Building from the bottom
How cultural workers spread through the South
In the South, networks of communication run like honeysuckle roots through the region’s radical underground. Activists along these subterranean lines spread news of mutual aid, of protest, of struggle. And as beloved and nourishing as anything else, the crafts of our cultural workers are sent through, too. Nutrients to a stressed, besieged body.
Like honeysuckle roots, organizing in the South is a rhizomatic system. Between long, dormant stretches, here and there are nodes of activity. At times, renewed by these nutrients, new growth struggles indomitably up, as if through the red clay itself, and bursts into view.
But, indeed, it is a struggle.
In the South, workers have the worst conditions in a country already committed to stacking its deck against the working poor, against the oppressed, against people with disabilities. Last year, the U.S. affiliate of Oxfam released a report titled, “Best and Worst States to Work in America 2021.” Its measures included wage policies, worker protections, and rights to organize.
The Southern states are huddled at the bottom. South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi are ranked 48th, 49th, and 50th.
And it gets worse. Oxfam’s ranking includes Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., too, so the bottom-dwellers keep coming. Georgia is ranked 51st, and dead last at 52nd: North Carolina.
It’s no coincidence that down here, poverty reigns. Beleaguered masses are unemployed or underemployed, uninsured or underinsured. Given these generational, vice-like poverty conditions and some of the most noticeable absences of social protections, it’s not surprising that Black poverty is disproportionately high. Given those same conditions, and some of the most complete integration of ICE and local law enforcement in the country, it’s not surprising that Latinx poverty is disproportionately high, too.
In this environment, this scorched earth, it is our lives, our work, our livelihoods that are ripped up to ensure pristineness for the fortunate few. In this environment–in which the powerful toil not only to maintain our immiseration, but to silence any remembrance of our radical past–it’s our revolutionary politics of abolition, of liberation, of unshakeable solidarity, that are considered invasive.
We are the honeysuckle vines ever emerging along the edges of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia–the home of The Masters. Contemporarily, we are cut down. Historically, we’ve been sprayed back.
But they must not fathom that our roots will always endure. And will ever rise up: There, and there.
Increasingly charged with the radical passion of our cultural workers. Increasingly unmastered.
At the beginning of February, an email shot through one line in our networks. News that raced from one Southern campus workers’ union to the next. Nutrients carried from node to node.
The email was sent out by an organizer for the UE150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. Its message was simple:
Ready for this??
Check out this video from a campus worker union member in United Campus Workers of Georgia (CWA).
What followed the brief text was a YouTube link to a video for artist Linqua Franqa’s song, “Wurk.”
Very few viewers are ready.
It’s a tremendously produced video for a song that injects extraordinary inspiration into those in struggle. It lays bare the conditions that so many workers face, in the South and beyond, as well as the resulting feelings that such conditions produce. Even its first lines shout out the simmering unionization movement among us,
Communication Workers of America!
United Campus Workers of Georgia 3265, bish!
and it then builds with unshakeable energy and a precision of analysis.
But no praise does it justice:
Continuing to speed along these networks, the news of “Wurk” exploded in a node of radical activity in Greensboro, North Carolina, known as the Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists (GRS). As soon as one of its comrades, Demetrius Noble (he/him), watched it, he began to prepare new ground.
Noble is a radical culture worker of his own renown. He’s a poet invited to perform–live in person, in video, or off the page–for audiences across the country and beyond.
Recently, during the long hot summer of 2020, when Chenjerai Kumanyika interviewed Ruth Wilson Gilmore on The Intercept’s podcast, Noble joined to speak his poem, “Poverty, Policing, Pandemic: A #BlackLivesMatter Grounding Exercise.”
Some years earlier, when former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for his murder of Michael Brown, Noble witnessed the demoralization of activists, organizers and regular folks across Greensboro. So, he performed the following poem at a rally, injecting the audience with similar exhilarating inspiration as found in Linqua Franqa’s “Wurk.”
