But now, rather late in this talk, as I speak about workers, about working people, I realize that perhaps some of you here (perhaps most of you!) don't identify as such, don't see yourself as part of the great working-class of the world. The huge Daimler-Chrysler plant just down the road, looming in the scrawny countryside like an alien city, sprawled out with loading docks, storage tanks, parking lots, seems like another world to you. As does the perhaps the little store nearby, la tienda La Mochoacanda, sitting in Vance at the crossroads of the railroad and U.S. 11, just off the highway, a place where the growing number of mexicano workers can send envios of money home.
I grew up not wanting to be part of the working class, without actually being able to name class as a concept. My plan was to escape Centreville by moving up and away through the university, through being a mind. My plan was to take the route of the individual escape—the safety of self-fulfilled individualism—that capitalism offers.
I tried to escape the class struggle—and I could not. Because from the beginning of my graduate school education until today—that is, for the last 35 years— the majority of my teaching jobs have been one year teaching appointments, adjuncting for low pay, no health benefits, and, for a while, a job that was academic piece work on the assembly line, where I was paid per student. In fact, in my entire working life as a teacher until three years ago, I had never held an academic contract for longer than one year at a time. And a month ago I joined millions of other workers in the U.S. when I was laid-off from my teaching job, along with half of the rest of the faculty, as my school reeled under federal government cutbacks on student loan money, the siphoning of money for education into the ongoing "endless war" being waged by the U.S.
But, for most of my work life, I clung to the idea of myself as a thinker, a professional, not a worker. Even though to get my very first teaching job, as a teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina in 1971, I had to sign a statement saying that I was not a communist! I thought I had escaped the class struggle only to have to sign a statement that I was not part of the class struggle —a tip off that the class struggle was still raging! The powers-that-be clearly saw the connection between my life as a teacher, a thinker, and a worker— between economic and intellectual issues—the connection that I had not made at that time.
I don't want to oversimplify my process of coming to understand myself as a worker. I got here in part because of what I learned from the oppression that I first felt most keenly in my own life—the loss of my children when I came out as a lesbian. That punishment for my choosing to act as a sexually autonomous woman showed me how many other boundaries had been placed around me—boundaries that were there to serve racist ideology, sexist ideology—boundaries that stood between me and other women. Denied a home with my children as a lesbian, I remembered the fragility and tenacity of the homes I had seen out in the county on those trips with my mama. I began to think about the women who held together those homes, and the women in the garment factory where I'd worked summers to earn my college tuition money. I wondered where the African American women workers had gone on their lunch hours, about them and their children, about how they lived. I tried to remember just what it was the white women workers talked about in the picnic shelter during lunch time. I began a serious process of remedial education, about the history of myself in relation to other forms of oppression.
And I began to see that oppressions were interlocking—and that they functioned together to uphold the same economic system of inequality. I became part of Women's Liberation and an anti-racist activist. I began to see how insufficient it was to only work toward a change in attitude or thinking or even simply for legal reform to stop oppression. I saw how, with the best intentions, people would attempt to implement change, perhaps win a victory, and then watch it slide away in a year or two because institutional structures around them had not changed; because reform laws would get repealed by a shift in the larger forces of power; because they themselves would forget what they knew, under pressure from the system. I slowly began to see the outlines of the economic structure holding oppression in place in our daily reality—the system of capitalism—a system that guarantees its profits through divisions among those of us whose work generates those profits.
We can see the necessity of recognizing interlocking oppressions in the current struggle for same-sex marriage in the U.S. I completely support the right of us LGBT people to have access to this basic democratic right, and to the thousands of very real material benefits attached to it, like access to our partner's social security if they should die before us, and access to their health insurance if needed. But at my former job I had health insurance benefits for my same-sex partner—and now that I am laid off, neither of us are insured! The important right to same-sex marriage needs to be connected to a call for health care for all, regardless of marital or family status. No one should have to get health insurance by pairing up by twos like animals going into the ark! Everyone should have access to free comprehensive health care. And—supporting the right of LGBT people to choose same-sex marriage, if we choose to, is a way to show solidarity with millions of other working-people in the country—because most of us, like you, are people who are working for a living, trying to survive.
At this moment in history, we are living in the most extreme period of capitalist exploitation for profit ever. Now, for those of us who have considered ourselves "professionals" can see more clearly the connections between work life "outside" our profession, and work "inside" it, under capitalism. We can see the oppressions present in both spheres being intensified by the drive for profits. We can see the ways in which, for instance, universities are truly functioning as corporations.
