On Labor Acknowledgements and Honoring the Sacrifice of Black Americans

Updated Mar 1, 2021
Dr. TJ StewartDr. TJ Stewart

Labor as a concept seems to be the focus of public and academic discourses continually, from physical labor and the ongoing battle between labor unions and corporations, to the emotional labor and the related costs of working for equity and justice. Like scholars before me, I believe that language is epistemic, which means words are often doing something toward particular ways of knowing and being. Therefore, for me, even the term ‘labor’ expresses a particular weight, a heaviness, one that only those of us who engage in it can experience.

Over the past several years, I have been thinking about enslaved Africans’ labor, their ascendants, and how the tremors of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing white supremacy have reverberated throughout the generations. We must acknowledge that labor in more consistent, meaningful, and material ways. These reflections brought me to the question of the possibility of labor acknowledgements, similar to the process of land acknowledgements but focused squarely on Black Americans’ historical realities. Many of us engage in the necessary practice of land acknowledgements in our work during presentations and meetings. I have used them as a way to engage in a thoughtful reflection, articulation, and naming of the lands we occupy, live, work, and exist on. In my view, the purpose of this is to honor and remember the violent histories and legacies of settler colonialism. I also work hard to weave connections between the topic of my meetings to focus on what Indigenous knowledge systems and epistemologies have to “say” to those topics. The purpose is to ensure the process of acknowledgments does not become trivialized or ceremonial in a way that reduces their power and impact.

Given this, I have begun to give land and labor acknowledgements to address this vital reality as a material and symbolic practice. For conferences and meetings, this practice has become essential and powerful. Not only have enslaved Africans labored on the lands where many hotels exist, but in many cities, Black Americans continue to serve as housekeepers/janitors/custodians, kitchen staff, and other service roles that often go unnoticed and uncompensated in ways they deserve. Additionally, I have begun to include a labor acknowledgement statement on my class syllabi as a way to hold my students and me accountable for centering labor in our knowledge co-construction and framing of class content and topics.

Black History Month is a time that we often think about the contributions of Black Americans to this country and, in many ways, focus on the firsts, the movers, the shakers, inventors, and movement leaders, and, I also want us never to forget the everyday folks who labored. To celebrate the importance of what it meant to live a life despite labor under capitalism, as many of us experience today. For those wishing to engage in this practice, below, I have included a simple statement that I use in my presentations and on my syllabi. Feel free to use, adapt, and make it personal for you. Similarly, challenge yourself – as I try to do with land acknowledgements – to consider what Black/African epistemologies and knowledge systems, especially around labor, have to “say” to your presentation’s topics or content and consider weaving that into your work.

Labor Acknowledgement | We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development throughout history and across time, has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their ascendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking of their people, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. We are indebted to their labor and their sacrifice, and we must acknowledge the tremors of that violence throughout the generations and the resulting impact that can still be felt and witnessed today.”

When I think about labor, I think about the folks who cannot work for many reasons or who do not want to, and what that means for an exploitative labor obsessed society. I think about folks who worked right up until the very end of their life, with no rest. I think of folks whose labor is questioned, judged, criminalized, and unfairly legislated. I think of labor unions who labor(ed) for better pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions for so many. I think of folks who are 1-3 paychecks away from being homeless and hungry, and yet they labor every day and have for a long time. I think about how the pandemic has exacerbated labor for so many of us. I think of those who give labor (emotional & pregnancy), which is brutal on the body and in some cases, deadly. And I’m thinking of those lucky ones who get to labor through things and contexts they love. But the bottom line is this, if we cannot collectively begin to acknowledge the historical labor that has allowed our society to get and be where it is today, then we will continue to struggle to reconcile and redress those histories and legacies.

Dr. Terah ‘TJ’ Stewart is an assistant professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University.