Doing the Work

To: Focus
From: Jessica Marie Johnson
Date: October 26, 2015, 10:31am

My Strength Lies, 2007 by Wangechi Mutu

Since this conversation began, Keisha Jenkins, a black trans woman, was killed by a mob in Philadelphia. In Cleveland, the prosecuting attorney released two reports indicating Officer Timothy Loehmann was justified when he shot 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of pulling up next to him in a police car. Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs passed away. And Hillary Clinton discussed mass incarceration and body cameras, but found it difficult to simply say “black lives matter” on international TV during the Democratic Presidential Debates.

In the midst of this, black women produce. Talitha LeFlouria received the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians for her book Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (UNC 2015). Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was named a Senior Ford Foundation Fellow for her work on civil rights and racial justice. Books on race and surveillance, as well as black feminist performance, expressive culture, and political ideology by Simone Brown, Tanisha Ford, Uri McMillan, LaMonda Horton Stallings, Kimberly Juanita Brown, and many more break the mold, reshaping each and every way we think about how to think about black politics, anti/blackness across time and place, black women and who is included in that identity, history, and lifeway.

Darlene Clark Hine, at the 100th Anniversary of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, asked a plenary on the future of Black Women’s Studies what those with knowledge, history, research skills, and a desire to make change need to be doing NOW to change the world, to make this a world we want to live in, that we remain alive in. If the issue is doing the work by publishing, teaching, and mentoring, then we are doing the work. If the work is bringing our questions, vulnerabilities, and fears to light in forums like this one, then we are doing the work. If the work is showing up at Black Lives Matter conferences, at workshops in our local communities, at rallies and marches, but also at city council meetings, police forums, and planning meetings with activists, we are doing the work. The next step appears to be crossing boundaries (and here I deliberately invoke Hine and Jacqueline McLeod’s edited collection Crossing Boundaries: Comparative History of the Black Diaspora) and making connections, doing very necessary kinship work of building with each other in radical new ways. We are still working on how to do this.

If I picked one text to pay tribute to this labor of love and world-making, to add to the works above, that celebrates the parts of us that are problematic and raw and important, it’d be Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. It is my favorite. It is the story of the making of the New World and the text I turn to when I’m not sure whether this is all worth it, when I’m positive the number of deaths will break me, or someone around me, or our entire damn system. Wild Seed is the text that reminds me we are all implicated and sometimes the happy ending isn’t the triumph of a cause so much as the unmaking of a god.

For some reason, this gives me hope.

Confronting the triads of black life/death

To: Focus
From: Joy James
Date: October 24, 2015, 9:04pm

Our discussions of BLM/SayHerName are complicated: by empire and global anti-racist solidarity; terror and the infantilized; avoidance of speech and memories of the “unspeakable” violence that we (especially the children) face.

#StopTheCops photo by Sarah Dashi

Bitter and traumatic memories frame governance in black life/death triads of racism>resistance>repression. Racism logically points to some form of genocidal expression. Resistance thus becomes conditioned by fear even while it organizes against it. Repression counters through policing and governance, and then offers an open invitation to join its loyal opposition, or be marginalized or silenced.

Official memory masks repression as structural rather than aberrational. We are more familiar with racism and anti-racist resistance movements than governmental repression (which may be the most frightening because we petition the federal government for help). We historically lack clarity in consensus about what our movements are fighting. For instance, in Eyes on the Prize, Part II: A Nation of Law?, the late Frank “Big Black” Smith, a leader in the 1971 Attica prison rebellion for human rights, recounts the retaking of the prison in which he witnessed friends and white guard-hostages killed by the white National Guardsmen who shot several thousand of rounds of ammunition into the men gathered on the catwalk. Describing his later torture and rape (using current DOJ definitions) by state employees, Smith weeps upon reflecting that the rebels anticipated violent retaliation but not barbarism.

#StopTheCops photo by Frank Johnson

With or without carnage, governance-as-repression is an expression of racism; it is also embedded into anti-racist resistance. Local and global liberation movements are under surveillance, infiltrated, targeted, disrupted, intimidated or coopted. At times, activists (mostly outside the US) are imprisoned, tortured or executed. US training or funding for global policing and militarizing promotes the repression of pro-democracy dissent. Targeted by white racism, black governance seeks a “civil rights” pass because it represents black authority (through empire). Despite racist opposition to it, black governance is not black liberation; consequently, its recognitions of anti-racist movements foster political confusion.

