Engaging with the Past: How #BlackLivesMatter Points Us to Our Predecessors and Calls Us to Hope

Jelani Ince. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Volume 41, Issue 8. 2018.


As the events in Ferguson, along with the posthumous trial of Michael Brown, unfolded in 2014, I was in a hotel room with my family. As I prepared to move into my new apartment in Indiana, I felt safe, secure, bright eyed, and ready to embark on my journey to earn a PhD. I was following the case sporadically given the pending semester and had not given much thought to the peculiarity surrounding the murder of Michael Brown. There were matters I felt were more deserving of my attention. This is ironic because months earlier, I graduated from a university where I was involved with other students in their efforts to hold the campus police accountable for their disparate treatment of black students. I also sat in a room with the late Vincent Harding, listened to anecdotes about the oppression he and his co-belligerents faced, and brainstormed with my colleagues on how to pursue social change within our local context. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I truly believed that the ivory tower could protect me. I naïvely convinced myself that just because I could resist the urge to become, as Fanon says, “the nigger-who-eats his-R’s” that somehow compensated for how my body would be read and interacted (Fanon 1952: 129).

To be black in America means you cannot divorce yourself from Brown’s fate or the fate or any black American who has suffered oppression at the hands of the state. The oppressive conditions and the current political state in which we live demand answers. Chris Lebron’s The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea, is an interjection in the midst of the storm of the oppressive political conditions that marginalized groups are currently struggling to reconcile. The book’s main contribution is to highlight, “the struggle to insist that black lives are indeed lives and therefore not candidates for cursory or careless or hateful or negligible elimination” (xii). Lebron beckons the reader to revisit the past in order to understand the inspiration behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s (hereafter #BLMM) ideology. He asks, “since the struggle is as old as America itself, are we equipped with the right kind of ethos to make our present-day social movements as effective as they can and need to be?”(xii) In a nation that has demonstrated that black lives are disposable, what does it look like for black Americans to navigate through the trenches of contemporary America? Rather than discussing the history of the #BLMM, Lebron shifts the reader’s focus to the work of well-known black freedom fighters who dedicated their lives to the preservation, uplift, and support of black people. It appears that Lebron’s intention for including these histories is to prompt the reader to investigate the strategies these freedom fighters used in the fight for black liberation. Through this, Lebron hopes that the reader can better understand the #BLMM and implement these strategies in their own lives.

The book is grounded in four lessons, or strategies, that we can draw from several prominent figures: shameful publicity used by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells; counter colonization of the white imagination via the arts used by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; unconditional self-possession used by Anna Julia Cooper and AudreLorde; and unfragmented compassion used by Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin (xx-xxi).

What Does Love Look Like?

One of the main points that Lebron drives home in The Making of Black Lives Matter is that the #BLMM has always existed, but in different forms. Due to Malcolm X’s popularity in conversations concerning social justice, I was surprised that he is referenced to on a handful of occasions in Lebron’s text and that his ideologies are not discussed at length. This caught my attention because it appears that Lebron’s discussion of love in chapter four asserts that Baldwin and King believed in centring black self-actualization, which includes pride in one’s blackness, resisting the tenets of white supremacy, and seeking to uplift one another. Yet, one can question whether or not Malcolm X’s messages, as well as those of other black radical traditions, can also fit into Lebron’s interpretations of love. Malcolm X understood that black Americans were living in an “American nightmare”, comprised of racial, economic, and political injustice. The issue was not simply a matter of access; the entire system was corrupt, both domestically and internationally. King also understood this. Although much of his ethos centred on the doctrine of non-violence, towards the end of his life, he mentions that he “could never again raise [his] voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: [his] own government” (King, Jr. 1967).

