In a recent Jacobin article (reworked at Slate), Miya Tokumitsu argues that we should stop saying “do what you love,” (DWYL) because it “devalues actual work” and dehumanizes workers. Tokumitsu writes,
By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.
While Tokumitsu makes some great points, the article seems to miss the mark. The problem isn’t that a few smug elites (or idealistic moms) suggest doing what you love. DWYL is a saying; it doesn’t create the conditions for unpaid and low-wage labor, or any labor at all. The problem is that work has acquired a larger-than-life status, and — at least in the US — we’ve become committed to work as our life’s activity to the point that questions like why money is distributed how it is, or why the workweek is as long as it is are pretty much off the table. The problem isn’t DWYL (because we should, indeed, strive to do what we love with our time even if not as a job), but the problem is precisely that our attachment to the institution of work makes it so that people can’t do what they love, ever, even for a few hours a week, and they don’t have the time or resources to think about what they might love because their very livelihood is synonymous with something we call “work.”
Taken this way, our target of criticism is not a mostly innocuous phrase, or even the supposed ideology behind it, but rather the very institution of work that Tokumitsu seems unconcerned to interrogate. After all, it’s not as though the Steve Jobsian work ethic is the only one that’s problematic; our overall fetishization of “hard work” and the hugely popular Protestant work ethic that drives our economy, culture, and lifestyles is just as troublesome. This issue goes beyond fair compensation and leisure time and calls for reevaluating the way that we organize life around work over all else. Why is paid work our primary life activity, and why are we content to keep it that way? Even progressive views like Tokumitsu’s tend to take for granted and passively affirm compulsory wage labor as our dominant social and economic relation.
There must be a way to address employment conditions and demand that they improve now while also actively engaging the possibility and desirability of a postwork future. This is imperative not only because human experience should be about living creatively, building relationships, and, frankly, enjoying ourselves, but also because we have an empirical problem of permanent surplus labor. That is, too many people are competing for too few jobs just to get by; hence, the perpetual existence of an unemployed, or wageless, part of the US population. Combating this issue can’t simply mean fairer wages or “job creation,” but must entail a commitment to transforming society in ways that eliminate people’s dependence on the availability of wage labor and ensure that everyone has enough to do — and to discover — what they love.
I got into a disagreement today with some Grown Black Folks over this anti-sagging picture. A facebook friend of mine whom I don’t know at all posted this image, and though it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, I couldn’t let it slide without saying something – partially for fear that if I didn’t say something, no one in his circle would. I expressed my discomfort with the image, noting its implication that sagging is bad because sagging is gay. To which he responded, it implies that those who created the fad were convicts who wanted to signal they were sexually available. To which I asked why that information would discourage me from sagging. To which he replied that if I was okay “copying convicts who are looking for sex with other convicts” then it wouldn’t. For him, however, that’s discouragement enough.
Beyond the question of whether the historical claim is even accurate, this little piece of propaganda is wrong on so many levels. For one, it implies that something is wrong with incarcerated people. Because people in “jail” doing whatever they may do is somehow worse than people outside of “jail” doing those same things. It also implies that receiving anal penetration is something to be ashamed of. Though the ad manages to avoid using pronouns, it seems clear to me that it is directed at men and refers to men in “jail.” Hence, it’s not only that anal penetration is wrong and doubly wrong in jail but also, it’s worse to be the “bottom.” And not only is it worse to be the bottom but it’s also, perhaps separately, wrong to let others know you are available for sex. Is it just me or do none of these implications make sense? Why is letting people know you are available for sex a bad thing? Should we not want sex? Or should we only seek it in private with people we already know? Is anal penetration, like, wrong? Or only when cismen are penetrated by the biopenises of other cismen? I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t the concern be that people are making safer sex choices with those who also want to? Or am I missing something?
As for sagging itself – which this image is only mildly about – I have yet to hear a convincing argument against it. Is there even a way to think about sagging in the US in this day and age outside of the context of respectability politics? What, exactly, is the matter with it besides the problematic, racially-charged stigma people attach to it? Or is the stigma itself the problem people want to avoid?
This is one of those moments where I decide to just enjoy something.
I’m working on an essay about the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, and I came across this video for an annual event called Returning Hearts Celebration. Returning Hearts is organized by Awana Lifeline, a Christian “ministry effort” that started at Angola in 2004. The purpose of Returning Hearts is to allow incarcerated fathers a day with their kids, a day to play games, eat food, and learn the Bible. According to Awana Lifeline, the bad news is that over 5,000 people are imprisoned at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. And many of those inmates are fathers to a collective 20,000 children. What’s more, most of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole. The “good news,” though? “The good news is that over 1,000 inmates are Christians as well as the warden, Burl Cain.”
But how, exactly, is that the good news? When 95 percent of the inmates who enter Angola will die behind its walls? When 9 out of 10 of the fathers I see in this video will never spend time with their children outside of Angola’s gates, or walk outside with them for more than one day a year? When someone can be sentenced to 99 years for armed robbery, as per Louisiana’s sentencing laws? And I’m supposed to be convinced that anyone’s religious beliefs are the good news?
