Written by R.B. Brooks
In terms of literal size, this book is small– the size of my hand, and thin– 86 pages long. Readers learn almost right away that this palm-ready publication mirrors the tradition of grassroots organizers circulating pamphlets to spread the word about their causes. But don’t be deceived– this book is heavy, substantial, and one of those books you have to set down every few paragraphs to let out a hefty “whew,” absorb and dig back in once you’re ready.
We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice by adrienne maree brown is an honest book delving into what she names as some of her hardest and most frightening reflections on the current state of movement work. This booklet is an extension, and carefully crafted edit, of her July 2020 blog post “Unthinkable Thoughts: Call Out Culture in the Age of COVID-19.”
As she parses through what she’s learned and witnessed since posting the original piece and explains what motivated her to offer it as a booklet in edited form, these “unthinkable thoughts,” explicitly articulated as three key questions that guide the piece, become an invitation to contend with our own of ideas that cause uneasiness and readers will come away grateful (even if begrudgingly) that brown had the audacity to explore them.
amb gives a clear heads up about how and why she’s entering into this series of reflections and admissions. It’s evident that her drive to write this fuller work is rooted in both critique she’s received and her experiences in movement work. Her general tone is not one of convincing or positioning herself as an authorial voice, she emphasizes the collective “we” as she draws readers into her thought process. She doesn’t spend too much time breaking down a lot of introductory information beyond introducing herself to lay a grounding context for how she’s coming into this discussion.
However, she does dedicate space in the booklet to emphasize the necessity of being precise in our language by offering her lens on discerning between instances of abuse, conflict, harm, critique, contradiction, misunderstanding and mistake. She frames being able to make distinctions between these occurrences as a valuable tool for better determining what approaches, questions and actions could be applied depending on the situation and cautions against a growing propensity in movement work to collapse these terms in ways that dilute meaning and creates barriers to addressing them in meaningful ways.
She speaks as someone deeply situated in such spaces, not as a bystander looking in. She implicates all of us, including herself, as she talks extensively about the pace of social change work and later ties this observation to a commentary about how that pace then impacts (and in many cases problematizes) expectations about actions after a call out.
amb talks about the effects of social media making everything feel urgent and counters this with the idea of “real time” and that it “often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.” Along this theme of pace, brown insinuates that the instantaneity and heightened urgency offered by social media can often restrict opportunity for deep understanding and clarifying questions to identify specific needs and evaluate for possible processes.
Using a “call out” is not dismissed or discredited, but is nestled into amb’s fuller suggestion that it can be used as one tool among a wide arsenal of approaches in the interest of working through conflict, interrupting abuse, and transforming environments that can enable violence. She speaks to the potential of call outs losing their effectiveness when misapplied to instances of conflict or misunderstanding rather than used in an attempt to disrupt and discontinue abuses that were otherwise ignored or persisting. She encourages the idea of being in “generative conflict” by finding other tools to use in various scenarios, otherwise we risk there being no one left to “cancel.”
Fear comes up as a recurring theme throughout the book, starting with a compelling ideation on the intuitive power of “discernment” – what amb explains as a “set of noticings, fears, wisdoms, deductions, and gut tremblings that want to save, or even just improve my life.” She compares this to being frozen, unable to act or acting in unprincipled ways that contradict firmly held values around justice when we are operating under restraints of fear alone.
She further contends with fear by highlighting that the instinct to be part of a “public feeding frenzy” is fueled by an anxiety that if we don’t participate, we could be seen as apologists or as uninvested in social change. She says “we are fearful of taking the time to be discerning, because then we may have to recognize that we aren’t as skilled at conflict as we want and need to be, and/or that any of us could be seen as harm-doers.”
amb warns against false binaries (which this enby will always rally behind), insisting that harm-doers and survivors are often the same person and that the emerging principles of transformative justice invite us to hold this reality in mind. amb invokes the principles of emergent strategy in relationship with the central tenets of transformative justice and she deems it necessary to understand that our current structures permit and perpetuate violence that manifest as individualized, small-scale actions and that in order to interrupt these interpersonal harms, we must transform our larger environment by establishing new structures that prevent and disallow violence to be commonplace or acceptable.
Ultimately, We Will Not Cancel Us is a personal and powerful experience. In anticipated amb fashion, there are infinite questions posed both on the actual pages and inspired by reading through her grapplings. As custom in her work, she also commits to citing and invoking the sources of her learning, embedding the names and teachings of those who have laid groundwork or provided perspective on her consideration of this larger work. This is not a book to be underestimated for its short-length by attempting to rush through it because it will stop you cold in your tracks, draw gasps, and linger with you for infinite days after reading any section.
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adrienne maree brown is on Twitter at @adriennemaree and Instagram at @adriennemareebrown