When it pertains to Baldwin, Lebron speaks highly of him, highlighting his upbringing and contributions to discussions about the fate of the country. Lebron notes that Baldwin’s take on love could not be divorced from white Americans because “he took seriously the charge of being a witness as well as the ambition to be sympathetic” (113). More specifically, “if blacks are the ones being put upon and hounded and harassed, then it can only mean that it really is the prerogative of the hounded and harassed to choose to accept the hunters and harassers” (109). However, I question how this would be interpreted when we consider the full trajectory of Baldwin’s opinions regarding race in the US. The hopeful optimism about the country that he presents in “My Dungeon Shook” is not as present in his text, No Name in the Street, written just after the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In it, Baldwin discusses a suit fitting for an appearance he was scheduled to make for Dr. King; two weeks later, he wore that same suit to his funeral. He remarks that he would never be able to wear it again because it was “drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country” (Baldwin 1972, p. 14). I bring this up to highlight that even our heroes are human; that even if they are optimistic, it can be difficult to maintain that optimism in the face of black erasure. The tension between understanding the innate violence of the American political system and focusing on one’s time, energy, and resources on the disenfranchised, along with wrestling with whether or not it is worth caring about the “morally dim-witted” in the recasting of a new vision for society, continues to resurface as something that activists must wrestle with (Lebron, p. 154).

Furthermore, Lebron’s differential painting of King as an intellectual, and Baldwin as not, is worth noting. Lebron writes that,

Baldwin’s thinking was tightly tethered to his biography and reporting, thus more immediate and less systematic; while King’s thinking was of course motived by the problems he faced and observed in America, it was also tempered and structured by his academic training and propensities, lending his writing and thinking on love a far more cerebral quality. (121-122)

This is concerning, as both King and Baldwin’s life experiences were direct influences on their writing, yet King appears to be exempt from the same critique. In his discussion of Baldwin, Lebron references The Fire Next Time, wherein Baldwin writes to his nephew that his white counterparts, “don’t know Harlem, and I do”, thus demonstrating that his biography, like King’s, was an influential mechanism in his writing about the state of the American project and lends him a particular level of credibility (Baldwin 1962, p. 8). However, to assert, even implicitly, that because Baldwin did not graduate from formal higher educational institutions that his intellectual contributions were not as cerebral as King’s should inspire a pause. In more recent years, people have become more accepting of Baldwin’s contributions to the dialogue on the state of the country and race relations. As these dialogues continue, we should be cautious about to whom we attach the label of intellectual. In my reading of the text, I did not conclude that Lebron intentionally decided to do this. Nonetheless, in our work towards equality, we must be careful not to reify the oppressive ideologies we are seeking to dismantle.

Audre Lorde and Anger

Lebron’s take on intersectionality and the work of black women in chapter three is pertinent to the discussion of the #BLMM, as it was founded by three queer black women. One of the more notable aspects of this chapter is the legacy of black women’s activism and sacrifice for the black community. Lebron notes that Anna Julia Cooper is often considered to be the first black feminist theorist, although Hill Collins (2000) would argue that black women have always existed as theorists and thinkers even if they are not present within higher education institutions or other prestigious spaces. His use of Audre Lorde’s speech, “Uses of Anger: Black Women Respond to Racism” is significant, as it reiterates that black people cannot divorce their lived experiences from their political realities. To divorce these things is to misread the voice, perspectives, and the position of black Americans. Considering the frequency and normalization of the erasure of black women’s contributions, this is a pivotal component of the book, as it clearly presents the important of black women’s work to social justice movements. In fact, I believe that the book’s argument is strongest in this emphasis because the lack of an intersectional focus in political conversations is crippling. Lebron writes,

for Lorde, blacks who did not support gay rights, especially those of black gays and lesbians, failed to see that the struggle of homosexuals was not of a different kind from their own, but, rather, was simply taking place in another key. (94)

I wish to return to Lebron’s use of Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger” for a moment, particularly where she states,

If I speak to you in anger, at least I have spoken to you: I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street; I have not looked at your bleeding sister’s body and asked, “what did she do to deserve it? (Lorde 1997, p. 283)

