How to Raise a Revolutionary

by Malaika Jabali

In that brief moment of solace in the bathroom shower--where quiet moments are hard fought in a city that prides itself on never sleeping-- I was trying to make a decision. Would I buy the hard copy, or due to my impatience and desire to occupy my time that morning on the generally uncomfortable commute into Manhattan, would I seek instant gratification and purchase the e-book?

“It” being Between the World and Me, the latest blockbuster memoir from your favorite social justice person’s favorite writer, Ta-nehisi Coates. Though aware of its nearly universal praise, my primary motivation to read the new release stemmed from my promise to discuss it with a young socialist whom I met at a feminist rally. I thought about the books my mother handed down to me, or shared with me, or probed me to explore for elementary school projects, and I considered that a hard copy would be best if I want the same experience for my kids--those hypothetical children that I always assumed I’d have but occasionally think I might be able to live without.
At that moment, I had to recognize my good fortune. Automatically thinking about what political books I wanted my future/maybe kids to get their grubby hands on and wrap their impressionable minds around was as natural for me as blinking. I don’t know how influential I will be in shaping my kids’ lives, but I do know that my parents, and my mother in particular, blessed me in molding mine.

My mom created a revolutionary. In a time when black minds are probing for answers to questions about justice that we probably cannot solve alone, when the crisis of police abuse has made many of us exhausted by the steady reminders of our vulnerability as black souls in a crushing body, we must always remember our crisis is not permanent.  And one thing about being a revolutionary is that we eternally--though not always constantly-- have hope that the system, some how, will change.

I was born in Los Angeles around the time of Reagan, the crack epidemic, and gang shootouts. My parents sought to keep me in a cultural oasis, but the heat of the California deserts and socio-political climate became too much to bear. With me in tow, my parents made a transnational journey to the new Black Mecca, otherwise known as Atlanta. Like a variety of black folks from around the country--including the handful of West Coast-based black nationalists who migrated around the same time--I reunited with my southern roots.

The total opposite of what my future may have looked like in our one bedroom apartment in South Central, the new home I shared with my mom in the Atlanta suburbs was surrounded entirely by white neighbors. I ended up living a sort of dual life during my formative years. My good grades and high standardized test scores thrust me into a weekly gifted class where I was the lone black girl for 4 years. Even with my Afrocentric, militant home-life, my personality allowed me to befriend virtually anyone. As we remained in the gifted class with the same group of people throughout elementary and early middle school, many of my closest childhood friends became white girls. Whereas the double consciousness of many African American southern kids involved balancing a white society with Jack and Jills and debutantes, mine involved an odd pairing of extremes. Birthday sleepovers--replete with Jonathan Taylor Thomas gossip and obsessing over American Girl (Addy was my fave, natch)-- were followed by African dance classes and service at my home church that practiced Black Liberation Theology.

Yet, I never felt confused. In fact, I was emboldened to embrace our family’s version of blackness-- the Kwanzaa-celebrating, Malcolm-X watching, Arrested Development--listening blackness. It had become such an intrinsic part of my upbringing that nothing could deter me. I don’t know exactly how you raise a black child in a white world and live to see her loving her identity and fighting for justice. But mostly, I believe, you work at it.

You tell her about Marcus Garvey, and suggest she report on him in a 3rd grade history paper. You encourage her to research Senegal, instead of Greece, for a social studies presentation. You refuse to perm her hair so she knows what her kinks feel like.

You support her with your time and resources. You hand her your copy of Assata Shakur’s autobiography for a 5th grade book report. You advise her to be steadfast in the possible scrutiny she may face for covering the Black Panthers in her  middle school Social Science Fair.

And when she’s old enough and you think she’s got it, you pray that the lessons remain and nudge her when you think she might be slipping. And then you hope.

You hope that chance brings her to some conscious peers, one of whom is so passionate about their university’s African-American studies program, that your newly adult child changes her major (easily the best academic decision ever, she may tell you later).

And then you demand that she be bold and voice the messages you spent almost her whole life delivering, which she learns to analyze, distill, and critique in her African- American studies courses. So when your church asks her to preach a Sunday service for the first time, you don’t accept her nos or attempts to back out. And when she delivers that sermon on the failures of capitalism that a hurricane, death, and displacement of hundreds of New Orleanians laid bare, you tell her how proud you are.

When she tells you how alienating her social life is on campus when she realizes that her Afrocentric, pro-black upbringing did not prepare her for the disorienting, othering environment of an elite, vastly white private college where the handful of mostly upper-middle class black kids could not relate to her, and vice versa, you embrace her.

When she becomes a full-blown anticapitalist and is excited about some new Marxist-leaning texts she stumbled upon while pursuing her Master’s degree, you listen. You challenge her. You probe.

And when she tells you, for the 50th time, that she wrote a critique of police militarization in her law school’s human rights class months before Ferguson became its poster child, you delicately tell her you get the point without dampening her fire.
So through your deliberate efforts to pen the early chapters of her life, you hope she writes a still-evolving story about being a revolutionary. You take comfort in the fact that --even during America’s deceptively peaceful lulls, occasional black millionaires, and even through a black President--she won’t think the term “revolution” is cryogenically frozen in the era of 60s militancy. That she breathes life into it. That her studies will teach her that it is necessary in a country that could not be a capitalist success story without black exploitation writing its passages from Africa to the Americas, and that capitalism continues to be propped up by exploitation today. That, even though she will never feel like she has all the answers, she will seek those answers for as long as she lives and aim to create a better reality for her future/maybe kids. And that she, too, puts some soul-stirring book-- in a yet undecided electronic version or hard copy--in their eager hands.

Photo: Shutterstock

Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She has a J.D. and M.S. from Columbia University. Her proclivity for advanced degrees does not preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis and on Instagram @missjabali. She also pretends to know about music and culture on her personal blog,

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