We Refuse: A Forceful History of Black Resistance

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Release Date: 
June 4, 2024
Seal Press
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We Refuse goes a long way to helping us understand an important part of our national past, slavery, racism and resistance.” 

Named a “Most Anticipated” book for 2024 by Ms. magazine, We Refuse by scholar Kellie Carter Jackson joins the canon of literature about Black history, slavery, resistance, and survival. It is a stunning addition to works by James Baldwin, Imani Perry, Isabel Wilkerson, and others.

Carter Jackson explores Black refusal to succumb to the racism that has always permeated Black lives. In a powerful introduction and five compelling chapters she focuses on revolution, protection, force, flight and joy as effective and necessary resistance strategies. Each section of the book is illuminated by personal anecdotes, historical events, biographies, and memorable quotes.

The introduction that precedes these five chapters takes issue with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence, influenced by Mahatma Ghandi’s work in South Africa. Her thesis is that nonviolence was ineffective in bringing about the kind of change needed to resist deadly racism. “We must be honest about what actions produce structural results and what actions produce symbolic results,” Carter Jackson says. “We Refuse reframes the conversation away from the rightness or wrongness on what works by placing Black resistance and liberation at the center. [The book] makes a case for how we might understand Black humanity and rage in the pursuit of freedom.”

Addressing revolution first, she states that “revolutions are birthed from oppression. Thus, revolution is the first and foremost a response that seeks change for the benefit of humanity. . . . Revolutions are needed to create a new world. . . . equality, equity, and reparations are not impossible, they seem that way only when we believe that white people are omnipotent.” She makes her case by exploring three historical revolutions that took place in Haiti, France, and the U.S. It’s a prime example of how the author reveals her skills as a teacher, historian,  writer, and activist—all of which make this important book enlightening and readable.

In the second chapter, she explains that “Protection is collective action to shield the oppressed and vulnerable. . . . While revolutions seek offensive solutions, protection is about a defensive stance. . . . [It] breaks down the door of the oppressor and demands a new world order.” Protection, she explains, using examples and clear narrative, includes providing shelter, financial resources, and legal solutions, as well as writing and speaking out. Protection is a collective defensive tactic used by Black abolitionists, civil rights leaders and “ordinary folks in the Black community.” Carter Jackson pays particular attention to Black women who played vital roles in protective action, particularly after the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. Harriet Tubman is the likely name to come to mind, but there were a great many other heroic women doing the work of resistance, including carrying and using guns, and we meet them in this book.

Women also play a big part in the chapter about the place of force in refusal. Here again we learn about women who put their lives on the line for their families and communities. Ida B. Wells was one of them. She exposed the horrors of lynchings and the Ku Klux Clan in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Rosa Parks believed in the necessity of force, and 20th century activist Fannie Lou Hamer kept a shotgun in her bedroom because as she famously said, she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Chapter four addresses the tactic of flight. Leaving one’s home, family, town, or state was a form of refusal and an act of resistance. In the 20th century flight became the Great Migration as millions of Black people who lived in the south journeyed north for a safer and more secure life. Flight, Carter Jackson explains is “about both the collective and individual.” Some people fled to Canada, others went to Europe, and Black soldiers joined the military to escape living in the south. Ida B. Wells, the actor Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois and singer Josephine Baker were among those who left. The chapter closes with this: “As Black writer Jamaica Kincaid observed, most natives, most Black and colonized people will never get to occupy the space of the tourist, or ‘escape the reality of their lives.’ Flight can be a reprieve . . . and a new beginning, but it cannot ensure belonging. Because of racism, Black people will always be intellectually, culturally, and geographically nomadic.”

Closing with a discussion of joy as a means of resistance is a personal joy, as Carter Jackson reveals. Based on personal experience which she relates via good storyteller, she says, “Happiness isn’t tethered to anything, in the way that joy is tethered to oppression . . . I see the origin of joy as spiritual: it is a conscious conjuring of pleasure that transcends one’s circumstances.” One hears it in gospel music, feels it in dancing feet and drumming or other forms of joyful liberation. We feel it reading this chapter.

Carter Jackson concludes her highly readable and deeply important book with these words: “Joy is not the denial of Black pain, trauma, or death, but the hope that comes with activism, resistance, and refusal. . . . I understand joy as a remedy on the path to complete healing. If justice is the cure, then joy is the cast or splint, holding a broken bone in place until healing is complete.”

We Refuse goes a long way to helping us understand an important part of our national past, slavery, racism and resistance. It should be on everyone’s list.