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Harvard professor Walter Johnson and rapper Tef Poe reflect on their shared activism, and the place they see for allies—accomplices, even—in the long struggle for racial justice.
Climbing the stone stairs to the Victorian that Harvard professor Walter Johnson shares with his family, I notice the front door is wide open. Inside there is a comforting chaos: toys across the floor, stacks of books, basketballs, newspapers, shoes of every size, style, and color. I am unsure whether to knock or call out.
Johnson is hosting our mutual friend Tef Poe, one of the central organizers of the 2014 Ferguson Uprising. Poe is a St. Louis rapper and revolutionary devoted to dismantling white supremacy and shedding light on the city’s history of black greatness. Poe and I met at the end of 2018, when he visited a class I was auditing at Harvard called The Historical Philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois. The course was taught by Cornel West, who has mentored both Poe and me for the last several years. After traveling together to Puerto Rico and St. Louis, Poe invited me to help him with his forthcoming memoir, Rebel to America.
To those who know only one of the pair—a middle-aged Harvard professor and a millennial revolutionary from the North Side of St. Louis—it might come as a surprise that Poe is godfather to Johnson’s youngest son. But the two have a strong bond of both personal and professional admiration, forged through their shared commitment to fighting anti-blackness and white supremacy. Since 2017 they have been working together toward the goal of creating a community-based arts center on the North Side of St. Louis (a story in and of itself). This fall they are cosponsoring a fellowship to support photographers and other visual artists from St. Louis, culminating in an exhibition that will travel between St. Louis and Harvard.
In this interview, they share some of the history of their friendship, their shared activism, and the place they see for allies—accomplices, even—in the long struggle for racial justice.
Mordecai Lyon: Walt, how did you first meet Tef? What sparked your interest in his work?
Tef illustrated to me how everyday contacts or solidarities get built out into a larger sort of solidarity and political critique.
Walter Johnson: I had been working on the political economy of Ferguson. I looked online and found a video of a city council meeting in which Tef was just taking these people apart. He was lucid and on point and unforgiving, implacable. He was just speaking truth to the city council.
I thought, “Who is this guy?” So I read some of the stuff he had published in St. Louis’s Riverfront Times. I remember one piece in particular, “Ten Disturbingly Racist Things About St. Louis,” which was both hilarious and insightful, but was also stretching the category of racism—trying to speak to anti-Asian racism and Islamophobia, for example.
So I invited Tef to give a talk at Harvard, and it was fantastic, with about a hundred people in the audience. Tef brought a lot of energy and a lot of insight. He said that he had already become really engaged in the question of Palestine and of trying to build out from Ferguson. He cited Bassem Masri, but he also explained that the Ferguson protestors had learned how to deal with tear gas from Palestinian women who were in the protest.
To come out of the damn slum of the slums and interact with the rest of society, I had to learn how to make no judgments based off of what I see.
That was interesting to me because it illustrated how everyday contacts or solidarities get built out into a larger sort of solidarity and political critique—how people start from where they are and move out. That’s something that I heard Tef talk about over and over again. He would say, “Well, I have developed a large-scale theoretical opposition to homophobia because there were gay men and women on the line with me in Ferguson.” To build out from that kind of immediate solidarity to larger sorts of political commitments. I thought that was really inspiring.
He came into Harvard generous and open and wanting to teach, but willing to answer questions that probably struck him as hopelessly naïve.
Tef Poe: I think the reason I can come into spaces like that and not take out my own pretensions on the rest of the room is because if I did, I would be walking around mad all the time. Like: seriously. I did do that at a point, and I was pissed off all the time. I don’t try to embrace people as if what I’m seeing tells me anything seriously about you.
I come from North St. Louis, the damn slums of the slums. Places where, you know, they might as well have bombs dropped on them. So, to come out of that and interact with the rest of society, I had to learn how to make no judgments based off of what I see. I can’t come in and hack off what is human about you. My interactions are about who the actual person is.
