly by black students who demanded that UNC honour black women like Pauli Murray and Zora Neale Hurston instead of building monuments paid for by Ku Klux Klan leaders. While many have paid close attention to fascists in our streets, black activism has shown how universities, city governments and police also collaborate to violently erase black resistance.
Part of the reason that we are in such a panic – and only starting to realise the horrors perpetuated by our president, military and the economic system held up by the powerful – is because of the erasure of black women and queers. The character of our resistance has been painted over, moderated to fit into a flawed national identity, or decried for its emphasis on the intersection of our oppression. How long did it take to figure out Stonewall was a riot and black trans women led the fight against homophobic and racist police? When they’re not fully erased, the strategies that black queers use to survive are characterised as ‘radical’, ‘incivil’ or ‘indecent’. The daily depredations on our very lives for being black, for being queer, for being trans, poor or non-white are accepted – but demanding our dignity is a ‘distraction’. How can it be a distraction when for so long the battle against American fascism has been fought by us?
At the University of North Carolina we honour slave-owners, Confederate traitors and Klan members – but not trailblazers like Pauli Murray.
I am inspired by Murray, the black queer woman from nearby Durham who challenged anti-black prejudice and misogyny in the middle of the 20th century. Murray was rejected for being black from UNC’s law school, and her fierceness in advocating for herself and other black women resulted in tension with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hesitance from groups run by black moderates – with their suppression of black womanhood, blackness across gender and sexual identities – resulted in the formation of new groups like Southerners On New Ground (Song) which situate themselves at the intersections of oppression, training organisers to work against these multiple oppressions and empowering the people who face them.
I am inspired by Takiyah Thompson, who said, “Charlottesville is Durham, North Carolina, Charlottesville is America.” When she led the toppling of the Confederate monument in Durham (above), Takiyah thought about her ancestors and black women like Bree Newsome, who took down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s State House. When I painted Silent Sam red, I thought about her. I thought about the other black women I’d seen all my life stand and take charge, risking their lives to move us forward.
“Anywhere we turn in America, we see resistance led by those at the very margins – like the black trans women who picked up bricks at Stonewall”
I am inspired by Sandra Neely Smith, a black labour activist who was shot between the eyes by the Klan in 1979. I move forward because the Greensboro police officers who pepper-sprayed me and other black students in August last year continue the legacy of the Greensboro police who stood by as she was shot. I move forward because black women from Bennett College, a historically black college in North Carolina, gave critical support to and participated in the 1960s Greensboro sit-ins, despite Greensboro police beating them in the streets. I move forward because institutions like Bennett, which have nurtured and led activism in North Carolina, are underfunded and face closure.
Anywhere we turn in America, we see resistance led by those at the very margins – like the black trans women who picked up bricks at Stonewall. And what we see is direct action from a place of transformation, striking at the roots of an unequal society instead of pushing reformism. Neoliberalism and other tepid, capitalist-based solutions have tried to co-opt this history and our activism, making a few of us CEOs while the majority of black women suffer under their policies. But we don’t want more rights for the few, we want the total liberation of all. Black queer women’s liberation is revolutionary, it is transformational, it strikes at alienation, at racism, at the roots of a heteronormative, patriarchal society. Because we are not just targets for white oppression, but also male aggression, sexual violence, police violence, undignified and underpaid work.
Here I end with the chant we end protests with at UNC, which I have shouted alongside other black women and queers. We hold hands, we face each other, committing ourselves, shouting the words of another black woman, (activist and former Black Liberation Army member) Assata Shakur: “We have nothing to lose but our chains! We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
Because these intersections of oppression form daily life, and just living becomes a struggle against them, I have nothing to lose – but I have everything to gain from solidarity and struggle. But in order for us to keep going we need everyone, the privileged, to feel that too. What we need to hear from you all is a real commitment, like the beginning of Shakur’s chant: it is our duty to fight for our freedom. The same forces that are used on us, that we’ve been fighting for so long, can one day be used on you – and waking up to fascism is realising that.