Che noted earlier that criticism is life enhancing. Movements and leaders engage in self-critiques as a corrective against fears and desires to preserve/expand (black) social and economic status acquired under empire. They guard against governance that directs dissent through manipulations of fear; management of grief; cultivation of institutional or personality loyalty. Former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba bin Wahad publicly questions how the NSA and other agencies disrupt social justice movements and foster contradictions within movements. This line of engagement though is not representative of most of the diversity within black progressivism.

#StopTheCops photo by Frank Johnson

Charlene reminds us of the importance of youth activists, the Chicagoan namesakes of the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” formation, who addressed the 2014 UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva. CAT grilled the US delegation on: torture at Guantanamo Bay; the militarization of police (Ferguson); police torture for false confessions (Chicago); and rape in US prisons. The president’s press conference offered assurances that the US respects human rights as highlighted by CAT while media coverage deflected from black radicalism in Geneva. Michael Brown’s parents, Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., and the Black Women’s Blueprint (hosting a 2016 UN tribunal on sexual violence) also testified before CAT. That UN gathering was on torture not genocide though; and context and content shape political analyses and demands.

Our complex political battles in the triad illustrate the “unspeakable” of:

1) governance’s paternal desire to control, infantilize, and criminalize citizenry

Although fewer in number than George W. Bush’s, President Obama’s signing statements also expand the executive branch’s police powers and diminish protections for whistleblowers and dissidents.

2) foreign policy’s market devaluation of black life

Commerce determines the global value of black lives. Journalists report that the US “greenlighted” the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus when Clinton’s 1994 National Security Council (its then director on African affairs as Obama’s presidential advisor for national security) allegedly prioritized governance and finance over human life (in arrears to the UN, the US shied away from peacekeeping debt). After the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda is gutted, governance discouraged describing the blood bath that followed as “genocide.”

3) empire’s proclivity for terror against children

UN peacekeeping troops systematically raped starving African boys in exchange for food (the UN whistleblower who recently alerted the media was fired from his post). While on US military compounds, Afghan military officers rape boys and chain them to beds; Pentagon officials, pursuing elusive military victories, instruct soldiers to ignore the children’s screams out of respect for local customs (US soldiers who intervene are forced into retirement; one dies from Afghani retaliation).

4) writing that maps strategic, ethical, and spiritual powers

Writings in resistance that help in swallowing the Morphean pill include: Vincent Woodard’s The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture; Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State; and Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind.

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation

To: Focus
From: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Date: October 22, 2015, 11:08 am

Black soldiers in the Union Army.

On April 12, 1865, the American Civil War officially came to end when the Union Army accepted the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy on the steps of a courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. The Union Army, led by 200,000 Black soldiers, had destroyed the institution of slavery; as a result of their victory, Black people were now to be no longer property but citizens of the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first declaration of civil rights in the United States, stated that

citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States . . . to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.

There was no ambiguity that the war had buried chattel slavery once and for all. Days after the surrender of the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln rode into Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the slaveholders, where he stood upon the stairs of the former Confederate capitol building and told a large gathering crowd of Black people days into their freedom,

In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called Masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are — for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One hundred and fifty years later, on April 12, 2015, at nine in the morning, 217 miles north of the Appomattox courthouse, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, was arrested by the Baltimore police. His only apparent crime was making eye contact with the police and then running away. Freddie Gray was loaded into a van. By the time he emerged forty-five minutes later, his voice box had been crushed, his neck snapped, and 80 percent of his spinal cord severed.

The distance from the end of the Civil War, with the birth of Black citizenship and civil rights, to the state-sanctioned beating and torture of Freddie Gray constitutes the gap between formal equality before the law and the self-determination and self-possession inherent in actual freedom — the right to be free from oppression, the right to make determinations about your life free from duress, coercion, or threat of harm. Freedom in the United States has been elusive, contingent, and fraught with contradictions and unattainable promises — for everyone.