The point here is that a focus on how the message is delivered is often used as a tool to erase the heart-cry of the speaker. In the context of this speech, Lorde is directly confronting how black women have, and continue to be, emotional mules for white women in the fight against patriarchal oppression. Although she distinguishes between anger and rage, her point still rings true: we cannot ignore the messages that are expressed from black communities when rage is present. If we cannot accept the rage that is a response to oppression and violence, then one must question if we are adequately prepared to do the necessary work to ameliorate these issues. I do not believe that Lorde would argue that people should sit in their anger and become docile. In the same breath, the same people who instruct black people to think of constructive solutions often do so without a truthful assessment of history and with a spirit inspired to quell black activism.

Looking Ahead

So, what next? What do we do, moving forward? As researchers, we do a phenomenal job with problematizing issues, but sometimes we leave the reader without providing actionable steps or solutions. The Making of Black Lives Matter indicates that the path to liberation is complex. Lebron ends the book in a manner that mirrors, in his own words, unfragmented compassion wherein he wishes to draw “the bridge across the chasm between black self-regard and compassion for white Americans” (148). The reader can sense that Lebron is torn between personal and collective resolutions. For instance, he speaks extensively about saving oneself, which communicates a personal endeavour. For him that means, “constructing a different space, where [his] dignity is holy and [his] autonomy is inviolable” (163). Something that may have been helpful to the reader’s understanding of this point would have been a description of how trying to save oneself can be demonstrated in ways that are not limited to what is discussed in the book. He implies that the expression of rage is not wholly effective. Or, at the very least, it cannot be the hinge upon which the door to liberation rests, where he writes, “[rage] is really only a chimera that suits itself to the needs of the media agencies and the expectations of those who need you where you are” (162).

I agree with the importance of using protest tactics and other forms of civil disobedience in order to channel rage into actionable steps because it communicates, “not today; my dignity is not negotiable today” (155). Yet, social science research suggests that responses to this declaration are not wholly positive. For instance, the race of protestors has an impact on police response (Payne 2001; Correll et al. 2002; Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong 2011). Additionally, police are much more likely to appear at events where protesters target the government or government actors (Tilly 1978; Davenport 1995; Wisler and Giugni 1999). If that is not convincing enough, one look at how the nation, and the 45th President, responded to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to peacefully protest points us to the conclusion that race determines how police and the nation respond to protest behaviour. What if the varying expressions of rage are an entry point, or the point itself, to challenge institutional logics about “proper” protest behaviour and the avowal of Black humanity? I would imagine that space must be made for that conversation, especially if we believe that one of the goals of the #BLMM is to switch the phrase, “Black Lives Matter” from a question to a statement and emphasize that the fate of the country rests with the fate of black Americans.

I will conclude with this. Lebron turns to the reader and poses a question: “is there reason for hope?” (151). I would argue yes, but with a caveat. Black liberation is incomplete without the eradication of oppression for all marginalized peoples; we cannot fully celebrate progress without considering the lives of gay, lesbian, trans, gender non-conforming, poor, and disabled peoples. The Making of Black Lives Matter confirms that it is our duty to imagine new, perhaps more effective, resistance tools with a historical lens in our toolkit. This resistance includes not deluding ourselves that institutions as they are currently constructed can save us, as I naïvely did four years ago. It includes rejecting white absolution. As Smith (2014) notes, confessions about white privilege, “rarely [lead] to political projects to actually dismantle the structures of domination that enable this white/settler privilege. Rather, the confessions become the political project themselves” (215). Furthermore, if we continue to focus our attention on the “marked” components of oppression (e.g. burning crosses), then we obfuscate the pervasiveness and normalcy of racism, and other forms of oppression, in the everyday (Brekhus 1998). It includes making space for black joy, in all of its forms and areas of “placemaking” (Hunter et al. 2016). If the struggle for liberation has taught us anything, it is that those who are oppressed do, indeed must, make space for joy. If nothing else, our lives must matter to ourselves, first and foremost.