«Black Lives Matter: Post-Nihilistic Freedom Dreams Julius Bailey David J. Leonard Three simple words: Black. Lives. Matters. They have come ...»
Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, Vol. 5, No.3/4, 2015, pp. 67-77.
Black Lives Matter: Post-Nihilistic Freedom Dreams
David J. Leonard
Three simple words: Black. Lives. Matters. They have come to define a generation as the struggle against persistent
violence and unmitigated racial terror. Visible across the nation, from mass demonstrations to social media time-
lines, Black Lives Matter as a rally cry exists alongside of daily evidence to the contrary. Images of protests wearing black lives matters shirts or hashtag protests appear alongside further proof of a nation’s disregard for black life.
Coined by Aliza Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the mantra “Black Lives Matter” encapsulates the pre- carious position of black America in our supposedly post-racial movement. Representing a movement, a rhetorical signpost marking the persistence of racial violence, a challenge to white privilege, a sense of community, and an articulation of this generation’s “freedom dream,” “Black Lives Matter” is a complex articulation of our current moment. This paper takes up the meaning and significance of “Black Lives Matters,” arguing that it simultaneously embodies a Black Existentialism, which demands voice and autonomy in an “othering,” while at the time demands the basic rights of citizenship and humanity. Pushing back against the hegemony of Black nihilism within the 1980s and 1990s, “Black Lives Matters” imagines a future that exists apart and beyond white supremacy.
Keywords: Activism; Black Existentialism; Black Love; #BlackLivesMatter; Freedom Dreams; Michael Brown;
Nihilism; Trayvon Martin Three simple words: Black- Lives- Matter. These words have come to define this generation’s ongoing struggle against persistent state-sponsored violence with black bodies as its target. The simple slogan gestures towards a complex set of issues, each of which contributes to a state of unbroken and unmitigated racial terror. Though its seemingly common-sense exhortation de- mands nothing more than a bare minimum of human sympathy from the listener, not all have embraced the words (to say nothing of the movement that takes these words as its rallying cry).
Right wing pundits routinely question the legitimacy of a movement that claims that black lives matter while remaining “silent” vis-à-vis “black-on-black crime.”1 Likewise, white liberals have balked at the phrase’s specificity, preferring instead to say “All lives Matter.”2 Intellectually dis- honest critics on the right and those on the left who would have us make pabulum of a bitter pill Julius Bailey (Ph.D., University of Illinois) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University. He can be reached for comment on this essay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David J. Leonard (Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
1 Conservative columnist Dennis Prager calls it “left-winged hysteria”; see Dennis Prager, “Black Murderers Matter,” Town Hall, April 21, 2015, http://townhall.com/columnists/dennisprager/2015/04/21/black-murderers-mattern1987985/page/full. See also, Rich Lowry, “The Black Lives That Don’t Matter To Progressives,” New York Post, May 28, 2015, http://nypost.com/2015/05/28/the-black-lives-that-dont-matter-to-progressives/.
2 George Yancy and Judith Butler, “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter?’” New York Times, January 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/?_r=0. See also Julie Crave, “Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter,” Huffington Post, November 25, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julia-craven/please-stop-telling-me-th_b_6223072.html.
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reflect a widespread unwillingness to hear the clarion call at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. The most charitable interpretation we can offer is that those who would refute, deflect, or diffuse the critiques offered within Black Lives Matter fail to understand the historical, ideological, and philosophical arguments that inform the slogan and the movement(s) that inspired and that take inspiration from it.
Visible across the nation, from mass demonstrations to social media timelines, Black Lives Matter, as a rallying cry, exists alongside daily evidence that proves (at least to those who would see with eyes unclouded by prejudice) just how necessary the cry is. Coined by Aliza Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi,3 the mantra is first and foremost a challenge to the affront of racial violence and prejudiced policing; it is a challenge to white privilege and supremacy, and it seeks to disrupt the status quo by forcing America to unflinchingly examine the ways in which state-sponsored agents treat black Americans as, at best, second-class citizens. At the same time, Black Lives Matter marks the indomitableness of Black Love and community; it is an articulation of this generation’s “freedom dreams”;4 it is a statement about not only future possibilities but also what must happen in the current moment. Black Lives Matter is an act of collective imagination, one that both envisions and tries to bring about conditions that will guarantee that the voices, humanity, and lives of African Americans are protected, valued, and embraced.
This forward-looking stance is, however, secondary. This essay argues that Black Lives Matter represents an active engagement, not with the future, but with our present moment. While the palpable demand for a better (specifically equal) future is certainly an important part of the movement, the future seems almost an afterthought. Black lives matter principally in the here and now; this is the urgency that propels the movement forward. It is no wonder that social media, with its endless framing and shaping of the immediate present, has been so crucial to the growth of Black Lives Matter. Expressions of love can coexist with expressions of outrage in the space. Those who are most vocal within this space do not vacillate between anger and tenderness so much as they express each simultaneously. This is the power contained in the slogan: the power to maneuver offensively and defensively simultaneously.