Black people were not freed into an American Dream, but into what Malcolm X described as an “American nightmare” of economic inequality and unchecked injustice. The full extent of this inequality was masked by racial terrorism. One hundred years after Emancipation, African Americans dismantled the last vestiges of legal discrimination with the civil rights movement, but the excitement of the movement quickly faded as American cities combusted with Black people who were angry and disillusioned at being locked out of the riches of American society. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans participated in the uprisings in search of resolutions to the problems of lead poisoning, rat infestations, hunger and malnutrition, underemployment, poor schools, and persisting poverty. Where liberals and radicals often converged was in the demand that Blacks should have greater political control over their communities. For liberals, Black electoral politics was a sign of political maturity as the movement left the streets for the poll booth, urban governance, and community control. The problem was not “the system;” it was exclusion from access to all that American society had to offer. Some radicals were also lured by the possibility of self-governance and community control. Indeed, it was a viable strategy, given that much of Black life was controlled by white elected officials and white-led institutions. The question remained, however: Could the machinery wielded in the oppression of Blacks now be retooled in the name of Black self-determination?

The Baltimore Police Department 2015.

If freedom had in one era been imagined as inclusion in the mainstream of American society, including access to its political and financial institutions, then the last fifty years have yielded a mixed record. Indeed, since the last gasps of the Black insurgency in the 1970s, there are many measures of Black accomplishment and achievement in a country where Black people were never intended to survive as free people. Is there no greater symbol of a certain kind of Black accomplishment than a Black president? For those who consider mastery of American politics and Black political representation as the highest expression of inclusion in the mainstream, we are surely in the heyday of American “race relations.” Yet, paradoxically, at a moment when African Americans have achieved what no rational person could have imagined when the Civil War ended, we have simultaneously entered a new period of Black protest, Black radicalization, and the birth of a new Black left.

No one knows what will come of this new political development, but many know the causes of its gestation. For as much success as some African Americans have achieved, 4 million Black children live in poverty, 1 million Black people are incarcerated, and 240,000 Black people lost their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis — resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in Black savings. Never before in American history has a Black president presided over the misery of millions of Black people, the denial of the most basic standards for health, happiness, and basic humanity. Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte recalled his last conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., in which King lamented, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. . . . We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

The aspiration of Black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life cannot be transformed while the country burns all around it. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and the boredom of poverty. The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage. Corporate executives, university presidents, and capitalists in general are living the good life — because so many others are living a life of hardship. The struggle for Black liberation, then, is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them.

The struggle for Black liberation requires going beyond the standard narrative that Black people have come a long way but have a long way to go — which, of course, says nothing about where it is that we are actually trying to get to. It requires understanding the origins and nature of Black oppression and racism more generally. Most importantly, it requires a strategy, some sense of how we get from the current situation to the future. Perhaps at its most basic level, Black liberation implies a world where Black people can live in peace, without the constant threat of the social, economic, and political woes of a society that places almost no value on the vast majority of Black lives. It would mean living in a world where Black lives matter. While it is true that when Black people get free, everyone gets free, Black people in America cannot “get free” alone. In that sense, Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.

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

RINALDO WALCOTT

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).

CHE GOSSETT

“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.

EDDIE S. GLAUDE JR.

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)

IMANI PERRY

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.

Inviting Final Thoughts (Focus Vol. I)

From: Josh Guild
To: Focus
Date: October 19, 2015, 5:24pm

Just over a month ago, we initiated this little experiment called Focus, catalyzed by what felt to many to be an unrelenting wave of violent assaults on black bodies and black psyches. It was an invitation to gather together in this virtual space — guided by black studies’ ethos of both critical interrogation and public reckoning — to think about black life, black death, and the pathways towards more liberated futures. The call was an opportunity to think, question, speculate, and reflect in a slightly different register, together and in public.

Photo courtesy of the flickr user, Light Brigading (https://www.flickr.com/photos/40969298@N05/)

Our discussion of Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, and the movements, mobilizations, and media produced under those banners have led us in a number of different directions — from considerations of scope and strategy to reflections about empire and internationalism. We’ve talked about the ways the recent responses to anti-blackness have carved out new spaces of resistance and thought about the reservoirs of individual and collective resilience required by this moment. As several of you have insisted, understanding the present condition demands a critical confrontation with history, dismantling the comfortable mythologies of past social movements and (re)assembling a different kind of black radical archive across a more expansive geography and imaginative terrain.

In so many ways, we’ve only just begun the conversation. There remain a host of pressing questions and concerns worthy of further exploration. But those will have to be left for others to take up, or for another time.

As we close out this inaugural series, I want to thank all of you for your contributions. I welcome any final thoughts you may have, however brief or far-reaching. And in the series’ spirit of critical exchange, I also encourage you to share suggestions for further reading — texts that might further illuminate conditions or inspire and sustain us in these difficult times. This, I would argue, is part of a larger service that black studies can — indeed, must — provide wider publics if it is to mean anything at all in the time of #blacklivesmatter.

