Writing two bestselling books about race and social justice issues—2018’s So You Want to Talk About Race and 2020’s Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America—took a lot out of Ijeoma Oluo. By the end of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by police, a summer of protest, and spending “a lot of time kind of mired in violent white supremacy” while working on her books, the writer, speaker, and self-proclaimed “internet yeller” felt like everything and nothing had changed and what she needed most was a break. So, she decided Mediocre was going to be her last book focused on racial justice and that she was going to take some fiction writing classes.
But then her house burned down.
The fire and the outpouring of community support that followed steered Oluo back to the work that matters most to her and spawned Be a Revolution: How Everyday People Are Fighting Oppression and Changing the World—and How You Can, Too (HarperOne, Jan. 2024).
“When you’re running out of a house fire without even shoes on, what matters is very crystal clear,” Oluo says via Zoom from her home in Seattle. She’s colorfully dressed, youthful, and exuberant but thoughtful. “People always ask what would you save in a fire? Nothing but the people you know, and the pets that you love.”
She soon realized she and her family were part of a powerful collective. “The entire community just kind of opened their arms and held us,” Oluo says. “To just be held so dearly by these people that we had been working alongside and had been in community with for so many years helped me remember how much it is about people. We had never felt so fortunate, my partner and I. We were alive and whole, and our community was just holding us.”
Be a Revolution explores how meaningful progress and systemic change have been and continue to be made against the odds. Based on interviews with changemakers in the fields of education, health, housing, and criminal justice, the book profiles individuals and groups across the country that are working toward a more equitable society, with chapters connecting racial justice to the arts, disability, education, gender, and policing.
As she approached the project, Oluo took a long view of history. Things have often been worse, she says, and yet “we’re still here. My existence as a black queer woman in this country in 2023 is a testament to that, to what people have done in previous generations. If I was going to make my last book for at least a few years in this topic, I actually wanted it to be more joyful.”
Some of the profiles document the roots of significant wins for social justice movements, such as when attorney Nikkita Oliver worked with a coalition of activists, many of them teenagers and people of color, to wage a long but eventually successful campaign against a new youth jail in Seattle.
Others portray lower-profile but equally important achievements, as in the case of Richie Reseda, who learned of Black feminist theory while in prison and eventually cofounded Success Stories, a 13-week workshop that helps incarcerated men explore patriarchal thinking and develop healthier methods of dealing with fear, pain, and conflict.
While writing Be a Revolution, Oluo was struck by the reductiveness of the popular perception of activists: that “they eat, sleep, and breathe revolution” and have no sense of humor. Oluo challenges this stereotype, highlighting a variety of activists—including #MeToo founder Tarana Burke as well as lesser-known figures such as Sami Schalk, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies disability, race, and gender—and illustrating the fallacy of believing in a single social justice personality.
Some of the activists Oluo profiles are serious; others, she says, have a wicked sense of humor and told jokes she couldn’t print. “Richie Reseda finds dark humor in how skewed our priorities can be in this work,” Oluo writes.
“It’s so funny,” Reseda says in the book. “Like, we want this abolitionist world, so we start by talking to cops? We start by talking to the government? Like, our strategy has been, ‘Let’s go for the people who are most against us and, like, convince them.’ But we’re actually jumping over ourselves! We’re jumping over our whole communities. We’re jumping over all the people around us.”
The sense of community that helped produce Be a Revolution wasn’t something Oluo benefited from in her early life. She was born in 1980 in Denton, Tex., to a white mother and a Black Nigerian father who came to the states for college and married but in 1982 returned to Nigeria and later died there. Oluo and her brother were raised by their single mother in Texas and then Seattle. They were close but also incredibly poor, at times living without electricity or a telephone. Sometimes they slept in their car and ate free church meals.
“As poor Black kids in Seattle, being biracial honestly wasn’t a huge part of my identity as a kid,” Oluo says, recalling regularly enduring racist slurs. “My brother and I were the only Black kids in every class we were in.”
She credits her mother with recognizing this dynamic and safeguarding her children’s identity by celebrating their Blackness and Nigerian heritage. “She didn’t want to be the white mom raising Black kids who had no connection to Blackness,” Oluo says. “And she saw that people saw us as Black... that the racism was still going to hit us, and that if we were going to have an accepting community, that’s where that community was going to be.”
With Be a Revolution, Oluo returns to that idea of community. While never avoiding realities of racism and injustice, she says her new books aims “to take our conversations on race and racism out of a place of pure pain and trauma and into a place of loving action.”
Traveling around the country to interview the people featured in the book left her feeling inspired, energized, and ready to fight for social justice. It’s a sense of purpose and power she wants to share with her readers.
“It’s easy to feel like we get these initial losses and that pushback comes—that we can’t win, right? But we can, and our love has to be stronger than their desire for power or their bigotry or hatred,” she says. “I just want people to know that that’s possible. We have to have faith in that. We have to have faith in each other.”
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic, and communication researcher specializing in media, politics, and identity.