The Black Lives Matter movements, which emerged following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, saw in the Zimmerman verdict a symptom of America’s justice system, which repeatedly returns verdicts that prove that black bodies and black lives are disposable. With the racially biased justice system in the national spotlight, the Zimmerman verdict evidenced the claims of competing narratives—the one side claiming that black America was, unsurprisingly, kept at arm’s length from even the semblance of justice it sought; the other side claiming that the vindication was proof that the justice system worked perfectly. Black Lives Matter was (and is) a protest against both systemic racism in the justice system, but also a much broader indictment as well. The illusive nature of justice (to say nothing of land, bread, education, and housing) is proof positive of the societal refusal to care for black life. The organizing that has taken place in the aftermath of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, in the wake of Freddie Gray and Islan Nettles, following Tamir Rice and Renisha McBride, points to the precariousness of black life within a white supremacist police state to a world in which, in the words of Aliza Garza, “Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”5 The material devaluThese three women are distinguished as the orchestrators of the hastag #Blacklivesmatter. For more information see Deron Dalton, “The Three Women Behind the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Madame Noire, May 4, 2015, http://madamenoire.com/528287/the-three-women-behind-the-black-lives-matter-movement/.
4 Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003).
5 Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, Black Lives Matter 69 ing of black life, evidenced by police shootings and denials of justice, alongside of the symbolic and rhetoric dehumanization within popular culture, online, and in America’s daily cultural practices speaks to the many ways in which black lives are seen as expendable and superfluous, to the ways in which black bodies are presented and treated as though they are somehow beneath the dignity of the (White) American project.
Black Lives Matter attempts to deprive white supremacy of the oxygen it needs to sustain these assumptions and the state violence they engender. It seeks to expose in a broader way than ever before (made possible by the ubiquity of social media) the way that these assumptions have led to hyper segregation, the school to prison pipeline, mass unemployment and housing discrimination, just to name a few. By spotlighting the persistent violence, and through elucidating the fallacies, hypocrisies, and double standards that anchor white supremacy, Black Lives Matter is challenging the very foundations upon which Americans claim their democracy is built: that we are all created equal, that all are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There is sense in which Black Lives Matters is a generational response to a civil rights generation focus on educational programs, respectability politics, and diversity quotas as the remedy to persistent institutional racism. It is this generation’s statement that black death cannot be eradicated with cultural competency or some diversity quota. As presently configured, this movement lacks an urgent demand of black power based in the people having the necessary power to determine their communities / resources / coalitions and life. Instead, this is a moral claim that has emerged under the use/abuse of law. Therefore, we argue that Malcolm X died precisely because he shamed America by making black lives matter an international case and linking the need for revolution in the United States with those demanding voice and power in Africa, Asia, and throughout the Third World. Martin Luther King was also killed at the moment he linked poverty to the Vietnam War, as he made clear that Vietnamese Lives Matter; that the lives of the poor matter.
This is where the movement is likely heading—toward action and an ideological framework that shames America’s empire on a global level. For example, the links between militarism in Ferguson and Baltimore alongside of discussion of drones points to this emergent framework. A movement that brings together discussions of police violence and capitalism that looks at the dialectics between poverty in Chicago and throughout the Third World brings that structural analysis into focus. In June of 2015, Black movements since the abolishment of slavery down to the black revolution / civil rights have been successful when they have linked themselves to an international level of injustice caused by America. Is that tradition still possible with America being the dominant force in the world?
While it challenges white supremacy and privilege, ultimately attempting to decenter whiteness, Black Lives Matter is, in root and branch, an affirmation of black love. It highlights the community’s commitment to protecting and loving all black lives. The death of Trayvon Martin and the systemic failure to hold George Zimmerman accountable for that death prompted a range of emotions, emotions all too familiar for black Americans: shock, rage, sadness, and frustration.
The Zimmerman verdict and the media’s discussion of both victim and circumstances were just the latest examples of a culture and a system that places little to no value on black life. Martin’s was just another lost life; the verdict just another moment when the criminal (in)justice system 2014, http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.
70 Bailey & Leonard proved its inability or unwillingness to safeguard black lives; just one more instance that proved that our lack of faith in the justice system and its willingness to hold those with black blood on their hands accountable is perfectly justifiable.
In the face of systemic expressions of America’s disdain for and hatred of black life, a movement emerged that centered on black love. Aliza Garza, a Bay Area activist, penned a “love letter to black folks” on Facebook, which ended with this: “Black people. I love you. I love us.
Our lives matter.”6 Patrisse Cullors, also an organizer from California, felt similar rage, unwilling to accept the normalization in the perpetual criminalization and dehumanization of Martin and so many others. She too took to Facebook, “I hope y’ all are loving on yourselves today.”7 Like many of her other posts, she ended this one with the now-familiar hashtag, #blacklivesmatter.” Soon thereafter, April Tometi, an organizer from New York City, joined Garza and Cullors.