Tuesday, October 20, 2015

thinking about BlackLivesMatter and teaching

... a part of a larger reflection

The counter-slogan “All Lives Matter” is a rhetorical signal of a threatened position that minimizes the larger social situation of this violence and the historical perpetuation of oppression that resonates in the present. 

As George Yancy states, “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.” (Yancy)
Alternatively, “All Lives Matter” as a reactive “slogan” actually functions as a rhetorical strategy of maintenancing the status quo, generally on behalf of whites, to put African Americans back into a silenced position of non-agential submission. Disallowing space for voiced black subject positions resonates a perceived threat since times of slavery. There were reasons, important to social and economic control, that slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. Through writing, for example, one can have a voice which is less easily dismissed than silence. One need only turn to Frederick Douglass to see the continuum from basic literacy, to critical literacy and acquisition of knowledge, to social action and change. Or as MLK argued in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, the silent apathetic majority, made of whites and blacks, is more dangerous than extremist groups because no action toward change happens in such a climate of immobility. But when we read Douglass and King with our students, we often forget to bring them with us into the present moment, to comment on our continuing social issues in regard to race relations and how we can continue to work for change. We talk about the great things MLK and Douglass did and then spend time arguing about the language of the chant or slogan and dismissing responsibility for more thoughtful engagement.

In her interview with George Yancy, Judith Butler speaks to the problem of the deployment of All Lives Matter as a counter slogan by contextualizing what BLM is within a historical continuum. All Lives Matter as a rhetorical strategy of disempowerment functions best when recipients have little knowledge of proper historical and contemporary context and a lack of understanding of the need for a movement such as BLM:
What is implied by this statement, a statement that should be obviously true, but apparently is not? If black lives do not matter, then they are not really regarded as lives, since a life is supposed to matter. So what we see is that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, that is regarded as the way it is supposed to be. The callous killing of Tamir Rice and the abandonment of his body on the street is an astonishing example of the police murdering someone considered disposable and fundamentally ungrievable.

When we are taking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat. (Butler)

This, in many ways, echoes what Alicia Garza articulates in her article “A Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter.  All Lives Matter as a reactive slogan ignores/silences history and context, dismissing singular acts of violence as isolated and not connected to a historical continuum of state sanctioned inequality still active symbolically and literally in the examples of police violence which accelerated this movement. Garza explains:
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that  500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence;.the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence.  And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.

When Black people get free, everybody gets free

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.   When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free.  When Black people get free, everybody gets free.  This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways.  We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined. (Herstory)

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” But we have to wonder how we are still  making the same arguments and doing the same work for justice so  many years later.


Black Lives Matter also calls attention to identity and ways that young people in general and African Americans in particular negotiate identity and means of identification from perspectives of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender in the world and online. Although we may not find resolutions to some of these issues and conflicts, bringing the conversations into the classroom can offer students various means of negotiating these as personal and social conflicts and points of engagement on their own terms as well as within a community (classroom) context.

The crossover of links and information among and between sites and platforms -- including the Black Lives Matter hashtag and Twitter site, the use of Twitter in spreading information and announcing protests especially in relation to the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the viral spread of video like that from the infamous Pool Party in Texas showing the police officer man-handling/assaulting a teenage girl in a bikini – and real-world action – the move from inside to outside of the internet -- marks a new kind of possibility for social activism that if continuously utilized may in fact contribute to real social change. And these kinds of conversations can open our classrooms to making better connections between the texts we read and the lives we live in the world. If in fact we want to realize that all lives and not just some lives matter, that improved race relations and addressing social inequalities will result in a better society for all people and not just some people, and if these are issues that some of our students are concerned with when they enter our classes, we might be able to do more to help all students link their own lives and experiences with our classroom activities.

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