The year was 2020. There was and still are dueling pandemics that plague social and intrapsychic life. Crises can reveal many things. Among the revelation, there is life. There are relationships and intimacy that blossoms and fuels the locomotive of resistance. What does it mean to be bound to a horizon that hinges upon the freedom for all? That question becomes elucidated in this interview with the editors of the anthology How We Stay Free: NOTES ON A BLACK UPRISING (Common Notions, 2022), Christopher R. Rogers, Jasmine L. Combs, and Fajr Muhammad. Editors Rogers, Combs and Muhammad generously share their perspectives on the uprisings that occurred during summer 2020 in Philadelphia and internationally.
JASMINE GIBSON: The West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (WPCA) has been established in the community since 1984. The year after its founding the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the MOVE Organization in West Philadelphia. In its wake, WPCA established itself as a cultural center of healing and justice, and expanded years later to acquire and operate the historic property at 4951 Walnut St. as the Paul Robeson House & Museum. How would you place the Paul Robeson House and Museum and this book in the context of Philadelphia today?
CHRIS: I first came into the Paul Robeson House & Museum in Fall 2015 after the passing of our founding WPCA Executive Director Frances Aulston. She committed her entire life to support Black cultural production in West Philadelphia, get this museum placed on the map, and teach the youth of our neighborhood on Paul Robeson’s contributions to the world. We do not define ourselves as an activist organization, yet the life work of Paul Robeson or Uncle Paul, as we say around here, tracks through every global peoples’ resistance movement of the 20th Century, from the Soviet Revolution, to Pan-African anticolonial struggle, the Civil Rights Movement, and the blossoming of Third World organizing. We aim to recover, steward, and extend these histories through our relationship to ongoing organizing in Philadelphia because that is the work that Paul & Essie championed throughout their lives. Not simply to acquire and hold this knowledge, but to share with the world in a manner that supports ongoing movement work. Interestingly enough, one of those current projects includes partnering with the MOVE Organization in the development of their own community archive, which returns to this breakthrough moment for our organization in our early years. I’m excited to see that work get off the ground.
JASMINE GIBSON: The act of creating an anthology is an art. It is the delicate and precise action of curating and orienting voices to be amplified. Like a choir plugged into an electric amp. How did y’all decide what to put into the How We Stay Free anthology and what to leave out?
FAJR: That is a beautiful and powerful way to describe the process. It was a collective effort between ourselves as editors and the contributors as writers, organizers, and artists. Early on, Chris and I decided that the contributors would lead the tone and theme of their work and that we would take our cues from them. We edited but we wanted to stay true to their intentions. While we had ideas around topics, we wanted the space to honestly reflect how the actions took shape, ebbed and flowed, and how their feelings took similar trajectories. Providing an open-ended platform seemed like the best way to get to authentic reflection. In terms of editorial focus, we kept the lens centered on Black Philadelphians and the actions of 2020.
JASMINE GIBSON: Robeson was an active theoretician and staunch critic of American nationalism. What was the process like collecting essays for How We Stay Free?
CHRIS: Yes, this was such a crucial part of this entire process. We had a two-fold effort that focused on commissioning pieces from folks that we knew played a role in turnkey campaigns while leaving space through open submissions to receive fantastic creative work from Black Philadelphians across the city. We knew organizations like the Black Philly Radical Collective and Philadelphia Housing Action had to be included. We knew we wanted to find people who were on the frontlines of organizing mutual aid efforts, and were grateful to be introduced to Jena Harris of Bunny Hop PHL. We knew we needed material that spoke to those incarcerated and those organizing for their freedom from within the prisons and jails. We were grateful to have a contribution from Matthew Early and Saleem Holbrook. We thought about all the types of formal and informal organizing taking place, and these connections spilled out from those we had in our circle and many who came to us by way of a trusted friend’s recommendation.