WJ: I’m a professor and I’ve written about social movements, and been involved in a few things, but, compared to someone like Tef, I don’t know a whole lot about how actually to build a social movement like they built in Ferguson. The agonies, the personal stress, or what it actually feels like to be under fire. The extraordinary solidarities (and animosities) that come out of that kind of frontline experience. All those things are things I didn’t know about then and really don’t know about to this day, even after writing a book about St. Louis.
There’s a version of the relationship between Tef and me that could be narrated as, “Out of our friendship, Tef came to Harvard.” There’s a comforting familiarity to that story because that’s how we’re taught power flows, but for me the real story is that Tef introduced me to St Louis. Tef helped me understand the city and the uprising. Tef put me in touch with Percy Green, who was a hero of the 1960s and ’70s movement. Tef put me in touch with Jamala Rogers, who was a leader in St. Louis and nationally in the ’80s and ’90s, and directs the Organization for Black Struggle, an organization with which I’ve since been able to collaborate on a few things.
Walt was willing to be unconventional, willing to leverage institutional power into doing things for people in St. Louis.
Tef got famous for many things—Cheer for the Villain should be the thing he’s most famous for—but one thing he got famous for is saying, “This is not your daddy’s civil rights movement.” A lot of people took that as a dig against prior generations, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a critique of a set of middle-class concerns around a narrow notion of civil rights. To see how respectful Tef is of movement elders in St. Louis, how much he is willing to learn from them and invoke them—that stands as an example for me of Tef’s generous attitude toward people in general. He’s just a very nice person. But it also helps me think about the history of St. Louis, how it is that these folks are connected to one another. Tef knows Jamala Rogers, Jamala’s married to Percy Green, Green was part of demonstrations against the racist hiring practices of Jefferson Bank in 1963, where he walked alongside black communist leader Herschel Walker from the 1930s and ’40s. Green invoked the general strike of 1877 when he was trying to get a general strike going in 1979.
ML: We tend to think of the front line only as going up against cops, but the front line is also where people like us are having these conversations, are sharing ideas and resources.
TP: That’s one of the reasons why I could rock with Walt. Even if he didn’t understand it at the time, that’s what he was doing. Being in an institution such as Harvard and being willing to be unconventional, being willing to shake up the dialogue, being willing to have conversations about the way to leverage institutional power into doing things for people in St. Louis. Those were the things I was interested in. Any way that we can add some firepower to what we are doing.
When you meet white people who understand that the entirety of black history is not just us being downtrodden, it creates a different context for union.
I’m looking to meet and be in partnership and family with people who are taking it that seriously. Those are the people who shift from being an ally to a marcher. Shift from passively chanting “Black Lives Matter” with you to figuring out how they can do something serious for people back home who need material things. People who are going to help you throw some haymakers at the system, while flicking the bird and letting others wonder how the hell you figured out this maneuver. Instead of a person who wants to sit down and have an eighty-dollar steak with you and put you back on a jet.
ML: You both have a passion for history. It is a framework that roots you in whatever you’re doing. Why is history so important to you?
TP: The first black history project I worked on was me and my mother making a black history book in first or second grade. I’ve always had a yearning for history and an understanding that history is important because it connects you to the story of what your people have done. A key part for me of being an activist in St. Louis was learning the history of activism in St. Louis—the Percy Greens and the Ivory Perrys and even people like my grandmother, Josephine Baker, who was one of the first women to desegregate the workforce in the city. She wasn’t even trying to be an activist. She was a person who got a job and was trying to go to work. St. Louis has needed a political uprising since its conception.
The number one thing you have to understand is that the mainstream conception of black history in America is a goddamn lie. It says that our greatness started in the bellies of slave ships where people were eating vomit and committing suicide because the voyage was so horrible. Yes, that’s a part of our history, but when you understand that the totality of our history is not that, it places us in the context of a different type of greatness. So, when you meet white people who understand that the entirety of black history is not just us being downtrodden and asking the government for shit, it creates a different context for union. Then you can have a relationship that isn’t based on pity of my blackness.
ML: What about you, Walt? How does your passion for history relate to activism?
The history of the greatness of black St. Louis and the history of the radicalism of black St. Louis have been covered up.
