The System We Could Have Been Driving: Rage vs. Revolution Redux

As part of its recent series of content celebrating Black creators in SFF, Tor.com recently re-uploaded an essay I wrote for them in 2018 after Black Panther came out, about radical policy and the negative and positive aspects of letting your praxis be driven by personal rage, through the lens of Nakia and Killmonger.

I like this essay a lot. I think you should read it, just like I think everyone should watch—or rather, should have already watched—Black Panther itself. But in the current climate in which the essay’s been republished, I can’t help but find myself thinking deeply and complexly about one of the primary assumptions of that essay—

No, not whether Nakia was right. Nakia was right. Let’s be clear on this. Nakia was right the whole time, and it would be a different movie if T’Challa noticed sooner.

I am writing to you now from the second week of a national stay-at-home guideline. All schools are out for the term. Banks are cutting down their hours and negotiating the terms of debt restructuring for those financially affected by the shutdown. Restaurants are offering curbside and delivery service—even the fast food places that typically never had such a feature beforehand. For the first time, my preferred grocery has a curbside service where you can send them your grocery list, pay by card, and just pick up bags of your stuff at the door.

And these are perhaps the very least of what has changed here, let alone for many other people elsewhere. For lack of other descriptors, it’s terribly awe-inspiring what things the fear of a deadly virus can do to our sense of superstructure.

The coronavirus outbreak that began making the news rounds in January with its first reported cases in China’s Wuhan Province has, as a result of initial complacencies by governments and media outlets elsewhere, shifted from something we didn’t need to worry about that much to one of the most immediate shake-ups to social structure and public behaviour we may recently witness. As stocks fall down steep and narrow holes, companies struggle to balance their status quo while obeying with orders from medical professionals and their lawmakers, and thousands of people worldwide wrestle with the impact of social distancing on their interactions and their sanity, one thing has become remarkably, jokingly, clear to the internet:

it’s not that hard for a society to be just a tad less capitalist when everyone’s life is on the line.

In the little time between the first official statements from the World Health Organisation and today, so many changes in policy among several organisations and brands have been made, and Twitter has been laughing frustratedly at the fact that so many of them are just a few more forward postures away from socialist. And with good reason. It’s the equivalent response to learning that after getting a broken-down car repaired that if it had been maintained sooner, things would have moved faster and more smoothly than you’ve ever driven it.

The obvious follow-up question then becomes: why didn’t we take this system to the mechanic sooner?

The answer is that before, this pandemic didn’t affect everyone. As cynical as this would seem, lots of people are negatively affected by medical situations we can conceivably be responsible and proactive about, and never get this kind of response. But not all of them affect the stock market, or the lives of politicians, just as suddenly and brutally as they do the working class.

In fact, I am willing to concede that this is far too cynical indeed. But the fact remains that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are being felt on the structure itself, and to compensate, it has—for lack of better analogies—taken on its own internal recovery process in order to ensure its maintenance.

But then you ask the question: why didn’t we run the system like this sooner?

As we speak, entire nations are permitting employees at applicable positions to work from home when the facility wasn’t in place for disabled employees before. Digital structures for high schools and universities globally are kicking into high gear, however awkwardly, when for many students the freedom to access coursework digitally and be educated from home was a seemingly impossible luxury. Places are ramping up often impossibly expensive or non-existent delivery services. The best of politicians and banks are at least considering the viability of restructuring citizens’ debt while they cannot work, let alone considering other necessary steps like rent freezes and debt forgiveness programs, let alone implementing any of them.

The individual process is overclocking as well. Those in serious need of personal support while the emergency is high are gaining a spotlight: nurses, cooks, delivery drivers, self-employed gig workers, artists. As we speak, every primetime television medical procedural is sending their surplus costumes to medical personnel in need of further resources, and even some cosplayers are pitching in with the same. If you don’t know yet, your fourth favourite backup vodka brand is making hand sanitiser now. Bandcamp is giving their artists full revenue share, and people are taking advantage of the opportunity to fully support musicians. Those whose livelihood is earned with live performance are benefiting from a however brief and unfortunately circumstanced increase in visibility as folks seek new content to support via digital payment options like PayPal and Patreon. Even the literary convention circuit is trying to bounce back by being even more online than us writerly types already tend to be.

