by Michal “MJ” Jones
Recently, I was denied a job opportunity I was jazzed about. The position had a lot of responsibilities that I know I am good at and, even better, it was work I wanted to be doing. I was shocked and taken aback at first when I didn’t get the offer. I thought things went really well in the interviews and they even took the next step to call my references.
After feeling like they’d toyed with my heart, I opened their latest newsletter and saw the new staff announcement. “Oh, that’s the person they picked?!” I thought. “Good luck with that. Kinda feel like I woulda been perfect, but y’all gon’ ahead…”, and on and on. Basically, my ass was showing in all its insecure glory.
There’s nothing wrong with being proud of ourselves because we’re magical and committed to the work of gettin’ free in our own ways. But for me, sometimes, my insecurity gets in the way, and instead of being proud, I become egotistical and self-aggrandizing. Instead of trying to help us all get free, I find myself dismissing or judging others.
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I’m a Black, queer, genderqueer, shy and awkward kid. Through most of my childhood and young adult life I‘ve been an easy target for bullying. As I got older and met other Black and queer activists and artists of color, I felt a strange mixture of being at home and also being threatened by the brilliance of those around me.
The mainstream messages of white supremacy and capitalism tell folks of color that our contributions aren’t good enough, and that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. The message is reinforced in our schools, jobs, and institutions. This narrative often has me believing that I ain’t shit. Sometimes I overdo it when it comes to trying to unlearn that story and I end up believing I am in competition with my peers. Instead of defining myself within community, I become preoccupied with my long list of accomplishments as an individual.
One time I even said to my mom, “I love doing this work. I wanna be the next Audre Lorde!”
“Or, you could be the first Michal Jones, you know?” my mama responded to me. In saying this, she reminded me of my own power and urged me to keep on keepin’ on in my own way. And she was right (as she often is). I couldn’t be anyone else but myself if I tried.
When I returned to the Bay Area two years ago and became involved in all-Black and queer-centered organizing groups, I was pretty quickly disillusioned to see how attached we all were to individual achievements. It felt like we were all out here tryna be the next Audre, Huey P., or Angela so badly that we didn’t let ourselves, or anyone else, be themselves.
We threw shade when someone else’s version or path to liberation looked tactically different from our own. We were secretive about opportunities we were pursuing on our own rather than sharing them with everyone. We weren’t accountable for creating harm in our communities because doing so might’ve messed with our image. We cared about positioning ourselves where we would get the most attention, instead of where we were needed most. We saw each other as a list of achievements and interviews, rather than seeing each other first.
This often meant getting into beefs about who is and isn’t doing “enough” for the movement instead of lifting up all of our voices. It also meant neglecting to cultivate genuine, caring community in efforts to compete and curate our own image or brands.
It would’ve been dope if we could’ve celebrated the gifts of every single person and shined in our collective brilliance. But the internalized dog-eat-dog narrative told us to keep competing.
As I’ve been humbled, I recognize that liberation is impossible if my only focus is in making history. Gettin’ free leaves room for all of us to shine in the movement.
Liberation work is not a competition. Gettin’ free should mean that we know we’re all giving what is in our capacity to give, and that we all learn from each other. It sometimes means that those of us with more privilege sometimes need to give up the floor to those who’ve never had the opportunity to tell their stories. It means that we can keep our egos in check and figure out how to struggle together.
To me, moving away from competition starts with the awareness that we are enough. Through all of the oppressive narratives that tell us not to love ourselves, we are enough. When I accept that I’m worthy and powerful and brilliant all on my own, I feel less threatened when others are, too. Gettin’ free isn’t a competition; it’s an opportunity to more radically love ourselves and uplift each other.
This is hard for me. I know that I’ve been guilty of creating and fueling competition in my community because I struggle with my relationship to myself. I’ve worked hard to create the version of myself I want to be in the world. Yet, I’ve struggled to believe in my own voice and power.
Remembering my own value is an ongoing process for me, one that has to be put into practice every single day. And it never happens in isolation. It’s often through words of affirmation from those around me. It’s through daily mantras that remind me that I am enough. It’s through seeing the magic that community can create when we hold each person, even as we’re learning to hold ourselves. We can love and appreciate each other’s contribution even more when we know our own value.
Michal “MJ” Jones is an awkward Black queerdo, activist, and musician writing from Oakland, CA. They believe in the power of vulnerability, creativity, artistic expression, and music to radically transform individuals and connect community.
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