The first time I tried to hand-wash a load of laundry I was in the cool mountains of Jamaica in a house without a hot water heater. My grandmother hovered nearby, and shook her head at me.
“No,” she said, taking a wet t-shirt and the soap from my hands. “You have to do it like this.”
I learned fast. They got hot water about a year later. And my now-102-year-old grandfather still tells the story of a pitiful grandchild who didn’t know how to scrub clothes with conviction.
“Agitate, agitate, agitate,” is a phrase attributed to Frederick Douglass, whose life, writing, and public career overlapped with that of Ernestine Rose. Rose was a Polish-born Jewish woman who worked among trade unionists, abolitionists, and early secularists in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“Agitation is the opposite of stagnation,” she said. “The one is life; the other, death.” While Rose lived that theory as a pioneer in four social movements, Douglass lived it in his own work exposing the violence of slavery, the incoherence of sexism, and the immaturity of the American project.
Douglass made a career of agitating the American conscience. He spoke and wrote on behalf of a variety of reform causes: women’s rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. But he devoted the bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans… [He] understood that the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded forceful, persistent, and unyielding agitation… Less than a month before his death, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: ‘Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!'”—Joseph W. Holley
Agitation draws the dirt out of cotton. Agitation provides the movement, friction, and force necessary to change stubborn social conditions. It’s not about control. It’s about chemistry.
There’s no ease in laundering clothes or improving the world. They both require sustained conviction. They both also require the company of elders who understand what it takes to make things clean, who can teach us to release whatever can wash away, and who will take the time to work alongside the young.