As I cried through the first half of the video, I was pressed to find the good news. Is it the laughter, the smiles, the tears? The contact and conversations and love? The one, or few, days a year when inmates and their visitors can just be? — in the moment, with each other, and exploring the spontaneity of social life among family and friends. These are things that all people, prisoners and not, parents and not, deserve. So in the age of incarceration, when so many people are locked away from so much of what makes up human experience, why is this made to feel like a victory?
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. I have plans to blog more, starting now, with weird things that might also be really good.
First, this video by FKA Twigs that was released in August. It’s a 3 minute and 23 second WTF moment. Don’t believe me just watch.
Second, this entire mixtape by Kelela, who, I think, might be perfect. In lieu of a video for a song off the mixtape that I think is both weird and really good, I’m posting the full mixtape.
Till next time.
As you listen to Sarah Collins Rudolph talk about her survival of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, you almost feel like you’re being offered a glimpse into the making of an out-and-out horror story. One minute, she was a 12 year-old girl in her church’s ladies’ lounge watching her 14 year-old sister tie the sash on a friend’s dress, and the next minute, she was being carried to the colored ambulance, the BOOM! still crashing around in her head and her skin perforated by glass. After two and a half months, she left the hospital with one less sister and one less eye and a glass replacement for the eye. Fifty years later, she lives with cataracts, PTSD, and glass obstinately stuck in her stomach and her “good eye.” Despite the mountains of financial, mental, and emotional burdens Collins Rudolph has struggled to mount since the bombing, she’s received no assistance from Birmingham, where she still lives and earns minimally as a domestic worker. It’s “like they’re saying, ‘Well, you didn’t die so don’t expect anything,’” she tells the interviewer, encapsulating the absurdity of it all. Her story evokes the unreality of the black living made socially dead — its nightmarish quality is like the behind-the-scenes-but-in-front-of-the-curtain of racial terror in the US — and you are somehow vehemently appalled while also furiously unsurprised.
That Sarah Collins Rudolph is overdue for compensation seems like a no-brainer. She’s been permanently scarred by an act of terror, the effects of which have cost her money, caused unfathomable trauma, and rerouted her life trajectory in numerous ways including interfering with her goal to become a nurse. What about this is fundamentally different from the attacks on the Boston marathon and the World Trade Center? Both of which, as Diane McWhorter highlights in her excellent NYT editorial, saw an outpouring of financial aid for the victims in their aftermath. How is Collins Rudolph, who is sometimes called “the fifth little girl,” so different from the victims of the racial violence that occurred in the black town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923, when homes, churches, and stores were torched and at least six black people murdered? The descendants of whom were compensated seven decades later, when the Florida senate put $1.5 million toward reparations for survivors, $500,000 toward those displaced, and $100,000 toward scholarships for descendants and other minorities. One state senator even said, “Our justice system failed the citizens of Rosewood.” If only it were an anomaly, this whole reparations business would be a lot easier.
But the “justice system,” mayor, city council, police chief, and fire department of Birmingham didn’t simply “fail” its black residents on September 15, 1963. These municipal entities didn’t play the role of bystander who was slow to act, morally implicated but factually absolved. On the contrary, city officials were complicit, on that day of many; they were enforcers and protectors of violence and the status quo in shamelessly racially discriminate ways. In that sense, maybe Collins Rudolph’s case is more like that of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps during World War II? That was government sponsored and at some point Reagan acknowledged a fraction of its awfulness and signed off on an act that allowed $20,000 in reparations to each survivor. But then, there are many other state-sponsored atrocities still, so perhaps there is no need for, or possibility of, a methodical means of comparison.
Yet, even if we were granted the likeness of tragedy and unpunctual compensation for Sarah Collins Rudolph, there would still be questions left unanswered concerning the debt the US owes for its enslavement and segregation of black Americans. These questions would not be the ones of logistical character that seem to always crop up in discussions of reparations: How would we determine who’s owed what? and how long ago do “past” wrongs reach?* The unanswered questions would rather be with regard to our commitments as a country that has sustained the wrongs it was founded on for over three centuries, wrongs from which one group benefited and others suffered. As a country whose White House and Capitol were built by slave labor. It is amid this past that we have to consider: For how long will we banish “reparations” from the domain of politically viable issues, rendering black suffering banal and the prospect of redress unspeakable? When will we forfeit the charade and definitively draw the curtains? The horror story that is some folks’ reality started long ago and belongs to us all — so what can we do to flip the script?
*It’s worth noting that despite the popularity of these questions, there have been reparations lawsuits filed, with the earliest known to have occurred in 1915 and multiple more recently. Some suits concern descendants of slaves and raise claims such as conspiracy and human rights violations against corporations, while others — like the case in Tulsa, Oklahoma – are against state and municipal actors and focus on the violent repression of Jim Crow.