Talking About Origins, and Recommendations for Future Reading and Reflection (Focus, Vol. I)

Imani Perry, Rinaldo WalcottChe Gossett and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. offer closing thoughts on the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter for Focus, the African American Studies Response Series. #FocusAAS21


All of the emergencies of black life that produced the movement, energy and the demands of and for BLM will remain with us until a concerted effort to think serious alternatives to global human organization is given serious thought. Indeed we must invent alternative ways of being together and articulate them as possible and we must be willing to put flesh on the bones of those new ways for living together. In the USA we are already seeing both liberal incorporation and intra-black political dissent around what the future might look like for the movement. Indeed, it is clear that few are willing to begin to articulate alternatives to our present mode of life and instead claim pragmatic reformist agenda. History teaches us that such a move signals the already defeat of larger political horizons. Such a retreat means for me that BLM is in many ways a stalled movement now.

Sylvia Wynter, Jamaican novelist, dramatist, critic and essayist

Recommended reading:
Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species: Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations” in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, K. McKittrick, ed., (Duke, 2015).


“I am not supposed to exist. I carry death around in my body like a condemnation. But I do live…There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it.”
— Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Audre Lorde in 1983

Black feminist Audre Lorde’s writing is part of a critical Black feminist –as always already trans — affective infrastructure of thought that ruminates on what Jared Sexton calls “the social life of social death.” I’ve also been reading The Power To Die: Suicide and Slavery in British North America by Terri Synder, which is a harrowing account of the archive of slavery and mass suicide, such as Igbo’s Landing, through which suicide is memorialized as flight and traces as a trope in African American literature on the afterlife of racial slavery, such as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Lorde’s examination of the interplay of life and death and her liberatory poetics and pedagogical brilliance are much needed in contemporary discussions of Black life mattering in the time of what Saidiya Hartman terms the afterlife of slavery and for what Fred Moten and Ronald Judy elaborate on as the “socio-poetics” of blackness, a socio-poetics that Lorde’s legacy is a crucial part of expanding and sustaining.


The current movement stands at a crossroads. Relentless market forces, fighting among various groups within the movement (all too often based in crass forms of identity politics), and the incessant pull of celebrity culture threaten its radical thrust. Still, the internal contradictions of global capital continue to destabilize political and economic arrangements around the world, providing critical opportunities for a fundamental reordering of our way of life. I am not sure what will happen given where we now stand. Much hangs in the balance. (The ghost of blues legend Robert Johnson haunts…) And it seems, especially for those who are on the frontlines of this movement, that we must understand more fully the complex ways we struggle under neoliberal conditions. A kind of hypercritical self-reflexivity (to resist the very way neoliberalism transforms us from those who care about the good to persons in pursuit of self interest) is required if we are to hold off the ways our struggle can be used to further the ends of late modern capital. On one level, what is needed is a radical civic power outage; so we can reboot this thing. But that will take profound leaps of imagination (freedom dreaming as Robin D.G. Kelley called it) and a fundamental radicalization of the will.

Recommended reading:
Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso, 2014); and Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 2007)


Every day I find myself thinking about grief as a problematic. Grief is an expected part of human experience, but the circulation of Black death in the form of stories and images is simply unrelenting and death and torture themselves also seems to be unyielding. I worry about how to maintain the fortitude to keep organizing in the face of it, and also about the temptation to simply turn away from it altogether. Add to this the way national electoral politics so often do the work of turning our attention towards them and only them. At this moment we must continue prioritize the question of liberation above and beyond the spectacle of the presidential election, and with that think seriously about resiliency in the face of brutal conditions here and abroad.

Recommended reading:
I think Paule Marshall’s memoir, Triangular Road, and Charlayne Hunter Gault’s memoir, In My Place, are useful readings in this moment because they both treat loss, suffering and social movement with the grace, complexity and nuance. They are timely works.

Black Lives Matter is an entry point into Black liberation organizing

To: Joy James, Focus
From: Charlene Carruthers
Date: September 17, 10:11am

“Black Lives Matter” represents a convergence of people, ideas, geographies, formations and experiences.

The activity is both hyper-local and internationalist. Be it Twitter conversations between Ferguson and Palestinian activists about how to alleviate pain from tear gas or the 2014 We Charge Genocide delegation of six young people (five whom are Black) to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, where they presented a landmark report of police violence in Chicago, Black Lives Matter consciously weaves a thread connecting the work of those who have come before us and the resistance of those who face oppression on lands most of us will never visit. Earlier this year, I joined an historical delegation of young activists and organizers to the occupied territories of Palestine. We recognize that our liberation is deeply tied to the liberation of oppressed people across the globe.

