Charlene A. Carruthers: On Black Liberation and Feminism

Depending on who you ask, we are living in a time unlike any other. From the absurdity of this country’s leadership to the outrageousness of police getting away with the murder of unarmed black adults and children, it all feels like a collection of moments we’ve never seen or experienced before.

Or, perhaps, we have. Aside from the fact that white supremacists have rebranded themselves as Alt-Right, and we can see — in real-time — some of these injustices being played out right before our eyes, thanks to social media, all of this could be considered a matter of history repeating itself. And, just like in days gone by, a crop of individuals is rising to the occasion, giving a voice to those who are ignored, addressing the inequities thrust upon people of color, seeking justice for those whose lives have been wrongfully cut short.

Charlene A. Carruthers is part of this crop. With more than 10 years of experience in racial justice, feminist and youth leadership development work, she has dedicated much of her life to learning about enacting change and then doing it. Charlene, who was recently named “The Social Justice Visionary” on Chicago magazine’s Emerging Power Players list, is the national director of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an activist member-led organization of African Americans ages 18 to 35 “dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all black people.” The native of Chicago’s South Side has been an “agitator” for as long as she remembers (mostly because she’s the eldest of three), but officially embarked upon her work when she was 18 years old after studying abroad in South Africa while she was attending Illinois Wesleyan University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in history and international studies. (Charlene also has a Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis.)

“[In South Africa], I had the opportunity to study contemporary politics, and it was there where my entire perception of what it meant to be black — what black struggle looked like in a non-U.S. context — formed,” she says.

Charlene’s experience in South Africa laid the foundation for her work on immigrants’ rights, economic justice and civil rights campaigns nationwide. With a focus on intersectional liberation, her organizing capacities span a multitude of topics and roles, including as a board member of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization that promotes solidarity among women of color. She has also been awarded the Movement Builder Award by the United States Student Association, as well as the New Organizing Institute’s 2015 Organizer of the Year Award, and has facilitated and developed political trainings for organizations such as NAACP, Center for Progressive Leadership, Young People For and Wellstone Action.

black girl, create: How did you get involved with BYP100?

Charlene: I met [author, feminist and social activist] Cathy Cohen in spring 2013, and we talked about a national convening that she and some other folks were planning. One hundred young black activists had been invited to attend this event, and I was asked to join the design team a couple months prior. The convening took place the weekend of July 12, 2013, and July 13, we were together when George Zimmerman received the “not guilty” verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I was one of the people there at the beginning who decided to start the organization.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin, it seems like we’ve been in the middle of a new Civil Rights Movement.

We’re in the midst of another era of the Black Liberation Movement. The Civil Rights Movement occurred within a very particular context. While we need to pay attention to civil rights issues, the movement that we’re engaged in today is also a human rights struggle and one that is not solely based on our relationship to citizenship. [What we’re going through now] is a continuance of the Civil Rights Movement, a continuance of the Black Power Movement, a continuance of the Black Freedom Movement, and we’re in another era of a long-term struggle.

We are battling so much from police brutality and racism to patriarchy, educational and economic disparities, and on and on. Are any of these issues more pressing than the others? How do we figure out what to tackle first?

As black feminism teaches us, specifically writer Audre Lorde, there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives. It’s actually an impediment toward our liberation to say, “Well, we have to do this first,” or “This is more important, these people are the most important.” No — all black people are important, all of our issues are important, and there are enough people to do the work. It’s about us having a sound analysis of class, gender, ability, disability, citizenship, capitalism and so on, in our approach to the work.

Why do you think it is important that black women get involved in this work?

Black women have always been at the forefront of any social justice activism in this country. And I think particularly for young black women and girls, it’s important that we know we have a legacy of women and girls who came before us doing this work, so we have a responsibility to carry it forward. We experience every type of oppression possible, and so we are the best ones to be the voices and storytellers of what we need to change. Claudia Jones, a black communist and journalist who was also an immigrant and later forced to leave the United States, said that if black women were free, it would mean that everybody would be free, meaning that if black women were liberated, that would require the breaking of every system of oppression, and in doing so, that would free everybody. And I would add that if black transgender women were included into that analysis — were liberated — everybody would be liberated.


BYP100 focuses its work using a black queer feminist lens. Why is that important? Why is black feminism important?

Black feminism is an actual body of thought, and black women and feminism have been a part of black struggle forever, even if people didn’t call themselves feminists. Think as far back as women like [abolitionist and journalist] Maria Stewart in the 1800s who were very clear about the oppression we experienced and knew that our freedom as black people would require us to tend to black women. Black feminism has been in our communities for decades, if not centuries. I think the problem comes when white feminism — mainstream feminism — is the dominant narrative about what feminism is, and that has not been beneficial to black women who are not upper middle class or middle class or so-called working class.

For me, it’s knowing our history and not letting anyone else tell us who we are. I’ve talked with activist Barbara Smith, who is one of the architects of the black feminist movement and one of the coauthors of “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” She is a black woman. She’s also a black lesbian. I’m a black queer woman, and so those things are inseparable for me. I don’t see them as separate battles. Black feminism has always been about our lived experiences — it has never simply been about academic scholarship — and I think we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about what it is actually about.

As an organizer, what is your main goal?

It’s my responsibility to develop as many leaders as possible and to support the work that our members and our organization do to make sure that folks have a tight political analysis. That’s what I’m focused on — making sure that we are building political education opportunities for our members and other young black people across the country where we organize. That’s our responsibility as organizers and as activists; for those who are open to learning, we have to bring them into a process to develop a critical analysis.

If there is one step we can take today toward being better activists, what would that be?

Join an organization, particularly for black folks — one that centers on radical politics, with a vision toward building power for the sake of our liberation.

What is one thing you’ve learned in your life that you can share with another black girl?

That within our community and within yourself as an individual, we have everything we need. You are enough, you do enough, you say enough, and you are not in this alone — and never try to go it alone. Our liberation — our freedom — is dependent on struggling with one another and supporting one another and, most importantly, loving one another.