Noble is also a professor, bringing his role as a radical cultural worker to the UNC-Greensboro campus each semester. In the past, he has crafted and taught politically urgent courses such as “Rhymes & Resistance (African American Poetry),” “Intro to a Class Analysis of Racism,” and even “Jay-Z as Ideology.”
This semester, he’s teaching “Politics of Black Poetry & Rap,” in which his students wrestle with the texts of artists like Amiri Baraka and Mos Def, and the analyses of radical scholars like Audre Lorde and Robin D. G. Kelley.
Immediately awed by “Wurk,” Noble started digging and found that Linqua Franqa is Mariah Parker (they/them). He reached out with praise and solidarity, along with his class description and an invitation to come speak. Parker agreed to join.
And all of a sudden, a new subterranean line began surging with energy, with power, between Georgia and North Carolina.
Between 51st and 52nd.
Ahead of the class meeting on February 28, Noble invited members of the Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists to join, several of whom turned out in person, and as many on Zoom. What followed was a meeting to remember, and likely a core memory in the political development of any burgeoning young student-activists moving into radical organizing, not to mention the more seasoned folks, too.
Mariah Parker began their introduction by unfolding their own political radicalization, which in many ways went down via hip-hop. In 2016, they first started writing bars in their notebooks in college as a way to cope with an unbearable season in their life. As Parker began to move into the music scene in Athens, Georgia, they knew that despite the impressive artists to come out of the city, it largely had not been a welcoming space for Black folks.
At that time, Parker wasn’t familiar with organizing. But the world around them, in and out of the music scene, began to change their political consciousness and life’s direction.
They recalled the questions that they were forced to grapple with:
WHY do the buses not run to certain neighborhoods late enough for people to make it out to a show?
WHY can’t a loved one afford to go see a therapist?
WHY is a loved one wrestling with whether to continue working in poverty at Wendy’s for $7.25 an hour, or go back to selling weed? When they did go back to dealing, WHY did they get locked up? And when they got out, WHY was life afterwards so fucking hard?
These questions brought forth an important transition in Parker’s political life and in their life as an artist, and ultimately plunged them into more radical organizing. This shifted their lyrical output, too. As Parker told Noble’s class: In hip-hop, lyricists often hammer out the what: the conditions around them that they struggle to transcend. But as a political organizer, you must talk about the why.
Parker made it a point in their lyrical production to not only wrestle with what they and many in their community lived through, but to imbue this lived experience with political analysis.
In addition to continuing to make music, Parker went from working on political campaigns to running their own. They were elected as the District 2 Commissioner in Athens-Clarke County, a position which they still hold after reelection in 2020.
(They were sworn into office – at age 26 – with their hand on a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as their mother held it.)
As County Commissioner, Parker fights to bring about criminal justice reform, to ensure economic stability amid racial injustice and poverty wages, as well as personally engaging in struggles on the ground.
Like Noble, they are also a university worker–a graduate teaching assistant and PhD candidate in the department of language and literacy education at UGA. (United Campus Workers of Georgia 3265, bish!)
Back in the UNC-Greensboro classroom, as the Q&A portion began, Noble’s students, in their late teens and very early twenties, held nothing back.
They asked Parker about their artistic goals in this political climate. About the struggle against conforming to standards of the music industry and capitalism. About the one thing in our society Parker would eliminate, if they could. (“Prison.”)
Another student asked Parker about the challenges of being young and a minority, and Parker responded that though many accuse them of being too young to hold political office, the median age in Athens, a college town, is just 27. Parker then added, “Also, people are surprised to meet me and see that I’m nice, since they’ve seen me screaming into megaphones on top of cars.”
Yet, Parker also told Noble’s class that they recognize the limitations of electoral politics. In many ways, Parker is preempted by Georgia state laws from achieving many of their deepest goals: Raising the minimum wage, realizing reparations, stopping evictions.