WJ: When I was starting to research the history of St. Louis, I would find things out and want to check: Is this something that is interesting for Tef as an activist? Or is this just antiquarian? I remember sending Tef an email when I found out that Dred Scott was buried a mile, a mile and a half, from where everything started in Ferguson, on the same street, West Florissant Avenue. And Tef’s response was, “Wow, that’s amazing.” I could tell you seven or ten stories like that about uncanny proximities in St. Louis. I still don’t have a theoretical analysis of why it seems so powerful, the way these things are so close to one another, but I can say that I have learned so much from the proximity of historical events with present-day events. It’s like the city is trying to tell you something.
I’d be embarrassed to tell that story if it hadn’t resonated with Tef. When it did, I thought, “Now I understand that this is an interesting way to think because it energized Tef.” It gave him a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of tool in his arsenal as he went into battle out there.
I also found out that St. Louis is a place where there had been consequential black–white radical alliances throughout the twentieth century. And I think knowledge of that has direct bearing on the kinds of alliances that can seem possible today.
TP: A present-day misconception about Ferguson, and St. Louis in general, is that black and white people have just never gotten along in St. Louis. Actually, we got along great to some extent. Middle-class and poor white people and black people. Yeah, we have racial tensions and stuff like that, but overall, the media exploited the polarization way more than we did. We had white people at protests. I’ve got white friends. I’ve gone to jail with white people.
WJ: On the whole, I think one could say that the history of black St. Louis has been covered up. The history of the greatness of black St. Louis, the history of the radicalism of black St. Louis. Black people are barely memorialized in that city. The amount of black achievement in that city is extraordinary: the number of artistic geniuses, the number of political radicals, the number of great athletes from St. Louis—but you don’t see that memorialized in the fabric of the city.
I can’t speak for what black people in St. Louis know about the black history of St. Louis, but I can guess that those who know a lot about it have probably had to work pretty hard on their own to find it out.
TP: You’re right about that.
WJ: There are major, major events in the history of St. Louis that people don’t know. In 1959 they tore down almost 500 acres—an area about a third of the size of Manhattan—of black St. Louis called Mill Creek Valley. They tore it down. And basically nothing has happened to Mill Creek Valley since then. They displaced 20,000 people. They assumed the displaced people would find houses. Some went into the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, others just kind of dispersed throughout the city. There was no real plan for their relocation and there was no real plan for the redevelopment of the area.
ML: Tef, we’ve been talking a lot about history, but can you say something about how you envision the future of activism in St. Louis?
To me the word 'activism' is a padded landing for the white progressive intelligentsia.
TP: To me the word “activism” is a padded landing for the white progressive intelligentsia. They are scared of revolution; they are scared of the notion that things have to change. Casual activism got us here—the notion that we can take two while you keep three. If we’re going to actually be in this, then we’re going to divide it equally.
That’s part of why I self-identify as a revolutionary. I use any opportunity to introduce that word because I feel that’s what is needed. We need a revolution of our mind frame, a revolution of the way we’re seeing things, a revolution of the way we love. All of this needs to change. We’re all colonized into thinking and feeling certain ways. I’m challenging the notion of those feelings.
ML: What do you think about the concept of the revolutionary, Walt?
Books and Breakfast is trying to figure out a different way to be human. For me, seeing that program in action was life changing.
WJ: I’m at a university where people talk about revolution all the time without seeming effect, without really knowing how to do it—revolution possesses a kind of weightlessness for so many of us. I was very impressed by the way that Tef takes the idea of revolution and applies it in very practical ways. One of the best examples of this is the Books and Breakfast program that he helped start, based on part of the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program: it’s a small-scale community initiative in which folks of all ages are invited to come have free breakfast, take free books about black history and revolutionary thought, and then discuss the ideas as a community. This is such a consequential initiative, not just in terms of how many books it gives out or how many breakfasts it has served, but in terms of trying to figure out a different way to be human. For me, seeing that program in action was life changing. It inspired me to ask: How can I try to replicate this or build on it? How can I imagine a project that’s not going to start by trying to change the world as The World—all at once—but do that in a material, immediate, capillary fashion? Just to get going on something tangible and hopefully consequential, and learn the theory along the way. That’s been a real revolution for me.
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