Universities are hiring fewer and fewer tenured professors, and, like corporations everywhere, are cutting their benefits obligations by hiring temporary part-time instructors and using teaching assistants—in many schools, for the majority of teaching work. School systems at every level, like corporations everywhere, are outsourcing different services and jobs to private companies—food services, janitorial services, book stores. Corporations like Sodexho-Marriott that provide those food services to schools are also making money off running for-profit private prisons, at the very moment that more and more public money is being taken from public schools and put into prison building and operations (Sloan). Meanwhile, as public schools become substandard from the budget cuts, they are then are privatized for corporate profit and their ruin condition is used as a reason.
The New York Times financial page has described the drive of corporations to secure intellectual property as the new gold rush (Limerick). Universities are pressing harder and harder to secure intellectual property rights—the kind of concession that resulted in the patent on certain AIDs medications being held by Ivy League schools. These make millions from the same pharmaceutical companies that are essentially committing genocide in Africa by refusing to sell drugs at an affordable cost, while the discoverer/ inventor of the drug has no power to release it for free use, even though he wants to (McNeil).
Now, we who have thought of ourselves as scholars, educators, writers, artists— anything but workers—are named "intellectual content/ providers." We are people whose work creates a product that can be sold. In a way like never before, those of us who work in the educational system are like all the other workers of the world— including having the product of our labor, in this case our intellectual work, sold for a profit that benefits the corporation of the university, while being told we must accept contracts authorizing their ownership of our work as a condition of holding our job.
Now is the time for those of us inside the university, those who long for justice, for social change, to make common cause with those outside the university—because now there is no inside and outside. We are all being ground down within this system of profit-making.
Soon now, the white lily-stars will open on the Cahaba River, in the shoals near where my family settled almost two hundred years ago in Alabama. When I learned my verses almost 50 years ago, to lay up treasure in heaven in order to guard from thieves, I also read in that chapter in Matthew another instruction: Take no thought for the morrow, look at the lilies of the field, how they toil not neither do they spin, and yet they are clothed in glory—
But, of course, we do toil, we do spin—and we work as cooks, as child care providers, as teachers, as call-center phone operators, as auto-workers—we are the ones making the clothes that we and others wear! It is the work of our hands, and brains, and life, that feeds us and houses us and educates us and makes art for us.
We must take thought for our morrow. We know all too well, in statistics and in harrowing stories, the tragedies visited on us as humans, by the economic system in which all the peoples of the world now live—the globalized system of capital. With solidarity and strength in numbers, with consciousness and work, with the most comprehensive understanding of what "justice" and "social change" mean, we can bring a different world into being.
The question is: Who is your us? When I say toil, who do you think of? When I say steal, who do you think of? Who is your we?
And as you reflect on that question, I want to close with a poem of mine, dedicated to the memory of my friend John Finlay (1941-1991):
John Finlay died the week after our call, his mother said,
as if he'd just been waiting for one last jangled hail
from the land of the living, and then he began to fail,
eyesight darkening to his childhood behind the lids,
specks of fireflies or the star-flecked river we fell
laughing into that night our boat began to sink. He lay
in his room in his mother's house, other end of the road,
where it comes from, white sand, red dirt, before
it gets to asphalt street lights. If he were alive now,
with plenty of medicine, would he say the epidemic's
over? I don't know. When I look, I see the place he lay
filling with time like water, a piece of pasture caved in
by an underground spring. I remember when he held
my new-born, petting the mewling baby like a cat
while a delphic Sibyl watched from the wall, trapped
in her cheap pastel poster. Maybe he'd say his life
was like a brand-new house fallen in on its foundation.
In thirty years the kudzu covers it, and no one remembers.
He might say that, he was a poet, but time has scoured
away his words until this is what is left: If I went out
today and my neighborhood was Cape Town, or Harare,
or Accra, then there might be no onions or bananas or bread
at Selim's, because so many farm workers are dead, and
the women on the corner, waiting, would have been sent
home by their white employers, as not clean enough to clean,
and one-fourth of the teachers in the school across the street
would not live to the next generation of children, no opening
the book on tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, no
school for Sarah Okiri, ten years old, in her flipflops and blue
sweatshirt and skirt, first-born who stands with one sister
and holds the smallest, has been holding her for three years
since her father died and then her mother. She works at some-
body's house to get food to eat, she braids her hair, their hair,
but other children do not want to play with them, two other
relatives of hers died this year. She says, It's not too late.
She doesn't mean cost-benefit analysis, Anglo-American
conglomerate chief executive watching men's bodies piled
on one side of the scales, the price of gold rising on the other.
It's not too late, say Sarah and the others, who want more
than to hear one last voice, more than words from another shore
before the falling roar when their bodies carry them away.
* Transcript prepared by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Text may not exactly correspond to the video recording of Pratt's lecture available on Southern Spaces.