Emblematic of a generation of men and women in the South that challenged their parents’ generation’s views on race, jobs, gender, sexuality, and a broader sense of the world, Anne Braden did more than look backwards. She, like Bayard Rustin, was a woman “ahead of her times, yet the times didn’t know it.” Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, a documentary from California Newsreel, highlights how she did not merely respond to the regressive and oppressive realities of the South, but instead looked forward toward a more just and equal society.
Like Ella Baker, Braden was committed to and involved in a myriad of movements, fighting against economic injustice, environmental injustice, war, classism, racism, and sexism. Where there was violence and degradation, Anne Braden was likely fighting alongside countless others. The film highlights not only her work, but her ethics and ethos, a willingness to confront injustice whereever it confronted her. Through the film, Braden expresses a level of fearlessness that spit in the face of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class inequality. She was always standing in opposition to white supremacy, on the other side of the police state, yet the danger and the consequences never led her to shy away from a fight.
What Anne Braden’s life reveals, and what Anne Braden: Southern Patriot demonstrates in vivid detail, is how her work was both an external fight and an ongoing reconcilliation with her own whiteness. Her fight was with her own privileges and their relationship to a broader system of white supremacy. In a powerful moment in the film, Braden recounts a moment of clarity where she felt the impact of American racism in her own ethos and worldview as much as with those “backwards neighbors”:
In the mornings before I came downtown I would call the courthouse, to see if anything big happened overnight, because if there had I’d have to skip breakfast usually and go on to the courthouse and get the details and get it into the first edition of the afternoon paper. When I would get downtown I often stopped for breakfast and met a friend there. And the waitress was putting our food down on the table. And so he said anything doing? And I said no, just a colored murder. And I don’t think I’d have ever thought anything about it if that black waitress hadn’t been standing there. She was pouring coffee into our cups and her hand was sort of shaking, but there wasn’t an expression on her face. It was like she had a mask. And my first impulse was that I wanted to get up and go put my arms around her and say, “Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s not that I don’t think the life of your people is important. It’s my newspaper that says what news is.” And then I just suddenly realized I had meant exactly what I’d said.
Listening to these words, and others from Braden, I was struck by the resonance within our own moment. The silence afforded to Chicago compared to Sandy Hook, for example, and the erasure of anti-black state violence and mass incarceration from public discourse highlight how Braden’s assessment still matters 40 years later. Her diagnosis of society, and every white member of society, remains an unfortunate reality and this is why her life’s work deserves attention.
Throughout her life, Anne Braden’s fight was not just with white supremacy, but also most importantly with white America. In actions and words, she challenged white America to make a choice, to decide whether or not to challenge racism, whether or not to accept the unearned benefits of American racism:
“What you win in the immediate battles is little compared to the effort you put into it but if you see that as a part of this total movement to build a new world, you know what could be. You do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America. There is another America!”
In a powerful letter she lays out the history of white supremacy, state violence, and the complicity of white women. She addresses patriarchy, and how white domesticity operates in relationship to white racism, and the demonization of black male sexuality.:
I believe that no white woman reared in the South-or perhaps anywhere in this racist country – can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls–absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white–absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other. … I don’t think all this will change until women-organized and strong and asserting their humanity-demand it. We haven’t had that kind of strength-and don’t now-because of the deep chasm that divides white women from black in our society, a chasm created by crimes committed in the name of white womanhood. It may seem paradoxical-but in this racist society we who are white will overcome our oppression as women only when we reject once and for all the privileges conferred on us by our white skin. For the privileges are not real-they are a device through which we are kept under control. We can make a beginning toward building a really strong women’s movement as we openly reject and fight racist myths that have kept us divided. We can begin by joining with our black sisters in a campaign to free Thomas Wansley-and go on from there to free others, and ourselves.
The power of Braden’s voice, the depth of her analysis, and a commitment to radical transformation was demonstrated throughout her life. The film amplifies her voice, elucidating her words and deeds; it spotlights the influence and lasting impact she had on a generation of activists and freedom fighters, students and teachers. She was part of a cadre of people who demanded change while being that change. “They were people who were labeled the rebels, the renegades, the outliers. People who weren’t afraid to be called crazy or in Ella Baker’s case difficult, in Anne Braden’s case red,” notes Barbara Ransby in the film. “Dreamers that catapult us into a different place. She was born at a time in the Jim Crow south in which there was a very rigid script about what a middle class white woman could be and do. And pretty much Anne Braden violated every page of that script with great pride.”
Anne Braden was a dreamer and a fighter, an inspiration whose work provides a pathway forward. The question is: Are we listening and are we following not just her example but our own dreams and desires to violate the scripts afforded to each and everyone of us?