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At seventeen years old, I met Dedon Kamathi. I was a kid from Chicago maneuvering through the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, and I ran into a tall, caramel-skinned man with a giant African leather hat sitting atop his head. I would come to realize that it was under that hat that he housed his lifetime of experience as an international revolutionary (not to mention his waist-length graying locs). Dedon was a genius, an autodidact who had spent almost five decades of his life fighting imperialism, capitalism, and Zionism. On campus, he recruited students into the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. His energy and brilliance easily pulled us into a whirlwind of weekly work-study meetings and political activism. Dedon would transform us into fiery and disciplined thinkers and organizers.
We seek to create the world we want to live in. The Undercommons is a celebration of insurrection, struggle, and love.
A decade on, what most resonates from my experiences in the A-APRP is the organization’s commitment to constant study and criticism. Our organizing was always fueled by our reading list and discussions, which were crucial to our understanding of systems of oppression and how we might dismantle them. Reading was central to the revolution: it was not an extension of bourgeois university labor, but a critical way of acquiring tools for effective action.
Collective and self-criticism were also paramount. The members of our work-study group ranged in age from eighteen to thirty, with folk from different classes, regions, and backgrounds. Needless to say, there was conflict. Meetings would end with efforts toward constructive criticism, both of self and of the collective. In the often-complicated organizing toward freedom, the conflict and contradictions proved to be perhaps the most generative. It was through these uncomfortable frictions that we came to understand the vital role of dialectics. Studying and discussing led to indispensible debates about how to conceptualize and create freedom.
I would suggest that dialectics is still how we need to seek answers, within and beyond the university. Although neoliberal logic would lead us to believe otherwise, there is no fundamental divide between scholars and “the street.” This belief is inaccurate and destructive; we both affect and are affected by each other. Many of us are from the streets and return there with each birthday and funeral, and many of us still call it home. The intellectual relationship between academics and non-academics serves as another type of integral exchange, and ushers in more of a critical dialectic. In the academy, the access students have to particular types of resources comes with the great responsibility of building on existing discourses in new and emancipatory ways—for all of humanity.
In his essay, Kelley reminds us that students’ efforts at self-radicalization are nothing new, and such struggles are often both complicated and beautiful. He evokes the mantra of “love, study, struggle” as a fundamental guideline for our spaces. To struggle outside of institutional constraints, to study rigorously, and to practice a collective love that engulfs individualized fear and trauma. Enslaved people in the Americas did not find themselves fixed in the muddy vestiges of trauma and destruction; instead, they created explosive and beautiful means toward freedom. Kelley reminds us that it is our duty to do so as well.
At UCLA—but not affiliated with the university—we founded a group called The Undercommons in January of 2016. It is a freedom school that challenges and contests not just the legitimacy of the university, but the violence of the state. The Undercommons operates horizontally, lovingly and collectively, to disrupt the professional hierarchy that is endemic to the university system, and toxic to learning spaces. Our weekly sessions strive against neoliberal competitiveness and reaffirm the capacity of anyone—community members, faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, anyone—to teach, learn, and study. However most importantly, as we respond to university and state violence, we also are creating beloved community, and eventually an international community. We seek to create the world we want to live in. The Undercommons is a celebration of insurrection, struggle, and love. We are a group of dedicated students descended from a long line of living, struggling, and laughing people. And we are living fiercely.
Originally from Chicago, Thabisile Griffin is a doctoral student in the Department of History at UCLA. Her work is on eighteenth-century black Caribbean insurrections and laughter. In addition to history, she is a campus and community organizer, a classical violinist, and a poet.
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