This New Magazine Aims to Be a Home for the Black Left

This New Magazine Aims to Be a Home for the Black Left

This New Magazine Aims to Be a Home for the Black Left

The thousands who were mobilized by George Floyd’s murder need a place to debate strategy and stay engaged. Hammer & Hope wants to be just that.

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Last summer, editor Jen Parker reached out to the tenant activist group KC Tenants with an invitation. Would the group write for the inaugural issue of a new publication on Black politics and culture that she and the historian and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor were launching? KC Tenants’ remarkable successes preventing evictions and winning protections for tenants in Kansas City had come up when Parker and her team brainstormed organizing victories they wanted to highlight, and she wanted to give the group the floor to report on their wins and analyze their challenges. Parker offered the group plenty of space to tell their story and told them to write for an audience of activists passionate about racial justice.

The KC Tenants activists got to work. First, nearly two dozen leaders in the Kansas City tenant union had to approve the request for a story. (Members are serious about steering any narrative about their work and prefer a collective storytelling approach over having one person’s perspective or byline represent the whole group.) Then two organizers who had been particularly active pulled together the elements they would need to write a draft: a timeline of events beginning with the organization’s 2019 founding, relevant social media posts, reflections gathered from others who’d joined the struggle. Finally, the writers worked with Parker and other editors to shape the piece into something digestible for a national audience.

The finished product ran beneath the headline “Could We End Evictions?” and was published mid-February as part of the inaugural issue of Hammer & Hope. Chronicling the group’s Zero Eviction January campaign, during which it blocked more than 900 evictions across Jackson County, the article has elicited an emotional response from those at the center of the story. People have teared up reading it, said Tara Raghuveer, one of the authors. It’s brought a deep sense of pride and a rush of intense memories, both happy and disturbing. It’s also offered a bird’s-eye view of a momentous campaign that drew attention nationwide. “We all had our seat on the bus, but we didn’t get out of the bus to see the whole thing,” Raghuveer said. “It was such a gift to be asked to really dig deep about what we learned from Zero Eviction January and how it shaped our union today.”

In launching Hammer & Hope and assigning stories such as this one, Taylor and Parker intend to give organizers on the left a platform to reflect and share strategies, insights, and questions across movements. An editorial bloc suggests writers, reviews pitches and comments on drafts as they come in. This team of advisers includes writer Derecka Purnell, philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, filmmaker Astra Taylor, and law professor Amna Akbar. A broader community of leading left thinkers is on call to add their perspectives on pieces as needed, Parker said. Sarah Fan edits stories, and Nia T. Evans was an integral part of the team before leaving in April for another opportunity. Contributors include academics and journalists, as well as poets and artists who work in various mediums. The day after Valentine’s Day, smack dab in the middle of Black History Month, Hammer & Hope offered the Internet a love song to Black people the world over. An introductory essay establishes the magazine’s scope as reaching “from Brooklyn to Bahia to Botswana.”

If the need for such a space hadn’t already been obvious, the past three years have brought a new urgency. Months into the pandemic, George Floyd was killed, and millions of people responded by flooding the streets to demand change. After that period of mass protest quieted, the question became “how to not have the totality of the political energy that had been generated just thrust into the Biden presidential election and then the Georgia [US] Senate races,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a contributing writer at The New Yorker and former contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Ideally, organizations would have developed easy-to-access on-ramps so that those who mobilized through direct action could find political homes and stay engaged, she said. “We didn’t see that develop.”

So she and Parker created their own institution—a digital magazine that seeks to educate and inspire people on the left, the newly radicalized as well as those with decades of movement-building experience. Its name is inspired by Hammer and Hoe, the 1990 book by historian Robin D.G. Kelley that chronicles the Alabama sharecroppers and laborers who made up the state’s Communist Party in the 1930s and ’40s and challenged both Jim Crow and capitalist exploitation. As its name suggests, the magazine is an intellectual space committed to exploring both historical context and contemporary struggle. That’s an especially important mandate now, given state and local governments’ attacks on Black radical thought by banning books and gutting curricula that teach about systemic racism and other forms of discrimination embedded in American society. Taylor, who is also a professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, is among the scholars whose work has been removed from the College Board’s curriculum for Advanced Placement African American Studies. The removal of her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation came after Florida’s Department of Education, with the support of Governor Ron DeSantis, blocked the teaching of the course in that state.

