Everyday Revolutionaries: Book Review of Be a Revolution by Ijeoma Oluo

Everyday Revolutionaries: Book Review of Be a Revolution by Ijeoma Oluo

Ijeoma Oluo was the first author that I ever read on race. I didn’t review So You Want To Talk About Race when I read it in June 2020, because I read it merely to absorb information. I reviewed Mediocre more harshly than I should have, only correcting it, well, now. But I really like Oluo. Something about her being the author that introduced me to social justice makes me feel a deeper connection to her work than others’. Be a Revolution was no exception.

Ijeoma Oluo and Palestine

Additionally, Oluo’s Instagram post on October 13th, 2023, was the first I saw that alerted me to the escalating genocide in Gaza. And her post on December 3rd was the first that I saw decimating the erroneous concept of “vote blue no matter who.”

  • A screenshot of Oluo's Instagram post from October 13th, 2023. It is a screenshot of a New York Times article titled, "Israel Tells U.N. That All of Northern Gaza Should Evacuate" with the description reading, "The U.N. said the order to move about 1.1 million people living there to the southern half of the territory would lead to "devastating humanitarian consequences." Oluo's caption reads: Where?? Where do you evacuate to when you aren't allowed to leave and are already overcrowded on a small strip of land? This is what it looks like when a state gears up to justify wiping a people off the map. And if you aren't speaking up RIGHT NOW you are complicit."
  • A screenshot of Oluo's Instagram post from December 3rd, 2023. The image is the white text on a black background: "For all y'all ALREADY yelling 'vote blue no matter who'" and the caption reads: Right now, in the midst of a genocide that our administration is actively and enthusiastically supporting, y'all are already showing up in the comments of people who are voicing their disgust with Biden and the Democrats to remind people that "it would be worse with a Republican." I have some questions I want y'all to consider - NOT IN MY COMMENTS - on your own just to ask yourself and your conscience. 1) If you're prioritizing what might happen to you and yours in the future over what is absolutely happening right now to others, what does that say about how much you value those currently being maimed and killed by this administration? 2) If right now, even before primaries, you are pressuring people to signal that they will support Biden no matter what, what exactly do you think his motivation would be to stop this genocide? His conscience? The thing that hasn't factored in how a single US administration has made a foreign policy decision ever?? 3) If you're telling people it would "be worse" with a Republican are you thinking of those whose loved ones were killed by drones in the Obama administration, or those who were deported in record numbers? Or the Palestinian and Arab Americans whose tax dollars are being used to wipe out their entire families and they're being called antisemitic for trying to stop it while also facing increasing Anti-Muslim violence at home? Or are you just thinking of yourself because you're pretty sure that none of the above would ever happen to you and yours? 4) What would our Democratic party look like if we had held our "representatives" accountable for their drones, their deportation, their mass incarceration, their bombs, their ableism, their racism....just once...if THAT was what cost them their elections....what do you think your party would look like today? 5) If it's clear that our representatives would eagerly support ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to keep power, do you think they just might STOP supporting it to keep power as well? 6) Is it still "harm reduction" if it kills, but just doesn't kill you? 7) Do you think there should be a price to pay for supporting a genocide?

I needed a break from reading only books about Palestine, but I can’t think about anything else. Reading a truly revolutionary book by a bold and creative Black woman—and an unapologetic activist for Palestinian liberation—was a close second. And I was able to get it at my local Black-woman-owned bookstore, which I think Oluo would approve of!

Since Be a Revolution: How Everyday People are Fighting Oppression and Changing the World—And How You Can, Too came out, Oluo has been touring (in between speaking at protests!) and “bringing pro-Palestine love into so many spaces” with subtle and not-so-subtle Palestine-themed outfits. I had admired her already, but when people I followed before October 7th bring pro-Palestine solidarity into my feed, it restores my faith in humanity—even if it’s just a little bit.

Did this post turn into a Why I Love Ijeoma Oluo fan essay? Maybe. But I’m going to leave it like that. Because it gives you the context of where I was when I started this book.

Be a Revolution

Be a Revolution is Oluo’s love letter to the intersectional liberation movement. For her, it was a much-needed change in tone from her first two books.

By the time I sat down to figure out what my next project would be, I had been writing books on racism in America for five years straight. My first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, had me neck-deep in my own personal history with racism. My second book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, had me neck-deep in the history of violent white male supremacy in the US.

After five years on these projects, I was done. My heart and soul as a Black woman were so hurt. […] In some of my most difficult moments, it was the support of my family and the support of others in the anti-racist movement community—especially Black women—who cared for me, and gave me the safety and space to continue to move forward.

My initial plan, after finishing my last book tour, was to just spend time in community. […] But as I spent more time planning the beginning of my healing Journey, I realized I wanted my words and work to go toward sharing the stories and insights of these amazing people who give me hope every single day.

