I AM AN ALLY IN PROGRESS
On Black Agency
by Jelani Ince
Attention to social context is important when it comes to understanding agency. We may not actively think about agency; it may seem like it is ‘out there’ for us to wield to our leisure so that we can create our own realities. We have been encouraged through the media to express the breadth of our agency: ‘the world is your oyster!’ is a phrase that is commonly used, and there are several advertisements geared to inspire ‘wanderlust’. At the same time, social reality is more complex than what these phrases seem to communicate. Our actions are also shaped, enabled, or hindered by systems, and structures that are larger than individual people. Agency, the sociologists Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische argue in an influential 1998 article “What is Agency?” is composed of three parts: repetition, projectivity, and practical evaluation. They argue that all human action is, in some way, shaped by the past, present, and oriented towards the future.
We see examples of this definition of agency in our everyday experiences. For instance, we purchase groceries because we know we need food to survive. This action is based on past actions (we have purchased groceries before), for the present moment (groceries will satisfy a current need to address hunger), and for the future (food purchased can be used for another meal tomorrow). At the same time, where we live shapes where we can purchase our groceries, with whom we can go shopping, the selection of options, what time shopping can occur, and other factors. In other words, all actions connected to a seemingly mundane task take place within a temporally situated relationship with various social structures. The various struggles for food security, self-actualization, recognition, and civil rights across various contexts within the United States details that the reality of full agency in this country is often hard-fought for certain groups, particularly the Black population.
The trouble is, foregrounding Black agency as something that will
awaken the nation’s conscience does nothing to account for the
continual denial of Black agency in
the United States.
For people who write stories and detail events in order to account for change over time, the problem of assigning solutions to address the issues that affect Black people arrives as a problem of narrative. Often, the most important analytical decision someone can make is where to begin. Consider when Bree Newsome Bass (Bree Newsome at the time) climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol building. It might seem obvious to begin an account of that courageous act at the moment of Newsome’s descent from the flagpole. Newsome was lauded as a hero for daring to defy the social order that glorified a heirloom of a segregationist past. Some media outlets were quick to label her a hero, rightfully so I might add, and to frame her act as a radical defiance of organized white supremacy in this country. This evidence suggests that a more salient place to start could be with the United States political system and its refusal to fully honor and support Black agency.
The trouble is, foregrounding Black agency as something that will awaken the nation’s conscience does nothing to account for the continual denial of Black agency in the United States, and reduces the power of how the expression of Black agency can be empowering and inspiring for Black people. What was not discussed at length in the media was Newsome’s reasoning for climbing the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol building: the murder of nine Black parishioners of Mother Emmanuel AME Church at the hands of white supremacist Dylann Roof, as well as the subsequent burnings of Black churches across the Southern United States. What is less discussed is how her actions represented a need to push the needle forward to create a future that recognizes Black peoples’ nuanced and complete realities. Her actions simultaneously regard the past and present, and highlight that a future inclusive of Black agency must include one where monuments to white supremacy cease to exist. My intention with this example is to demonstrate that Black agency, especially in the United States, must be contextualized within the broader history of systemic white supremacy. Instead of asking why Newsome Bass climbed the flagpole, perhaps people should reflect on what conditions are required to ensure that Black people, in all areas of their lives, do not live under constant threat.
Newsome Bass was compelled to act because the systems in place did not address continued violence against Black people. The paraphernalia found in Dylann Roof’s possession included the Confederate symbol; the same symbol that was displayed in front of the South Carolina Capitol building. In a way, Newsome’s actions can demonstrate how Black agency is temporal as well as communal because Black people are always aware of the possibility of our agency being denied, sometimes due to the history of this denial being waved in our faces. Black agency is informed by the past. Past actions of oppression demonstrate the continued, and consistent struggle of Black people to be fully granted the human rights that we deserve. Black agency that is organized against the interests of white supremacy is future oriented because we know that we must act with urgency in order to create a future that is required to recognize the full spectrum of Black agency. While organizers, protesters, and community members continually put pressure upon local and state-level representatives through rallies, conversations, and protest actions, a complete recognition of Black agency also recognizes that certain actors within mainstream institutions will not save us. Collective action amongst Black people can.
If you are invested in ensuring that Black people can recognize their agency, it is integral to first look at ways to support versus creating your own way to articulate the nuances of Black life.
Social context matters for understanding Black agency because Black people, due to this country’s history and the various intersections where our lives meet, must maintain multiple levels of awareness in order to exercise our agency for individual and collective efforts. If you are invested in ensuring that Black people can recognize their agency, it is integral to first look at ways to support versus creating your own way to articulate the nuances of Black life, separate from the voiced and varied experiences of Black people from different walks of life. People need to trust that Black people are the experts of their own lives and are aware of how social structures shape their ability to act. Black people do not fight for their right to live, just to be made a spectacle of. Supporting Black agency does not solely mean retweeting or sharing a clip from a speech or a rally that expresses admiration for the resilience and determination of the Black community.
Considering the role of social context, and the history behind it, can serve as a reminder that the recognition of Black agency will not come with a policing tone or trying to speak on behalf of all Black people. To recognize Black agency means an acknowledgement of the power that lies in Black people and Blackness as a politically and socially capable identity. In times that can seem unprecedented, we can chart a better future through our collective efforts by understanding the past and working intentionally on how to improve the present. History tells us that creating better possibilities for ourselves has been worked toward for centuries. Centering Black agency across contexts is important for Black people to have and experience full human rights.
Jelani Ince is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University - Bloomington. To him anti-racism means the divestment from white supremacy and all of its institutionalized forms. Jelani’s personal I AM statement is, “I AM committed to using my skills to secure a safe future for the Black community.” You can find him at @Jelani_Ince on Twitter and at jelani-ince.com.
Eric Hart, Jr. is a twenty year old creative from Macon, Georgia and the creator of LOVE HART. He currently studies photography at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. LOVE HART is a creative visual brand developed with the purpose to raise awareness and further conversations about various topics. From relationships, self image, to social climate, LOVE HART infuses the art of photography, film, music, and writing to convey feelings of love about all these topics. Whether love of your community, love of self, or love or another being, this thought-provoking brand acts as a journey towards understanding. You can find more of his works at officiallovehart.com.