At a time when the right wing has set out to undermine honest presentations of US history by seeking to ban the teaching of what opponents call “critical race theory” and the proliferation of ideas compiled by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, another Black publication might take a defensive or corrective stance. Not Hammer & Hope. Instead, the magazine presumes that its readers understand that such attacks are baseless, so writers are liberated to advance the conversation in ways that feel fresh and imaginative. “We’re not interested in debate for debate’s sake,” Taylor said. “We see this as, at its best, an effort to develop, educate, organize a new generation of radicalized people.”

The cofounders’ professional experiences have shown them just how much the public discourse needs an unapologetically left perspective. Before launching this project, Parker edited opinion pieces at The New York Times. She recalls a 2020 essay published in the op-ed section in which Senator Tom Cotton called for the federal government to send troops to cities where protesters (Cotton called them “lawbreakers”) demanded accountability after Floyd was murdered by police. Outrage over the piece—including from staffers at the Times—was immediate, and the paper eventually acknowledged that the editorial process had been rushed.

The Cotton incident was just one of many times she felt out of sync with the ethos of the Times, Parker said. “It’s like an alternate reality,” she says of her former employer. “My perception is they think left politics are unreasonable.” Still, while there she was able to publish provocative essays from abolitionist and organizer Mariame Kaba, poet Caroline Randall Williams, and Kenya Slaughter, a Louisiana mother who continued to show up for work at retail giant Dollar General in the early days of the pandemic. “I was successful,” Parker says of her tenure at the Times. “But it’s different when it’s a battle to get the pieces through versus [working with] an institution that already agrees with the values and politics that you’re bringing.”

Parker went to the Times after working in communications at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she’d been involved in the campaign to end the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which targeted Black and Latino New Yorkers and was found unconstitutional in 2013. In some ways, Hammer & Hope aligns more with a tradition of storytelling Parker had continued while advocating an end to racial profiling than with her work at the paper of record. Organizers on the American left who aimed to transform politics and culture or critique capitalism have always had their own communications vehicles. Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 as the country’s first Black-owned and operated newspaper, advocated the abolition of slavery. Taylor also points to Freedomways, the journal of African-American politics and culture that featured and was led by some members of the Communist Party and chronicled the civil rights movement and other Black radical efforts in the mid-20th century. In their introduction to the magazine, Taylor and Parker write that they are indebted to the Black Panther Party’s newspaper, which had a wide circulation nationwide in the late 1960s and into the ’70s. The cofounders quote a Panther who documented this part of the group’s history: “‘We feel that information is the raw material for new ideas,’ their de facto archivist Billy X Jennings told a reporter in 2019, adding, ‘We sought to find solutions to problems instead of just reporting the news.’”

The intentions are similar across the decades. But unlike the Panthers’ effort, Hammer & Hope was not created to raise the profile of any one organization. While that KC Tenants essay on Zero Evictions January has successfully held a mirror up to the activists who made it happen, its editors also hoped it would teach something significant to readers nationwide. “To really get people to talk about organizing in ways that are not canned and made palatable for a reporter is something we want to do, because it’s a source of useful, actionable, practical information that another tenant organization could read and learn a lot from,” Parker said. “We want to see these struggles strengthened. We want organizers to collaborate with each other.” She points out that the campaigns in which people achieve their practical goals are often “hyper-local struggles.” Hammer & Hope intends to play a role in putting the leaders of such struggles in communication with one another.

