ubuntu as praxis

Ubuntu: An African traditional ideology of justice and fairness based on the philosophies of humanness, communitarianism, solidarity and interdependence

Sylvia Tamale, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism

There is a principle called Ubuntu that is deeply rooted in African philosophy (in the sense that various forms and expression are pervasive across the continent). Put simply Ubuntu means, “a person is a person among people”. To be human is to care, to extend the grace of humanity to other people — to all people — to see one’s own existence as linked to the existence of all people. In this way of viewing the world, there are no “others”, we are all in community committed to insuring dignity and the realization of potential to all.

My partner grew up in Tanzania and Botswana where ubuntu is lived as breath. Ubuntu practiced as the neighbors and friends who showed up with fresh fruits, vegetables from the village farm so that no one went hungry despite the empty store shelves, ubuntu as the sisters in the stalls near the train station each selling the same vegetables but collectively making sure that each got enough customers to get by, ubuntu as the myriad ways of recognizing and extending human dignity.

At breakfast she talks through ways of supporting some dear ones who are trying to survive Covid-19 and patriarchy with souls intact. “Patriarchy is destroying us”, my partner remarks. The refusal to accept any any covenant with keeping each other alive is a pervasive operating principle. My partner writes in her book Unbelonging

The spaces where we belong do not exist. We build them with radical love and revolutionary liberation.

Gayatri Sethi, Unbelonging

As she finishes her coffee, she invokes Audre Lorde — “she didn’t talk about self care because she wanted a spa day” my partner remarks, “she called for self-care because she’d been abandoned by the people who were supposed to support her, abandoned to deal with cancer by herself, she called for self-care out of self-preservation”.

For Black women, learning to consciously extend ourselves to each other and to call upon each other’s strength is a life-saving strategy. In the best of circumstances surrounding our lives, it requires an enormous amount of mutual, consistent support for us to be emotionally able to look straight into the face of the powers aligned against us and still do our work with joy.

It takes determination and practice.

Black women who survive have a head start in learning how to be open and self-protective at the same time. One secret is to ask as many people as possible for help, depending on all of them and on none of them at the same time. Some will help, others cannot. For the time being.

Audre Lorde, from A Burst of Light

I recently read Kekla Magoon’s history of the Black Panther Party Revolution in Our Time. The greatest revolutionary societal impact that the Panthers achieved was around care: free meal programs, free health clinics, liberation schools, community gardens. The featured image for this post is from the Black Panther Party Newspaper, May 26, 1973 and outlines some of the initiatives of their survival program. The photo is of one of their elder care initiatives in action.

Black Panther Party Newspaper, May 197 outlining their Program for Survival which includes free breakfast and free food. The photo is of food being distributed to community members. From marxists.org

You cannot sustain a revolution when the people can’t eat, don’t have the basic tools to define and plan an alternative society, are always dying too, too soon, lack clear language to describe the experiences they know in their heart are just plain wrong.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore among others describes the process of america’s abandonment of the centering of care as devolution. Dr. Martin Luther King put it aptly in his speech against war on Vietnam

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence

Prisons are the profound expression of this process. Gilmore in her work has linked devolution with the construction of the prison industrial complex

Worldwide today, wherever inequality is deepest, the use of prison as a catchall solution to social problems prevails — nowhere as extensively as in the United States, led by California.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence

In the united states of america, the recent messaging around Covid-19 has been in essence: “Significant numbers of you (millions) are going to have to deal with a lifetime of debilitating long-Covid, get over it. And no we’re not stepping up with universal healthcare”.

The first people who interviewed me in white coats from behind a computer were only interested in my health-care benefits and proposed method of payment. Those crucial facts determined what kind of plastic ID card I would be given, and without a plastic ID card, no one at all was allowed upstairs to see any doctor, as I was told by the uniformed, pistoled guards at all the stairwells.

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light

There is a persistent narrative that paints care as authoritarianism. The current response of China — targeted lock-downs paired with resource distribution — is described in terms of “armies” falling in line with state repression. It feeds into many of the anti-Communist and Sino-phobic narratives that are moving america toward yet another conflict in East Asia. america is built upon the destruction, erasure, and commodification of anything resembling ubuntu.

A recent interview by the Chuang collective on their recently published book Social Contagion captures the essence of how China’s response to COVID-19 succeeded, despite the government’s ineptness. The article begins:

So, in many ways, we have to understand the outbreak as a huge initial failure—signaled by the fact that it became a pandemic that is still with us today—and which was only reigned in domestically by the coordinated effort of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, often voluntarily working alongside local authorities. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the epidemic would never have been contained if it wasn’t for the effort of these volunteers.

Chuang Collective

They continue,

At the same time, the central government, through the Chinese CDC, understood the importance of opening up the flow of information, inviting international medical investigators, sharing research about the new virus immediately, and quickly creating easily delegated standards of prevention that erred on the side of safety. Similarly, they stepped in to ensure that the food and power systems were being maintained.

Chuang Collective

That is, China (that is to say, the collective response of people living in that country) was able to effectively end the spread of Covid-19, saving millions of lives, despite government failings because ordinary people had the audacity to care for each other. To provide material support for each other. The same processes of community care are visible in many places, including Taiwan. Taiwan is not identified as a “socialist” country.

In the backlash to abolition, Black mayors in Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York have increased policing. The mayor of New York is calling for the return of measures that are tantamount to torture. Incarcerated populations are at extreme risk of Covid-19 exposure and resulting death, demonstrated brutally in the Rikers Island prison. The modes of care that have for centuries been known to reduce violence — access to housing (eviction moratoriums), access to living wages (basic income initiatives and the child care credit), universal healthcare (e.g. the focus of the Black Panther’s survival program) — are being curtailed.

This state policy of abandonment leaves a tremendous opening of hope and possibility. I feel that that the fundamental property of humanness is to fill those spaces where humanity has been abandoned with love.

The Black Panther Party was at its best when it built the networks of care — free meal programs, free health clinics, liberation schools — that created hope and sustained life amidst the intentional neglect of the state. King pointed out over fifty years ago the urgent need to focus on human life over profit.

There is such a radical re-imagining of revolution in the way that people are beginning to explore new notions of mutual aid. Last week, youth in Chicago and New York staged coordinated school walkouts to protest the complete disregard for their lives and to demand that schools take the necessary steps to insure healthy learning spaces. Those who would change the system have to begin with love, and with the vision to build geographies of care built from that love

Where life is precious, life is precious

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Ubuntu as praxis.

Black Panther Party Free Medical Clinic. Notice the absence of “pistoled police” preventing access.

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