Overall, Fajr and I made sure that the anthology centered on agency, centered on care, and in meaningful ways challenged the idea of the spectacular moments that can overtake much of the mainstream reporting on Black freedom movement activity. We wanted to focus on the people and the labor that takes place behind the scenes, that envisions what's possible through a commitment to long-term organizing and not just the flash point of any moment of crisis. We wanted the enduring questions and lessons that people would ask their comrades, that folks within organizations struggle to find direction upon. And we wanted it to be accessible. We wanted those on the edges of the movement to see their own lives reflected and find an entrypoint into the types of movement labor that suits their gifts and political development.
JASMINE GIBSON: As an internationalist and West Philly jawn, I appreciated the international insistence starting with your editor’s note to look into your history as well as the history of others. How do you maintain your orientation to Philly but also towards the world?
CHRIS: Word, and we are glad to have you back in the city! This question brings me back to one of the moments that we intended to explore with Krystal Strong, a leader within BLM Philly and the Black Philly Radical Collective, which went Philly-viral during the riots after the Philadelphia police murdered Walter Wallace Jr. in October 2020. There’s this quick clip of a Black teenage girl on 52nd & Chestnut near that McDonalds, and she’s articulating what’s so messed up and why it’s time to shut it down. She yells, “this the same thing that’s happening in Nigeria. And they going off too!”, referencing the END SARS demonstrations that were happening at that time. And that moment was something that Krystal reflected on, this Black West Philly teenage girl who recognized beyond these imaginary borders and fictional U.S. exceptionalism, there’s people I am connected to, suffering under the same regimes of violence, and refusing to be silent—a renewal of a deeply-rooted Black Philly Pan-Africanist spirit. With everything going on, we never finalized that piece for the anthology. Maybe we can get it done for the website? Oh yes, we got to promote the website too: howwestayfree.com
However, it speaks to how we architected the collection to echo these critical transnational connections, even as we are doing a deep dive on Black Philadelphia. We want people to come to this collection recognizing that what’s at play here in Philadelphia is interconnected at both intimate and global scales with resistance taking place all throughout the diaspora. There’s a consistent thread of conversations between organizers taking place and many are drawing upon some of the same political theories and revolutionary case studies. What’s important for How We Stay Free is that we want readers to recognize the abundance of strategies that people are taking up locally, and that there is, and will always remain, an ecosystem of Black-led freedom movement activity that is irreducible to any one organization or set of leaders. When this tradition is given our attention to be made visible, our commitment for collective study, and our labor to make anew, we’ll be able to drive liberation work further everywhere. There need not be one of these books simply of Philadelphia, nor does it have to be frozen to just 2020. Paul Robeson modeled this mission of uplifting people’s struggles from the communities he visited all throughout the world. Let a thousand books bloom. These are the practices that make for a healthy radical internationalist left.
JASMINE GIBSON: Robeson was a poet. How We Stay Free has a poetry section reflecting on the multifaceted presence of Black uprising and autonomy. What was the process of collecting the poetic material?
JASMINE COMBS: The poetry featured in How We Stay Free was collected through an online call for submission shared amongst writers, organizers, and activists from or based in Philly. The other editors and I worked together to select which pieces moved us and spoke to the mission of How We Stay Free. From there, I worked directly with each poet to edit their pieces from the rough drafts submitted to the final drafts you see in the anthology.
CHRIS: It was important for us to be able to include different forms of witnessing and processing the events of the summer. There’s particular human emotions that can be translated through poems in ways no other written form can convey. We were so grateful to have Jasmine participate in the process, being a guide for the poems to be included within the collection. She’s held down the Philly poetry scene for many years and worked alongside so many local poets. I’m reminded too of her performances at Malcolm X Park during one of the many 2020 Black community rallies there. There’s this one poem she has about the circles Black women create to cope and heal that I believe to be canon.
JASMINE GIBSON: Music, culture, sex, conflict, uprisings, food, and all substances that accentuate life cast a mood over projects. What were y’all listening, reading, eating, etc. while creating How We Stay Free?