Sometimes those accounts leave the reader feeling energized and hopeful, such as when KC Tenants explains why it leads with pragmatism: “Others organize around ideology; we organize around mutual interests. We have unionized trailer-park residents and yuppies, Trump voters and anarchists, Black tenants and white tenants, young people renting their first apartments, and seniors with decades of gripes with the landowning class.” But in addition to inspiration, Hammer & Hope seeks to publish honest evaluations of activist efforts. Elsewhere in the essay, the writers tell of trying to stop an eviction using a new-to-them tactic: blocking a tenant’s doors to keep the sheriff’s deputies from entering. Things don’t go as planned. “They called the cops for reinforcement; two of our leaders were handcuffed, and we couldn’t stop the landlord from changing the locks. It was completely botched. The tenant lost her home.” From the failure comes important insights that the authors aren’t afraid to share with readers: “This experiment had been doomed from the start because we lacked a pre-existing relationship with the tenant, we had mismanaged her expectations of the action (and our own), and we didn’t have a plan for the scenario that played out. Sloppy. More than that, harmful.”

Readers can learn from these missteps, but also from what KC Tenants did next: “We could have stopped there,” Raghuveer told me. Instead, she and others in the organization decided to go back to disrupting the virtual meetings held at housing court, a tactic that had already generated the desired result of stopping evictions. “That persistence, that relentless is a theme in the story and ultimately paid off in huge ways.”

Monifa and Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, two longtime organizers with the Malcolm X Grassroots Project (MXGM), write elsewhere in the magazine’s first issue with a similar vulnerability. Their piece, titled “Why We Work to Free Political Prisoners of the Black Power Era,” outlines how that movement’s tactics have changed over the years. The Akinwole-Bandeles are ideal messengers for the story. They are themselves children of Black activists who were involved in the Black Panther Party and the East, a Brooklyn-based Pan-Africanist organization. “We were born in the 1970s and came of age alongside children separated from their activist parents. We saw their pain up close,” they write. They joined MXGM’s New York chapter in the mid-1990s, and at that time the movement’s goal was to raise awareness. They created outreach materials, placed articles in sympathetic media outlets, and hosted hip-hop benefit shows with star-studded lineups, all to educate the public that US prisons housed Black people whom the state had targeted for arrest and prosecution in the 1970s and early ’80s because of their participation in radical political activities. The goal was to make sure people knew the names and stories of Mumia Abu Jamal, Mutulu Shakur and other incarcerated Black activists.

Engaging artists including dead prez, Erykah Badu, and Talib Kweli helped shift public consciousness, but that approach didn’t bring the aging incarcerated activists home. “So we co-founded a task force with a handful of skilled litigators, policy experts, and organizers, working closely with allied elected officials,” the Akinwole-Bandeles write of the strategic pivot. “We changed our approach from an awareness campaign to freedom campaigns, focusing on clemency and litigation to challenge convictions. We recognized that parole was an avenue for those who met the criteria.”

The organizers knew this new magazine was the right place to publish an insider’s view of how and why this transition happened over the decades. “The people who look to Hammer & Hope for their information are looking for how to get engaged, how to inform the areas of movement that they’re already active in,” Monifa Akinwole-Bandele said. “This is about mobilizing the base on this issue.” In the weeks after the article was published, she’s seen an increase in the number of people participating in campaign calls and letter writing to support 69-year-old Kamau Sadiki, a Black Panther Party veteran who has significant health problems and is incarcerated in Georgia. “Mostly it’s been people who already knew [about the efforts], but seeing the piece helped them to get reengaged,” Monifa Akinwole-Bandele said. “When people see that things are moving, then they get moving too.”

Akinwole-Bandele credited Parker and the magazine’s editorial team with making the piece accessible by nudging the writers toward language and structure that would grab and keep readers’ attention. In addition to this editorial steering, Parker and Taylor are busy shaping the business side of their project. A print magazine might accompany the digital version at some point, but they’re not yet sure. Parker said she expects that Hammer & Hope will publish four times a year, and she has plans to bring on paid staff soon. Hammer & Hope has the backing of foundations including Marguerite Casey and Libra, and gaining additional grants and individual donations will remain a critical part of the work, Parker said. Taylor said making sure the magazine remains free to readers is a priority. “We believe as part of our politics that you can’t build a movement behind a paywall,” she said.

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