In solidarity,

Josh

The Traveling Metaphor and Politics of Black Lives Matter

From: Rinaldo Walcott
To: Focus
Date: September 30, 2015, 8:21am

Photo from QZ.com

Does BLM travel? Of course it does. However let me risk a move here that might help us to think about the difference between a particular and specific politics of BLM traveling, as opposed to BLM traveling as a metaphor. The power of metaphor is both in its elasticity and its contraction — that is, what it allows in and what it cannot. As my colleagues, have pointed out here, in particular Joy James and Che Gossett, BLM has practiced a politics of transnational political identification that is both within the black radical tradition (in relation to Palestine) and simultaneously hampered by empire in black face, as the Obama administration, for example, drones East Africa and the Middle East, and uses Kenya and Ethiopia as proxies for its resource wars in Africa, among other imperial projects globally.

The present and urgent fate of Haitians demands that we see and witness the complicities of empire in our time. My concern here is that Haitians must attempt to make a life in the context of a global order that wishes them to disappear — from everywhere. As Haitians move within the Caribbean region we witness the limits of modernist ideals, the most obvious being that of nation and citizenship. Haitian movement calls our attention to the reigning logics of white supremacist organization of all of our lives. Indeed what travels from BLM is the emphasis on a life, on what a life might be, on how we might achieve our lives. And it is in this endeavour, the one of achieving a life, that Haiti re-joins African most spectacularly.

So let me briefly turn our attention to the African refugee crisis and the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar as a stretching of the metaphor and the politics of BLM. The late Stuart Hall has taught us that migration is the “joker in the globalisation pack,” that planned and unplanned migrations threaten to undo and upend neoliberal regimes of capital movement, while labour is supposed to stand still and often people are discarded when no longer needed.

Indeed, while BLM might have been politically activated by state violence, most spectacularly police violence in the USA, the movement in both its rhetoric and its links and indebtedness to an international black radical tradition, demands that we engage the African refugee crisis as central to all of its concerns.

Photo ibitimes.co.uk

Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a life, a life denied them, both in terms of resources and in terms of the logics of white supremacist world orders, contract and stretch BLM. The insistence on life by Africans moving forces us to consider what exactly is a modern life. What exactly does it mean to claim one’s self for a life? It is in fact the insistence on a life that black movement/travel has continually upturned the fictions of modernist ideals. African migration, both planned and unplanned, continually returns us to the demand that we imagine a different world, that we risk putting flesh to ways of being in which a life becomes possible. African migration alerts us to the political demand that we remake the world anew in the aftermath of that other great migratory moment of the post-1492 world. Indeed, BLM travels because the very idea of black and blackness in the modern world cannot be divorced from movement. And it is in recognizing how fundamental movement and or migration is to late modern capital that we might begin to risk intellectually navigating a different present and thus future. African’s crossing that strait remind us that movement actual and otherwise demands notice what actually matters — our lives.

How does Black Lives Matter cross borders?

From: Joshua Guild
To: Focus
Date: September 24, 2015, 11:12am

Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful and challenging opening provocations. There are many directions the conversation could go from here, and a host of themes/topics I hope we can delve into more deeply as we continue. But one of the things that strikes me the most in reading back over the contributions thus far are the multiple invocations of the international, the global, and the imperial.

Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post

Charlene characterized BLM as being at once “hyper-local and internationalist,” which I think is a useful framing and one that demands our further attention. Rinaldo and Joy both asked us to think about how BLM has been shaped by Obama’s role as the black face of the American Empire. Though I think she was making a slightly different point, Imani invoked Hall to ask, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Lives Matter?”

One entry point into trying to answer that question, it seems to me, is to think more expansively about BLM in relation to non-U.S. blacks, both inside and outside the nation. Jessica argues that, “#BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable.” If this is so, how might we reflect on the ongoing violent expulsions of Dominicans of Haitian descent from the D.R. in this context? Or consider the human rights crisis of migrant deaths, detention, and marginalization occasioned by “Fortress Europe?” Or the global response to epidemics in West Africa and Haiti and what Peter James Hudson and Jemima Pierre refer to as “the epidemiology of anti-blackness?”

This is the challenge of black studies, as Christina Sharpe puts it, “in the wake.”