CHRIS: This is such a great question. And it gets some coverage in a submission to the collection from Malkia Okech, who does an amazing job at documenting some of what she calls “resistance objects,” which both spurred and sustained Black Philadelphians through the 2020 protests. Listening, I gotta show love to Philly’s own Moor Mother. She’s been on one recently, bringing radical afrofuturist ideas to the forefront. For written work, I have to give a major shoutout to The End of Chiraq which gave me a blueprint about mapping out how to write about the narrative of a community within a cross-generational forum. And as we got further into the manuscript, contemporary essays reflecting on 2020 like Hannah Black’s Go Outside for ArtForum and Tobi Haslett’s Magic Actions for N+1 were pacesetters. And revisiting Freedomways! Run by Robeson mentees Esther Cooper Jackson and Jack O’Dell, Freedomways represented a critical avenue for recovering a Black radical internationalist legacy with legendary contributors between the late 1950s and 1980s. It’s open access now, too. Everyone needs to return to Freedomways. Maybe begin with the special Paul Robeson issue.
FAJR: So I was trying to be surrounded by history and pulled every Black anthology I could find. Something about being surrounded by voices and stories from the not so distant past helped me to see the ground How We Stay Free was walking. The Black Woman edited by Toni Cade Bambara really helped hone the purpose and politics. I read and reread Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal’s introductions and afterword for Black Fire. I also referenced some of the personal essays in Tarana Burke’s anthology You Are Your Best Thing to help contributors shape and sharpen their work.
JASMINE GIBSON: At the heart of How We Stay Free is the insistence on relationships from meetings at Church of the Advocate or making food together or mutual aid groups or even people coming together to create worker collectives. What are the relationships that made How We Stay Free?
FAJR: Relationships made this book. I have to give huge props to Chris in this regard. He knows everybody! And not just knowing everyone, he has great capital with people in that he could just fire off a text with an ask and folks would be like, “Ok, I’m in.” That told me a lot about the caliber of his relationships. Additionally, we looked for people we were already in community with to do the work including Maya Arthur, Jasmine Combs, and Jared Michael Lowe, who we both reached out to and were down immediately off the strength of the project, but also probably off the strength of us.
CHRIS: Relationships are crucial to the work that we do at the Paul Robeson House & Museum. This book is not possible without the longstanding relationships we have to organizers and activists who are on the ground in Philadelphia and see the Paul Robeson House & Museum as a historic site and community center which stands in solidarity with their mission. We’ve built our programming around serving these audiences before it became a corporate hashtag, and remain excited to grow in this effort. For museums, there’s a world of a difference between solely exhibiting Black life and being fully invested in Black life, and at 4951 Walnut St., you feel it. This is what makes the Robeson House such a dynamic leader within the arts and culture ecosystem of Philadelphia. How does the programming we do at the Museum explicitly refuse to be boxed in as the “past,” or challenge the perceived distance from the lives of everyday folks in our communities? How do we emphasize through our lens and our invitations that we ALL hold the revolutionary possibility for making history? We seek to live the philosophy of Paul Robeson daily and through that principled engagement. We bring his legacy alive for new generations.
JASMINE GIBSON: What is one thing y’all would like readers to come away thinking or feeling after reading How We Stay Free?
FAJR: Possibility. So much of the actions and strategies of 2020 were new to young people and opened an avenue of resistance that many were not intimate or familiar with, which is great and one of the brilliant things that came out of this year. But I also think it felt like a blip on the radar and not another necessary step in a longer journey. First, I hope readers see themselves and the actions they took (or saw on the news) in these pages.Second, I hope they see that resistance and change are possible. The Housing Action and encampments story displayed so poignantly what can happen when regular people fight back and demand their needs. If it was possible for them, it’s possible for all of us.
CHRIS: Call me an educator, but I’m excited to see how this work may inspire more writing about contemporary Black-led organizing. I’ve noticed how our political movements have been challenged by regimes of celebrity, which in some ways determine who gets a book deal to tell the story of what’s being learned and practiced in certain formations. We don’t have to be resolved to these narrow conditions of mainstream publishing, as we hold the tools to do more to expansively create avenues for reflection, study, and experimentation. How are we documenting our questions and lessons for ourselves and future generations? No one can do this work for us. It may not look like a full publishable manuscript, but we must be invested in habits of self and collective reflection if we are to build movements which will win our liberation.