- Making Solidarity Uneasy:Cautions on a Keyword from Black Lives Matter to the Past
Solidarity is always an active achievement, the result of active struggle to construct the universal on the basis of particulars/differences.—Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity
The important insurgencies that have matured in response to the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin and to the many murders by police of mostly young Black women and men have brought outpourings of solidarity and important debates over what forms such solidarity should take. These developments, like the efforts of the American Studies Association to be in solidarity with Palestine, challenge the ASA to approach the question of solidarity in a direct and sustained manner. The Ferguson, Missouri, killing of Michael Brown quickly brought massive August 2014 demonstrations often explicitly expressing “Solidarity with Mike Brown.”1 Thousands of young people were introduced to the idea and actuality of solidarity in these protests.
However, the solidarity was anything but simple and easy. In Ferguson, Minneapolis, Providence, upstate New York, and elsewhere demonstrators collectively debated whether protesters who were not Black ought to raise their hands in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chants and to participate in die-ins, given that whites were far less likely to suffer fatal attacks from the police. Debates over whites wearing “I Am Trayvon Martin” T-shirts—signaled especially by the widely circulated Internet video “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” featuring the University of Kansas activist and American studies major Emma Halling—troubled a too easy discussion of unity by pointing out that some populations face threats of extralegal and unpunished violence in ways very different from what others face. Embryonic movement debates even developed over whether the word ally ought to give way to accomplice as a better description of the role best played in a Black-led movement by those who are not whites. The counterposition, that simply invoking of a past golden age of solidarity [End Page 223] could settle matters, was also put forward. Thus the often-perceptive political philosopher Steven D’Arcy wrote less than convincingly that the loss of a language of solidarity, and the rise of “positionality” as a term, had derailed the Left. He specifically held that “I am not Trayvon Martin” disabled whites from “identifying with African American resistance.” Solidarity, on the other hand, had treated “injuries to one” as “injuries to all” and succeeded in “resisting them in common.”2
My ASA presidential address, available online and significantly different in presentation from this article, unexpectedly underlined the difficulties of calling at once not only for more scholarly consideration of solidarity but also for more sober and uneasy reflection on the difficulties of thinking through its promises and difficulties. I began with just such a call but then played, for reasons clarified below, a video clip of Utah Phillips singing “Solidarity Forever.” Despite my promptings toward unease with solidarity, a fair share of audience members sang along. Doubly complicating matters was my realization that, positions reversed, I would surely have been among the singers. Nevertheless, it remains critical to make a case for embracing solidarity but simultaneously being uneasy about the assumptions it sometimes evokes. The unease ought to make us wonder if solidarity is always a good thing, to recall what and whom solidarity leaves out and how it is premised on those leavings out, to consider how solidarity works across differences in kinds and degrees of oppression, and to ask if the presence of solidarity is the logic of things or if for long periods it may be a treasured exception. The article also focuses on “solidarity” as a surprisingly neglected keyword in cultural studies and discusses how we ought to historicize and memorialize the word.
The last twenty years of my career, roughly split between service in the ASA and in the Working Class Studies Association (WCSA), inevitably shape my approach. In the ASA, talk of solidarity—at least using that word—has been almost absent in presidential addresses over those years, even when such great historians of working people as Vicki Ruiz and Michael Frisch delivered the talks. Digital searches return no more than a...