Ijeoma Oluo, Be a Revolution, pp. xii-xiii

For the most part, Be a Revolution gave me hope at the ends of long days during a time filled with tragedies. Oluo shared her conversations with 29 activists who are contributing their skills, expertise, and creativity to help their communities flourish.

I didn’t recognize any of the names beforehand, but I was especially excited to learn about Céline Semaan and Richie Reseda. Semaan founded Slow Factory, whose Instagram page I’ve followed for years. Slow Factory’s work focuses on climate justice’s intersections with other areas of liberation. And Richie Reseda runs For Everyone Collective, an abolitionist clothing group whose art I’m proud to show off. (If you haven’t been getting their ads yet, hopefully you will now! You’re welcome.)

Rebekah and her husband Johnathan pose for a selfie. Rebekah is holding a beer and wearing her beige For Everyone Collective t-shirt, which has an image of an abandoned police car with weeds growing through it. Johnathan is wearing a black t-shirt. In the background is a railing, and beyond that is a parking lot with a tree in it. The setting sun shines through the branches.

An intersectional lens

Oluo uses these activists’ work as a lens through which to explore different areas of liberation. The chapters in Be a Revolution are: “Punishment, Accountability, and Abolition,” “Gender Justice, Bodily Autonomy, and Race,” “Hierarchies of Body and Mind: Disability and Race,” “Race, Labor, and Business,” “Race, the Environment, and Environmental Justice,” “Race, Education, and the Pedagogy of Our Oppressors,” and “Arts, Race, and the Creative Forces of Revolution.”

It’s clear that race interacts with all of these topics, although even that seemingly obvious intersection has historically been ignored. The chapter on race and disability was especially revealing, as it seems that—at least in the spaces I’m in—disability has been seen as so separate from race and gender. But Oluo and her interviewees elucidate that racism and ableism “other” people in nearly identical ways. So disabled BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color: an acronym Oluo uses frequently in the book) have a compounded sense of being the “other” or outsiders.

Disability justice

Here’s how civil rights attorney Britney R. Wilson explained it to Oluo:

The definition of ableism that I teach to my [legal clinic] students is basically a ranking of bodies and minds according to societal definitions and constructions of what is normal, what is intelligent, what is productive, what is beautiful. And that, to me, by definition includes racism, because, you know, race is but one construct or one way in which to rank people’s bodies and minds.

Britney R. Wilson to Ijeoma Oluo, Be a Revolution, p. 158

As a matter of fact, disability justice is so tied to every aspect of liberation that Oluo wrote that this chapter “broke the entire book” for her.

In my head, I had all of these neat chapters organized by where people were fighting systemic racism. Were they fighting at the intersection of labor and race? Easy—that goes into the labor chapter. Were they fighting at the intersection of race and incarceration? Goes into the abolition chapter. Were they fighting at the intersection of gender and race? Goes in gender justice and feminism. […]

The truth is, a huge amount of the important work in racial justice and liberation has long been carried by the work of disabled BIPOC activists. And the work they do—and have done—intersects not only with race but also with every other oppression and system we can think of.

Ijeoma Oluo, Be a Revolution, pp. 123-124

Organizing organizers

I do find it interesting that Oluo arranged this book on intersectionality by sorting different approaches to collective liberation into separate buckets. In theory it sounds like it would contradict her efforts to show the clear ties between racism and, well, anything you can think of. But reading Be a Revolution only emphasizes that there are no isolated issues. By no means does Oluo erase that fact. She’s just creating a piece of work that isn’t a disorganized mess, even when the world she describes is. Each of the 29 activists she speaks with have a dedicated subsection, but several of them turned up throughout the book.

Be a Revolution was inspiring, but it wasn’t a one-note feel-good book. That’s not what we need. Folks are fighting racism in labor unions, ableism in carceral systems, and poverty in divested communities. But this work burns people out, and Oluo doesn’t shy away from that. Several of the featured activists tell Oluo without shame that they stepped down from their positions, closed their practices, or no longer offer their services.

Be a Revolution means just that

I was so appreciative of this realism, which drives home the fact that just because you’ve stepped down from doing the thing doesn’t mean you’ve failed. To me, that’s success: you gave it literally everything you had, and you knew your limits. Exhausted organizers can’t contribute what the movement deserves. That’s why we need more people fighting, especially younger people, to pick up the baton. And Be a Revolution is one catalyst that has surely lit that fire for so many readers.

One thought on “Everyday Revolutionaries: Book Review of Be a Revolution by Ijeoma Oluo

  • March 28, 2024 at 5:14 am
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    This looks brilliant and inspiring, thank you for highlighting it. I have become aware of quite a lot of work on global majority people and health treatments / outcomes but not specifically on disability so that sounds very useful.

    Reply

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