So, as the movement enters into what Keeanga refers to as its “second phase,” how might it balance local, national, and transnational concerns simultaneously? What manifestations of BLM are best suited for this work? Are there risks to the movement — and whatever successes it has achieved thus far — in broadening its primary focus beyond systemic anti-black state violence in the U.S.? What are the consequences of notdoing so? What does history offer in this regard, either in terms of cautionary tales or models of organizing?

Black Love Post-Death

From: Jessica Marie Johnson
To: Focus
Date: September 22, 2015, 10:13pm

I am late. I write this response in the wake of the Ferguson Is the Futureconference hosted by Princeton AAS, post- the quiet around #SandraBland (addressed beautifully and painfully in a recent essay by Kali Gross), post- the dystopic snuff film horror show that was the #NatashaMcKenna video, post- meetings and protests in Chicago demanding #RekiaBoyd’s killer be brought to some kind of justice. Post- the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Post-screams and post-death.

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

Post- battle after battle where black women and black femmes lay their bodies on the front lines to try to make a better world. #SayHerName, as a rallying cry around black women whose lives were and are being extinguished by the police, was initiated by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie in a brief written for and published by the African American Policy Forum. It extends and deepens a conversation articulated on the ground and in academic work by scholars like Crenshaw and Ritchie, by organizations like Incite:

Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence, and in texts (reissued or in the process of being reissued) like This Bridge Called My BackWritings by Radical Women of Color and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.

#BlackTransLiberationTuesday, which occurred on August 25th, 2015, was organized nationwide under the general architecture of the Black Lives Matter movement but took its own form and built on histories of organizing in different locations. In Chicago, tapping into decades old networks of labor organizing and on the ground organizing by groups like F. L. Y. (Fearless Leading by the Youth), #BlackTransLiberatonTuesday took the form of a forum on job discrimination and other labor issues facing the black trans community of Chicago. In New York, #BlackTransLiberation organizers shut down AfroPunk’s three stages to draw attention to the (then) 18 trans people killed (including at least ten trans women of color) in the U.S. since the start of 2015.

Photo from http://pancakesandwhiskey.com

Earlier in the Response series, Rinaldo wrote: “Anyone who cares to know, knows that three black, queer women coined the term BLM in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin.” I love Rinaldo’s phrasing: To “anyone who cares to know.” Anyone who cares to know, knows the facts above as well.

Anyone who cares to know, knows this year, 2015, was the 60-year anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, which occurred the day before 10-year anniversary of the day the levees broke and water flooded the city of New Orleans and the one year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. Sixty years ago, a child’s body was found in the water and a mother draped herself over her son’s body and demanded the violence done to him be seen, demanded media play a part in witnessing her son’s murder. Mamie Till cared if you knew. Ten years ago, bodies washed away and and black women bent over backward to keep their kin afloat and then were displaced and called “refugees” in a timeless erasure and hysterical insult (these descendants of slaves who created New Orleans?? Refugees, you say?!?).

One year ago, bodies, many of them black women and black femmes, once again moved toward the front lines to help organize, protest, support, and heal. Not because St. Louis and St. Louis County couldn’t organize, protest, support, or heal itself. We moved toward St. Louis in solidarity with members of the community and, to be true, with some tension over what solidarity meant. Who would care about whom? Who would be seen in the fray, that weekend and in the weeks and months ahead as marches, Twitter chats, teach-ins, syllabi, political campaigns, and communities responded to each person killed, each murderer who would never be brought to justice? Which issue would be lost in the mix? Black trans femmes? Afrxlatinas? Black girls and gender non-conforming youth? The insurgent and defiantly independent Black Midwest? Who would we, black activists, organizers, and supporters, care to commemorate and who would be bothered to take care of our memory and our kin if and when we were caught in the crossfire and disappeared?

As a movement, #BlackLivesMatter is a demand for institutions and individuals (those with guns and those without) to see us (black people) in the fullness of our humanity, to stop stealing us away, as Joy suggested. It is a testimony and it, as Joy points out, transforms ordinary black people into scientists and witnesses. It is also a charge of genocide, as Charlene described, and the youth activists who brought the city of Chicago before the United Nations and finally won reparations for victims of CPD torture knew this as well.

Ferguson is the Future Panelist, Walidah Imarisha.

But #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan resonates in part because it is a demand for care. I’m interested in ways #BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a call like this before. #BlackLivesMatter is not static, and although slogans never are, #BlackLivesMatter wears its shapeshifter identity like a badge or banner crafted from our Trickster past (a fact participants and panelists at the #FergusonFuture symposium returned to again and again). It is tricky, after all, to care for us, a sleight of hand against Western modernity.

