While addressing the West Coast Women's Music Festival in 1981, longtime activist and musician Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke cogently and movingly about the challenges of coalition work. Among other points, she drew an important distinction between the safe, home-like space that those challenging the status quo may need to bolster themselves and to help define their work, and the challenging, stretching, and often uncomfortable space of coalition-building.
Her remarks were presented in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (ed. Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000) as “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” and are just as relevant for advocates in this century as they were for those in the last.
“You don't go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that's the only way you can figure you can stay alive.”
“We've pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only” - just for the people you want to be there…. To a large extent it's because we have finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It's over. Give it up.”
Now every once in awhile there is a need for people to try to clean out corners and bar the doors and check everybody who comes in the door, and check what they carry in and say, “Humph, inside this place the only thing we are going to deal with is X or Y or Z.” And so only the X's or Y's or Z's get to come in….Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or X is very difficult, to say the least….When somebody else is running a society like that, and you are the one who would be put out to die, it gets too hard to stay out in that society all the time. And that's when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive. There is no chance that you can survive by staying inside the barred room. That will not be tolerated. The door of the room will just be painted red and then when those who call the shots get ready to clean house, they have easy access to you.
But that space while it lasts should be a nurturing space where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society….
…But no matter what, there will be one or two of us who have not bothered to be like you and you know it….As far as we can see we are also X's….So everybody who thinks they're an X comes running to get into the room. And because you're trying to take care of everything in this room, and you know you're not racist, you get pressed to let us all in.
The first thing that happens is that the room don't feel like the room anymore. And it ain't home no more. It is not a womb no more. And you can't feel comfortable no more. And what happens at that point has nothing to do with trying to do too much in it. You don't do no coalition building in a womb….Inside the womb you generally are very soft and unshelled. You have no covering. And you have no ability to handle what happens if you start to let folks in who are not like you.
Coalition work is not done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn't look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They're not looking for a coalition; they're looking for a home! They're looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition….You don't get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can't stay there all the time. You got to the coalition for a few hours and then you go back and take your bottle wherever it is, and then you go back and coalesce some more.
It is very important not to confuse them - home and coalition.”
“It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “our” - make it as big as you can - it ain't got nothing to do with that barred room. The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure that you understand that you ain't gonna be able to have an “our” that doesn't include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don't plan to go nowhere! That's why you have to have coalitions. Cause I ain't gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there's danger in that, but there's also the possibility that we can both live - if you can stand it.”