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.

More by this author

The South’s Changing Political Landscape
Talking About Origins, and Recommendations for Future Reading and Reflection (Focus, Vol. I)
Book Conversation on May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem
The Difficult Miracle: The Living Legacy of June Jordan

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