#BlackLivesMatter also isn’t humble or even always noble, as Eddie points out, but, flagrant in its willfulness; wakeful, disrespectful and vulnerable. It demands to be seen, all hours of the day, in all formats, it pings us through notifications, it appears in our timelines and email inboxes, it slaps us in the face as graffiti along train tracks and unexpected traffic snarls due to impromptu marches and awkward conversations with white co-workers at lunch. It won’t go away. It won’t play by the rules. How nasty, how rude! And in doing so, #BlackLivesMatter asks us to remember the problematic and human in our liberation histories — to remember that OUR narratives of freedom time and civil rights success often forget what it meant to lose sleep, friends, family, money, our minds in the middle of the war. To be turned against ourselves (#COINTELPro). Octavia Butler knew (and Katherine McKittrick tried to remind us) that there are ways to get free, there are ways to get out, but you always lose a limb on the way home. In like and as terrifying fashion, #BlackLivesMatter won’t let us forget we are human too.

Recovering the human in our visions of freedom and internalizing the messy, dirty, soft, and unkempt pieces we carry with us, caring for ourselves despite those bits and in the face of and facing down something so much bigger — our own genocide — is the kind of care #blacklivesmatter demands.

We needed this kind of care — a deep and virulent acceptance of our own flesh — to confront the loss and mourning that accompanies evidence of 800 dead black bodies strewn across the U.S., to demand retribution from institutions built on black death and do it all without killing ourselves and eating our own young in defiance.

We needed this kind of care to live life post-death. And the resonance in #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan is not only what this demand for action has done to galvanize organizers, policy-makers, and communities around the country but what it has done and continues to do to transform the zombies who walked among us, black and hard and cold as ice. There is no stopping the zombie apocalypse, it has already happened and it will happen again, but if there is a potion that brings us back home to ourselves, #BlackLivesMatter may actually be it.

The ties that bind Black Lives Matter

From: Imani Perry
To: Focus
Date: September 18, 2015, 9:51am

Let me begin with a limitation, or a vexation, with the digital age slogan or the hashtag era, period. In the digital age, the era of “big data,” a hashtag or title or keyword (and Black Lives Matter operates as all of those) becomes an essential tool for sorting and organizing; for searching, for discovering what is being said on matters that matter to you, and for discovering where one finds people of fellow feeling and concern. The challenge of sorting, however, is always one of what gets sorted in and sorted out. We must constantly struggle with the question of what and who is getting sorted out, whether as a function simply of how algorithms work, ignorance or misapprehension, or deliberate human efforts at exclusion.

What is this “Black” in the hashtag, to paraphrase Stuart Hall? Who is it? When we confront the violent reality of premature and unjust death that results from state and economic power (i.e. I’m talking about police power but also the voracious weapons trade, and those that bring environmental hazards, incarceration, and predatory market conditions in both gray and “legit” economies /privatization/exploitation even parasitic forms of “assistance”, to poor and Black communities here and abroad) we realize that the systems of domination that come to a head when we see Black people die unjustly and without remedy, are a very complex knot. One in which we are implicated as perpetrators often even when we are its victims. Their structures are varied and tied together. They don’t require the designation “Black” to coalesce around Black people’s lives and to find expression in Black suffering. We have enough racial ideology and a palimpsest of historic degradation and domination, to ensure that happens without a word ever being made to describe our flesh.

All of this to say, we who believe in Black liberation must be ever vigilant about the limitations of a banner, a hashtag, a rallying cry in terms what it doesn’t name or account for, and what it doesn’t reveal.

That’s not a criticism.

The passion of the words Black Lives Matter initiates or frames something that has resonated in ways my fellow thinkers here have talked about profoundly. It is a refusal to accept these systems that create Black death and stymie Black life. I think, by implication then, it is also a celebration of Black life. And “Black Life” is that space of transcendence, grace, resilience and beauty, of deep humanity that persists in Black life worlds notwithstanding the centuries long Western project that is set against it/them/us. Our individual lives matter, and our “life” matters too. Beginning here, I think, stakes the claim as to why we have to do the untangling I began with.

When you untangle a knot, of thread for example, what you sometimes find is that there are actually three or four or five pieces of thread in there, that the thread doubles back and turns over on itself. Sometimes the knot gets tighter before it gets looser, sometimes you rip threads in frustration. I’m hoping we don’t do that now, that we can just stick with it.