In a Racist Society, There’s No Such Thing as Fair Labor
Here in Northern California there have been tremendous windstorms recently, with gusts sometimes getting up to 90 mph. A piece of Highway 1 washed away and fell into the ocean. There has been lightning, an occurrence formerly rare for this part of the country.
A good friend who has moved out of the city and off the grid now rents a tiny cabin in the mountains. I go up there on occasion to write and help with some of the labor that comes with living off the grid and in the woods. Digging ditches to prepare for floods, setting traps for rodents, putting up owl boxes to attract birds to help with the aforementioned rodents. And, of course, wood gathering. The entire winter runs on wood: gathering wood, chopping wood, curing wood.
I grew up and have always lived in cities and the occasional town—always in a place with municipally provided water and electricity, always in a place where chores consisted entirely of dishes, sweeping, maybe some toilet brushing. I am not used to subsistence chores, chores that must be completed in order to survive. But I am learning them.
Recently, a surprise snowstorm (also something of a rarity) occurred where my friend lives. The trees buckled under the weight of the snow and the wind; entire pieces, some of them weighing upwards of a thousand pounds, collapsed. I went up there to help her break them down and move them away from the road, away from the solar panels.
It was steady labor. First figuring out together how to set, check, and operate the chainsaws, dismantling them, adjusting tensions, setting chainbreaks, and oiling parts. Then it was a matter of working through the big trees one limb at a time, sawdust flying, the smell of burning wood. My friend had gone off to work on another tree and I was by myself . Once I had broken down a major tree that threatened the solar panel, the only source of power for the cabin, then came the slow tedious work of de-limbing the smaller pieces using a combination of shears and saws and hands.
Snow was still on the ground, though the afternoon sun had emerged. Still cold enough to see breath but now with a thin layer of sweat forming under my beanie, my hands growing numb in the work gloves. I had not eaten a lot yet, and was hungry when I began the work, but I noticed that the hunger had kind of faded into the background. I noticed that the annoyance with every single part of the job, the poking branches, the cold on my toes, the ache in my shoulder, had all faded. I noticed that thoughts in my head were coming clearly. Thoughts about my family, about love, about my writing. Thoughts about my childhood, my parents, my future.
I noticed that the longer I worked, the more energized I felt. A clean energy, a clear one. The mess of branches and leaves from the bay laurel at my feet became a maze, a puzzle that I could not stop myself from solving. Now this branch can be broken, now this limb shortened, now this log tossed over the fence into the pile of wood to be seasoned for at least two years before burning. I do not know how long I was in this state, this state of there being nothing — no hunger, no pain — but work. Later my friend would call it “flow state,” a phrase I’d heard before but that made more sense today.
Once, for a podcast, I interviewed a beloved Black Buddhist who — in an offhanded joke — pointed out that the last thing we as Black people needed was jobs, because we’ve been working for 400 years. I laughed in the booth and there was a small row among the production staff about whether to include the comment in the final edit.
It struck me that there were White staffers who were not entirely comfortable with this idea, even as a joke. Their objections were couched in different terms — I remember one saying that listeners might be “alienated” — but I guessed that underneath the wordplay was an actual discomfort about what was a deeply radical and anti-capitalist idea: that labor was neither mandatory nor noble the way that our national narrative made it out to be, most especially not for Black Americans. This is the problem with living under an oppression that is equal parts capitalist and racist. Your labor is stolen, used to enrich others. Your value is dependent upon what you can produce, not for yourself but for your oppressors.
Under these circumstances, work itself is oppressive. You may do it because you have no choice, because you need to pay rent or feed your family. You may do it because you convince yourself that it is noble or righteous. But in these conditions it is not. The only noble labor is the labor you do for yourself, for the ones you love. For your friends, for your community. This labor is freeing, and powerful.
But the labor you do for these reasons is not labor that pays. That is the way it is designed. Just as a forest is beautiful, but has no value under capitalism unless it is cut down, labor is beautiful, but it has no value under capitalism unless it is used to enrich someone else. This is the spiritual and emotional tragedy of trying to have a self under this system. We lose out on the experience of labor for loved ones and community and self, because there is not enough time to do it. The labor for someone else’s money must always take priority. Of course you can buy your way out of that. You can retire to your own cabin, get your own land, start your own community. But even that costs. Even the money to do that must be made somewhere, and the only way to make that money for yourself is to make more of it for someone else.
Is this communism I’m preaching? Is it socialism? I don’t know if it is. More to the point, I don’t care. I know that these labels largely function as ways to categorize and separate out lived human truths from one another, making them easier to quantify and manage, and ultimately to dismiss. I only know what my experience is, and it is that when I work for people I love, then I can love working. It is that I am increasingly resistant to the idea of using the limited and aging energy of my time, my body, my spirit, myself for the purpose of upholding a system that does not uphold me or my loved ones. It is that a large majority of what I’ve been taught about being “good” is really just that. I know that I sound like a teenager right now, and I know that teenagers are often right about these things. I know that this is the kind of stuff that I was told not to think or talk about when I was growing up. I know that I was told to be a hard worker, to be good, to earn a living. I know that I have done that and I continue to do it, that I have to pay rent, feed my kids, pay my taxes.
But I also know that winds are blowing in ways that they have not blown before. I know that trees are falling, roads are slithering into the ocean, an ocean which has been here before this and will be here after. And I know that the only meaningful labor under these circumstances is the labor that protects and cares for those I love.