Photo by Marc Lamont Hill

Black Lives Matter is an entry point into Black liberation organizing, a space for assessment of our material conditions as Black people and a point of critical inquiry for those inside/outside/adjacent to movement building in this moment. Black Lives Matter emerged out of Black pain, death, resistance and visions for transformation. The articulation of the slogan, phrase and rallying cry that began with three Black women is reflective of how Black genius touches the human experience.

The co-founders of Black Lives Matter knew something had to be done, and did it. That is the essence of why Black Lives Matter has become a household name. Words can have material consequences, and in this case words give people open consent to say and do something to change their very own lives. Black Lives Matter flourishes through action. It gives everyday people a vehicle to refuse the inevitability of social death and imagine a different way forward. Black Lives Matter has evolved into more than a hashtag or slogan. It is now a national network within a broader movement ecosystem of individuals and organizations.

As Alicia Garza shared the words “Black Lives Matter” on social media and began to contextualize the meaning of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin for all Black life, I was gathered with the group of young Black activists outside of Chicago who would become the BYP100. It was out of that moment of deep and collective trauma that our group had a moment of clarity about the value of Black life and the need to build an organization for the sake of Black liberation. Since then we have built a national organization that trains, organizes and mobilizes young Black activists through we call a Black queer feminist lens. We create multiple entry points for young Black people including direct-action organizing, public policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through a consensus-driven democratic decision-making process, we struggle through what it means to build a mass organization under the weight of deep trauma and popularized Black pain. The Black genius that emerges here is always evolving and not easily contained.

Photo by Marc Lamont Hil

The mainstream media does not have a full pulse on what is emerging as the “Movement for Black Lives” and neither does the progressive establishment. Black genius is never that simple to understand or contain. While our bodies are seldom valued beyond commodity and pleasure by those who possess institutional power over our lives, our ideas permeate the human tradition of resistance and transformation. The actualization of ideas and action keep this movement alive, and Black Lives Matter as an idea, network and political intervention persists as a primary point of convergence.

Focus: African American Studies Response Series Vol. I

Take a look into the inboxes of leading scholars, activists, and artists and follow along as they consider some of the most urgent topics in black life today. This is a project of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies, edited by @jbguild. This series began September 7, 2015.

Welcome to Focus — “Black Lives Matter/Say Her Name”

An ongoing digital conversation with responses from scholars, activists, and artists, including:

Charlene Carruthers, National Director, Black Youth Project 100 (@CharleneCac)

Eddie Glaude, Jr. William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies; Chair, Department of African American Studies, Princeton University (@esglaude)

Che GossettIndependent scholar, archivist and activist (@chegossett)

Joy James, F.C. Oakley 3rd Century Professor, Williams College

Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History, Michigan State University (@jmjafrx)

Imani Perry, Hughes Rogers Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University (@imaniperry)

Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, Assistant Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University (@KeeangaYahmatta)

Rinaldo Walcott, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies, University of Toronto (@blacklikewho)

Convener: Joshua Guild, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Princeton University (@jbguild)

The Katrina Disaster Now: The Lasting Effects of Environmental Racism

Professor Joshua Guild and the activist Malik Rahim discuss the environment, race, class, justice, history, and the New Orleans community post-Hurricane Katrina.

Malik Rahim was raised in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood. He has spent many years studying and organizing around housing and prison issues. He was a founding member of the Black Panthers’ Louisiana Chapter, the anti-death penalty campaign Pilgrimage for Life (with Sister Helen Prejean and others) and the successful National Coalition to Free the Angola Three. Malik was also a founder and operator of Algiers Development Center and Invest Transitional Housing, an ex-offenders program which housed over 1,000 men, women and children. He is co-founder and outreach organizer of Housing is a Human Right, an affordable housing non-profit organization in San Francisco.

The U.S. and Cuba and the Story of Assata Shakur

In 1973 a young woman by the name of Joanne Chesimard was involved in the fatal shooting of a police officer in New Jersey.

Chesimard, who was a member of the Black Panther Party claimed her innocence, but was convicted to a life sentence a few years later.

But she escaped and made her way into Cuba, where she has lived ever since. Since then she changed her name to Assata Shakur and became a kind of vigilante folk hero of sorts.

But with the thawing of diplomatic tensions between the US and Cuba, New Jersey officials, including governor Chris Christie, have called for her capture and return.

We talk about her story with Joshua Guild, Associate professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton.

Listen to the interview

Colorblindness and the Myth of Post-Racialism

This public conversation, Colorblindness and the Myth of Post-Racialism, took place in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton University on February 10th, 2014. Photos are courtesy of Sameer Kahn, the audio is courtesy of Tim Wise. Tim Wise was invited to campus by a student group to give a lecture. Following the lecture, Professor Imani Perry joined Wise on stage to lead a brief conversation, and then open the floor up for questions.