Two perspectives on “I” that is “we”: Charisse Shumate and Hegel

by Urszula Wislanka
The Fire Inside publishes articles about specific conditions and experiences of women prisoners, usually in their own words. What prisoners say in those stories has an immediate, concrete meaning. It also happens that it is inspiring, that it “catches” with other prisoners and those outside. This inspiration comes from a recognition of a deep meaning that can be brought out by a journey through abstraction. Below we are printing a theoretical article by a CCWP member, which reflects her views. We welcome other theoretical articles that also engage prisoners’ ideas.

First of all thanks to an inmate Joann Walker, who put her life on the line to make CDC know how important it was to reach other inmates about the hard cold facts of HIV behind these walls. She spoke loudly and clearly. She was a “we” person, not a “me” person … Charisse Shumate knows no other way but “we.” The real warrior is on a never ending battle.
–Charisse Shumate, October 11, 2000
Putting someone in prison means to “remove them from society.” Women in prison are subjected to the most severe isolation and abuse. It is among women fighting this and asserting their humanity, that the most profound articulation of our social selfhood, “I” that is “we” comes from. This language reminds me of G. W. F. Hegel, the great 19th century philosopher, and his “I” that is “we.”
All through his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel talks about the “I” that is “we.” From his introduction of the concept of Spirit to its full development in Absolute Spirit Hegel traces the development of consciousness from an individual “I” set against the “other” (master/slave) to fully social “I” recognizing itself in the “other,” the “I” that is “we.”
Hegel’s point is to go through the experience of Spirit (social selfhood) in all its different, self-alienating shapes in order to recognize the world we create together as ourselves. Then it becomes possible to continuously go beyond that world. Then we can constantly return to ourselves and realize our genuine autonomy and our essential freedom. This freedom goes beyond being determined by the narrow ego that lives and treats others only according to nature and necessity, including its physical mortal existence. Hegel said “I am truly free when the other is free and I recognize that the other is free.” This “genuine freedom,” which he called Absolute Negativity, is the ongoing ability of thought to return to itself by recognizing itself in its “other.”
This freedom reaches beyond our mortality as individuals. In the December ’97 issue of The Fire Inside Charisse Shumate, as the lead plaintiff in the Shumate v. Wilson case which challenged California Department of Corrections’ (CDC) criminal medical neglect, says:
When times get rough hold your head up and know that you may be free or dead … before you see the change that we fight so hard for. But stay in peace with yourself that you are doing the right thing. It’s not a “me” thing; it’s a “we” thing…. And yes, I would do it all over again. If I can save one life from the medical nightmare of CCWF Medical Department then it’s well worth it.
This beautiful formulation makes me feel the pull of the future beyond death through realization of the thoroughly social core of who we really are. Charisse’s “we” fully appreciates the preciousness of each “I”. This is what living means. It is permanent and ongoing.
For me, Charisse’s expression reaches beyond what Hegel calls mere results–though such a result as the real life transformation of conditions in prison is essential. Yet her embrace of the category of fully realized social individual, the “we” person she became, is precious because, if it becomes the basis for organization of the whole society, has the potential of transcending capitalism and all of its manifestations including the alienation and isolation experienced in prison.
Linda Field, too, agreed that, while she has not studied Hegel, it sounded from my description of it like a genuine a philosophy of freedom. Linda recognized that a new sense of being human through thoughtful relations with others is a kind of freedom that can go beyond prison bars. “I am freer than many out there, ” she said. “Nobody is alone, even if they think they are,” she continued. Even in the prison personnel she saw the consequence of losing a sense of our common humanity: “I see people losing faith, it happens to prisoners but also to staff. That’s when they become callous and selfish.”
What Hegel learned from moments of collective humanity’s reach for freedom through recognizing just how we are all in this together (beginning with the French Revolution) was that while a new objective result is important it is crucial for the future to not forget the process of how we create and re-create ourselves, what our humanity means to us. Hegel felt that not forgetting the self-moving process he discovered in the “I” that is “we” could itself make a difference. I have no doubt the objective world can be changed. It happened in the 60s, it can and will happen again. But having witnessed the depth of creative insight in prisoners, those of us reaching for a new world have to meet those insights with such a thorough discussion of our concept of the future that never again will we be satisfied with a mere result. Can we make the full recognition (including the theoretical development it implies) of the “I” that is “we” the very foundation of our movement? Can we make our solidarity between inside and outside an engagement also with ideas?