While that’s happening, though, the spam folder in your personal email is now full of strangely cloying requests from brands you probably haven’t gotten an email from since they wished you a happy New Year with a random 20%-off sale. Some people aren’t as lucky to get off work, no matter how non-essential, unless the police or the government said something expressly otherwise. Some other people are even more unfortunate to be laid off from their jobs, or for their independent brands not being able to keep their doors open in these circumstances. Lots of brands are revealing themselves to be Not Your Friend this season, as the silver lining and the bottom line clash. And as we speak, those in power are already eager to return to business as usual, even when their own quarantines have not even passed the one-week mark.

So I can hear you now: “Okay, okay, Brandon… but what the hell does any of this have to do with Black Panther?”

Ever since the article was reposted, I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage:

Rage is not the same thing as revolution. That many examples of the latter are built upon the coals of the former, collected in the wounded hearts of decades of people of colour worldwide, does not make the two the same. Sometimes your rage is not radical. Sometimes your rage is misdirected and costly. Sometimes your rage asks you to expend a lot of energy doing nothing but be destructive and regressive. Sometimes you think you’re woke, but you’re just lucid dreaming.

Now, for the most part, I still really stand by all of this. Hell, some of those words are the best turns of phrase you may ever get out of ol’ Brandon O’Brien there… “… just lucid dreaming?” Goddamn. I don’t write ’em like I used to, and that was two years ago and change.

And yet… a lot of us are angry. Rightfully so. We were passengers in a system that was stuttering and smoking for those of us who desperately needed a better system in order to better survive—to survive without being constantly devalued or even traumatised by it—and just before a deadly illness could do severe damage to us not as people, but as a work force, suddenly we send the system to the shop and we’re hearing that it could have been driving smoothly if we just brought it in to be revolutionised sooner?

I wouldn’t dare say this is a wake up call—just because even I have been sleeping on it doesn’t mean other people have not been working in the clear hot and bright light of the day to bring about even some sliver of this kind of world. A world where things don’t have to be this hard for us to survive, let alone when survival is so high-stakes. Knowing that it is possible, and yet the will isn’t there because the broken-down and sputtering system of yesterday is what some folks want to make the marginalised drive so they can benefit, is terribly anger-inducing. It should be. We should be mad. At least a little mad.

And yet…

You know what?

Nakia is still right. HashtagNakiaIsStillRight2020.

Yes, we should be enraged. We should still express our frustration that the system could have functioned in this more self-aware state but was put aside in favour of prioritising corporations over the lives of others. We should hope that such a rage can become the forge within which we remake society into a shape that serves all people.

But rage is still a totally different shape than the revolution. And especially now, we’ve discovered that so much of the work of that revolution is restoring hope and joy in the face of frustration and sorrow. Not replacing one with the other. But ensuring the balance between both forces. It is telling stories of fire and fury, but also stories of glee and silliness. It is playing games with teeth and howls, but also playing mirthful, chill things. It is coming together online to let out our frustrations, but also to share pictures of our pets, squee about anime, or finally show your friend how you make that recipe they like via livestream because they absolutely have no idea how you get the thing to do… the thing? because every time they put it in the oven it just kinda… deflates? and comes out all soggy and bleh, and at that point, is it even worth eating? Because we could do with eating something we want to eat at this point.

In these times, we have seen so many people come together and be present for each other. The system we want to remain passengers in will require this even more. And it may take some time still before we even get to claim that system, but now we know better than to believe that it is not within our lifetime’s grasp. All that remains is for us to share space (digitally) with love, graciousness, and radical intent.

If Nakia insisting upon reaching out to those in need was right for Wakanda, it’s right for us.

And we already discussed that Nakia was right. So.

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