Time is Running Out: Beyond Global North and South From a Birmingham Jail
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Columbia Pictures, 1967
by Jennifer Seaman Cook
In May 1968, Coretta Scott King politicized Mother’s Day by initiating her late husband’s Poor Person’s Campaign with an Economic Bill of Rights as activists prepared to complete his last project with a tent city encampment on the National Mall. The mediagenic lobbying and organizing campaign was an extension of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights work against racial segregation and racialized imperialism. It carried on his life’s work with a critique of an enabling economic system that was spiritually bankrupt, divisive and dehumanizing.
Just as King’s universal Christianity had called upon allies across race, class and religious conviction to come together visibly and urgently in the mass-mediated, non-violent struggle for Civil Rights in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, the Poor Person’s Campaign brought a diversity of poor people from all over the country to live, debate, lobby, and share music and stories together as they organized.
Women have long asked men to help advocate against the structural oppressions of patriarchal violence. This violence includes new anti-abortion laws springing up last month across the American South which threaten to throw women in prison in place of policies offering radical social and cultural solutions for pregnant women—women who may find themselves structurally intimidated into terminating their pregnancies. Although it did not address the way this current issue is highly impacted by race, poverty, and our social and cultural institutions, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” called upon diverse allies to change the status quo and make social justice for others possible. This was imperative because, whatever unjust walls in our minds, environments, media and institutions we might try to enforce, we are inescapably interconnected in our fate. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Tom Hayden similarly describes the formation of the internationally influential Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Port Huron Statement on a strategy of U.S. political realignment away from national complicity with the Jim Crow system. This realignment called on allies to awaken public opinion away from “the stranglehold of the Dixiecrats on the South”, and was especially evident as non-violent voter registration drives began to meet the same violent repression of direct action campaigns.
Hayden called the nationally inspiring civil rights turn inside the Democratic party and John F. Kennedy Administration away from Dixiecrat racism, “the most significant change in American politics in one hundred years,” since the interruption of Reconstruction.
Today, we find ourselves encountering a new Southern strategy that appeals, in addition to old racist division, to isolating the structural violence of women, as if the issues of unwanted pregnancy, poverty and rape are not part of a growing spiritual crisis of life devaluation in society—especially for marginalized groups and the planet—which is ultimately detaching and destroying us all. The strategy has been to divide us, but we are stronger whole.
This disposition I call “new Southern strategy”—stigmatizing women rather than structurally helping them—includes old racisms, ethnicism appealing to nationalism, and an environmentally destructive economic system to attempt to unify influential U.S. power for a new kind of Global North front over a Global South for the 21st Century. The residual geographical markers are imperialist power. As Saskia Sassen points out:
Today’s financial conquerors want specialized, and selective geographies: they need specific sites within national geographies. They do not want to deal with a whole country. They want instruments that allow them to cut across international borders and occupy only the sites of that territory that they need or desire for their projects—differing radically from the older imperial land grabs.
We see this in the devaluation of certain kinds of lives in the wrong types of bodies, in the wrong neighborhoods, or at the wrong borders. But there is no way to compartmentalize the devaluation of life in the way of imperialism; it abstracts, automates, with less life left between us, around us, and within us. A movement forward must reconnect with higher values.
When Jean Baudrillard wrote about the billboard displaying the American national debt in Times Square, New York, in 1997, he was describing the psychological spectacle of neoliberal financialization in this skyrocketing sum of “flying figures”. “The United States is already virtually unable to pay,” he wrote “but this will have no consequence whatsoever. There will be no judgement day for this virtual bankruptcy. It is simply enough to enter an exponential or virtual mode to become free of any responsibility, since there is no reference anymore, no referential world to serve as a measuring norm.” This cultural imaginary of “catastrophe” represented in the Debt Clock model of endless spending unifies us globally, Baudrillard argued, much in the same way that the excess of nuclear weapons did. This catastrophic nuclear imaginary, however, led to totalitarianism and a looming tipping point of mass destruction for us all. There is a judgement day for runaway consumption that forgets our interconnectedness as well. The measuring norm is the continuation of life beyond our own lives, and we need it on Earth through action now. If the flying figures of debt must stay, as Baudrillard suggests, “hovering in the air” perhaps they can be absolved. We must go higher with our social movements and bring them back to life on Earth.
It is this same Southern strategy for new Global North colonialisms that would have us fighting the same compartmentalized battles such as abortion laws over and over again for eternity rather than comprehensive, non-violent movements addressing poverty, structural violence against marginalized groups, climate change, environmental destruction, food sustainability and industrial cruelty, and ultimately a consumption perspective that has spiritually bankrupt our approach to social relations and biological life itself. Yates McKee similarly describes Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist realism” as, a “social condition wherein the dictates of the market become ‘a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.’” I would argue that we are similarly addressing a spiritual crisis of how capitalism has affected our capacity to value life.
In the landmark Civil Rights film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sidney Poitier’s character asserts “I am a Man” to his own father. Dissolving the abstract aestheticism of liberalism represented in the gallery-owning white family of his fiancée, this is a direct point of declaring an end to the values of racial colonialism and self-imposed inferiority laid out to be absorbed all around him. Still, he knows he is something other than this; he is a man. To break the 21st Century paradigm of the colonialism of our ability to value life itself stretched to its breaking point, what it means to be human will require a movement that includes such an assertion. This will be an assertion that differs radically from that colonialism all around us, an assertion that embraces the intersectional human and new interspecies allyship now needed to awaken values and supportive structures for sustaining life that we may not have dreamed possible before the cultural, social, and technological configurations of the 21st Century. This kind of movement can transform society for the radical social and cultural solutions we need to support girls and pregnant women. And it will require us all to find ways to take local and connected action at home.
Time for this kind of comprehensive movement to come together and have the dialogue it needs is running out. If capitalist realism is a mediation made real on Earth through our bodies, hearts and minds, it is time to channel something else. I’m going back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor Person’s Campaign, and his universal civil rights work for the 21st Century.
About the Author:
Jennifer Seaman Cook is a transnational American Studies scholar, media theorist, essayist, and creative writer working at the intersections of politics and poetics. She specializes in arts and public culture, cultural and social movements, and pre-digital to digital media studies. Her essays can be found in 3:AM Magazine, Furtherfield, LA Review of Books, PopMatters, Salon, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry has been published in Cedilla Literary Journal (in Ç viii (2014) alongside Amiri Baraka, archived at University of Montana), Lunch Ticket, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and more, and was awarded a Commendation in the Headstuff/Poetry Ireland contest for Poetry Day Ireland 2018. In England, Jennifer is published in Kevin Ring’s longstanding cult print publication Beat Scene. Her arts writing in anthology has premiered at the Frankfurt Book Fair and MoMa PS1.
Jennifer teaches long 20th Century cultural history and media activism, and also processes the archives of publicly-funded emergent media and intermedia arts networks with the State University of New York. Jennifer is additionally Curator of the Buffalo Intermedia Festival (BiM) and an archival documentary media maker. Her augmented reality and experimental documentaries have screened with the World Infringement Congress, in the GPS airspaces of Montreal and Toronto, and within regional museums and art centers.