But there are other roads.
“A mass movement of people organized to a certain end is more powerful than having someone in a seat of power,” Parker told those in attendance.
What’s essential, too, Parker added, is ensuring marginalized voices have a central role in the processes of political change. “… Felons, hoes, drug addicts … they know what it is. Their perspective in what we do is so necessary.”
But even while recognizing the shortcomings of their position, Parker understands its benefits. In addition to using political office to push for radical reform and shift the consciousness of the masses, Parker wants to change mindsets by helping people reach the conclusion: “Oh snap, somebody like that can be in a seat like this? I saw her at a show on Friday, maybe I’ll come to City Hall next week.”
As the meeting moved forward, Noble asked Parker about what had led to their stunning lyrical prowess. Parker answered that they have a master’s degree in linguistics. They used that pursuit to study the Lego-kit of the English language: What you can stack, what colors go together, how to utilize slant rhyme, cadence, meter, and more.
Noble mentioned that one of the first things the class read was Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” and how the essay demands that poetry be a vehicle through which Black women militate against that which seeks to dehumanize them.
Parker agreed, expanding on how imperative and crucial it is to be in tune with their feelings and urges: “So much about capitalism and the way society is organized is about humiliating and numbing us … We have to say aloud: That hurt me. I’m upset. Saying what upset you should become a catalyst for figuring out: What caused me to feel that way, and how do I get rid of that?”
Not only the what and why, this time, but the how.
Then, one of Noble’s students returned to the mic with more questions, wanting to mine more of Parker’s work (and “Wurk”), to militate against the world he meets and already faces off against. Parker cheered his encore to the mic louder than anyone present.
Finally, Parker was asked about hope. Their thoughts turned to their six-month-old upstairs. It’s no longer Parker alone who they have to think about.
“I don’t think giving up hope is an option.”
Parker cited Mariame Kaba’s idea that hope is a discipline. They practice radical gratitude. They practice hope fitness, and they become stronger: “You go from wheezing at your mailbox to hittin’ Kilimanjaro, all the way to the top.”
“We have to survive this work somehow,” they said. “I do take my cheat days where I say, I don’t know if we got this, but then I get back on my routine.”
Before signing off, Parker had one last thing to say:
“You have the coolest class on the planet! The planet!! I’ll be back!”
And it didn’t sound like an empty promise. Already, they’ve invited Noble to be on their podcast as soon as they can both work it out. Building. Growing. Setting down roots and connecting their networks so that each time, the uprising might gain new ground.
The meeting came to an end. Perhaps the high of connectivity, of solidarity, of engaging with a comrade you never knew you had, was bound to come down. But only slightly.
In Bessemer, Alabama, workers at Amazon are struggling, once again, to unionize in the South’s crippling conditions and against the behemoth corporation’s state-sponsored stacked deck. While the most recent vote was closer than before, it appears the union effort was narrowly defeated. (The recent victory in Staten Island, however, could help in future efforts.)
And just two days before meeting with Noble’s class, Parker was there with those workers, in Alabama, bearing their gifts, and documenting it. Building. Of course they were.
The day after the class meeting, members of the UE 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, which had sent out the “Wurk” video a month earlier, were rallying for fair pay and better protections outside of Government Plaza in downtown Greensboro. Struggling in the state with the worst conditions for workers in the country.
And the Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists were among those there, bringing their solidarity, and documenting it. Building. Of course they were.
Because if you spend enough time in the South, you’ll realize that in some unlikely places, like down in the bottoms by the creek beds, or on the edges of a bayou, or out in the hollers, something remarkable happens. The honeysuckle runs red.
And if this gives you a curious yearning … Guess fucking what!
We’ve got your back,
And we’re happy to have ya,
Out on the picket line,
Which side are you on?!?
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Joel Sronce View All
Joel Sronce is a writer and activist from North Carolina, currently living in Philly.