I have heard Beyonce’s “Who Run the World (Girls)” before. I have probably seen her perform it on one Youtube video or another, but when I saw her perform that song on HBO last night I came to a new understanding regarding its soundness. Thus, I know why I’m so tired now: I’m running the world but HR hasn’t adjusted my salary; my staff never comes to work; my personal staff–the nanny, the cook, and the driver are as invisible as my work staff. For all my power, I am tired.
I’ve been re-reading Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, going through it very slowly and carefully. Around the time I put the play down, I began watching HBO’s Beyonce feature and so I think reading the two works so closely in time informed my new take on “women’s empowerment” campaigns. Though such campaigns are meant to inspire and renew the spirit of work that women actually do, “women’s empowerment” campaigns aren’t as powerful to me as the “mass meetings” held mostly in churches during the modern civil rights struggle. “Who Run the World” is rejuvenating but for what purpose? To go back to your same shitty job where you’re under-appreciated and underpaid? Can you imagine movements activists who walked for 381 days in response to segregated public transportation policies in Montgomery being motivated to continue their protest by being told “you run the world?” Certainly exploited black workers were largely responsible for performing the tasks that made success, education, and leisure possible for others but their world was circumscribed by the low value placed on their labor and with the weight of encounters with frequent indignities placed on their souls.
The setting for A Raisin in the Sun, specifically the Chicago apartment, reflects the dreary outcome of a certain kind of “running the world.” The Youngers represent generations of African American people who performed important work for others–raising their children, keeping their spaces clean and well maintained–for little pay. Chicago was one of the northern cities where black folk settled in an effort to search for a life with greater possibilities for employment, higher wages, safety from the lethal brutality of white supremacy in the South. Despite these motivations, the North was not necessarily a site of realized promise. As Lena Younger recalls her husband saying in despair, “[s]eem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams […]” yet he does find some gratification in fatherhood (but even this is laced with the regret of his limited ability to provide them a better–easier, spacious, breezy–life). The Youngers’ home reflects the outcome of dreaming while black. In describing the staging, Hansberry writes:
The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being. Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years–and they are tired.
The room and its furnishings “are tired” just like the people. As Hansberry continues her description of the room, she pointedly declares that “[w]eariness has in fact, won in this room.” In order for these conditions to change, Mr. Younger had to die. The insurance policy created the possibility for the family to live in a house of their own. As some critics have pointed out, it’s hard to view this move optimistically when you recognize the lack of security the family has with keeping up the mortgage; when people in the community don’t want you there. Lack of hospitality during this time was no minor issue. For example, though Martin Luther King, Jr. did not start hosting serious protests in Chicago until the mid-1960s, this photograph of him is supposed to be of him being protected by supporters after being hit with a rock during a protest of housing segregation:
It is very difficult for me to distinguish support from aggression here (it reminds me of Stanley Foreman’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, “The Soiling of Old Glory” in this regard. In Foreman’s photograph of a busing protest in Boston, the white man holding the black man’s arms claims that he was trying to help the black man get out of the way from the white teen attempting to spear him with the American Flag). For the Youngers, moving into a white neighborhood wouldn’t merely mean they would be shunned, but the consequences could have been significant enough to count as lethal.
What this 1959 play does for my thinking of empowerment campaigns today is that it exposes how perfunctory they all seem. Popular forms of empowerment hold out “hope” and “dreams” as though they’re promises. My grandfather used to say, “you don’t get nothin’ from sleep but a dream.” For him, dreams were too intangible to be meaningful or substantive. A message of empowerment from my grandfather’s perspective suggests that dreaming is not going to get you too much. I agree with him. A more meaningful expression of empowerment, I think, is not so much to tell young people to “hope” and “dream,” but to plan, to read, and to strategize in order to aid the realization of the life/world you want for yourself and others. Without well-thought-out plans, an imagination, and the substantive preparation for realizing your vision, the best you’d get is the shaky future awaiting the Youngers and thus a world where the only thing your “running” leads to is weary furniture and frustrated, tired residents.