Lessons I Learned from Black Lives Matter
A Sunday morning Facebook post asked “Is Black Lives Matter still a thing?” and I immediately did an eye-roll. The technical answer is in the affirmative. They still are a thing. I still get emails from them. I also know that in many activist circles that Black Lives Matters functions as a real, almost tangible entity. But, I know that that’s not what the social media post really meant. The post was getting at the sentiment that most people are wondering or have finally stopped caring about: why haven’t we heard from Black Lives Matter the way we did before the election of Donald Trump?
I read this post and proceeded to climb up the intellectual mountain from which that question was generated–for whatever reason, when I wake up sometimes my mind brings a piercing alacrity to a thought–and I realized that there was a marked shift in how I personally discussed things and in how I engaged in this subjects in and around Black Lives Matter. In fact, I discovered that there were more than one lessons that I had learned throughout these last couple of years. These lessons have affected not only how I operate in social media circles, but ultimately in my real-life interactions with white people, but also other black people.
It’s okay to speak up and speak out even if it’s not popular.
I tweeted that on January 12, 2015. I remember dreading that I felt the need to tweet that, but it was true observation. I had a serious criticism of the “leaderless leadership” model simply because I didn’t see how it would translate well into organizing on the street. And better yet, organizing for what goal? Central to my criticism was a seemingly lack of policy attached to the BLM organizing platform. Grassroots organizations such as BLM typically coalesce around a particular outcome that’s policy based: education reform or legislation at a city council or statehouse. Because I couldn’t connect those dots, I was slow to join the bandwagon. In fact, I actually had some questions about the general direction the bandwagon was moving. Questions that needed answers before I got aboard.
My questions didn’t come without a pitiable price. Or at a price meted out by social media. I remembered for the umpteenth time, that social media isn’t the place to ask questions of hashtag movements. The flattening of the conversations doesn’t give me much latitude to ask what I thought was a pretty foundational question; one needed for movement building. I began to see Black Lives Matters as a massive awareness campaign, but not a movement. I penned a blog piece in June 2015 saying a s such, but it was an unpopular point of view. Eventually, I moved into silence.
Silence is death for someone who engages in the life of the mind. People my whole life have told me that I’m unbridled when it comes to speaking my mind. Usually I tell them that I still say only about 10% of what’s on my mind, which gives them a picture that my mind is full and I think a lot. When I talk slow it is me trying to navigate between being true to my thought and sentiments, trying to find the vocabulary that is acceptable to the hearer and navigating do I want to hurt this person’s feelings in order to make my point, or are their feelings worth compromising how I truly feel. Sometimes that calculus is too hard for me to engage, and I opt for the frustrating silence. This is a silence that’s full of death. It’s as though a piece of my mind goes into atrophy when I’m forced to be silent.
It was unpopular to levy criticism at Black Lives Matters and then-president Barack Obama, so I chose silence over criticism. And for that I need to apologize to myself. I wasn’t living up to my true authentic Self by denying my Self the right to speak my informed opinion. I was more worried about what social media thought of me; how I could make sure a status received likes or a tweet received retweets. The lesson I’ve learned is that I should have continued to be as bold as I was on January 12, 2015 when I tweeted into the ether and no one retweeted or liked it. But more importantly, I didn’t care if anyone did. It was a truism for myself, and that should always be enough.
This is probably the most difficult one for me. Favoring brevity, to be an agitator in this country means to sacrifice the philosophical and at times tangible creature comforts of American life. The lights, the water, clean air, the easy accessibility to food… I can go on. You get my point. We, who believe in freedom, need to constantly stay in a state of agitation. The moment we rest is the moment we’ve capitulated.
One of the worst phrases that came out of the Black Lives Matter project was “woke” and all it’s familiar derivatives. “Wokeness” became synonymous with one’s blackness. That is to say, if you weren’t “woke” you weren’t really black. I rather despise ontological tests of one’s blackness especially when it’s related through the medium of social media. It became a quick and easy way to dismiss a black person’s thoughts; if they weren’t “woke” then you could dismiss their argument. Essentially, the phrase “stay woke” became interchangeable with “stay black.”
Well, you could have just told me that, right?
I’d rather advocate black folks to stay agitated. Not to the point of looking for problem just to be the center of attention, but to be vigilant about the deeper analysis at play and finding the courage to speak truths that empower rather than speaking your truth for the sake of self-aggrandizement.
Never be “too woke to vote.”
Hotepping won’t save black America. It never has and it never will. As I said, part of my criticism with the larger Black Lives Matter project was its failure to be policy minded. That is to say, nationally, it never did the job of connecting voting to political outcomes. The closest it ever came was in the pig-sty that is Chicago politics. Riding the coattails of the Black Lives Matter wave, Chicagoans voted Kim Foxx as the Democratic party nominee for Cook county state’s attorney. This was after the tape of a Chicago police officer killing the unarmed black teenager LaQuan McDonald and the state’s attorney office being slow to investigate and charge the officer. This was a clear cut case of a body politic connecting a desired outcome (a state’s attorney courageous enough to prosecute a police officer) with a needed triggering action–voting.
Unfortunately, this example exists in a singularity
Viral videos surfaced on social media left and right with black people saying that they weren’t going to vote in 2016. And Black Lives Matter never organized a national get out the vote campaign. To my knowledge, there was not a single Black Lives Matter supported candidate from municipal to federal elections in 2016. With all of the nascent rumblings of young black people, you would have thought that black millennials would have flocked to the polls in record numbers and there would have been a record number of blacks who decided to run for office, even if it was for dog catcher in their city council district. But it seemed that Black Lives Matter was more interested in mounting philosophical and non-policy based challenged to Hillary Clinton and too disinterested and dismissive of Bernie Sanders which effectively told hundreds of thousands of young people that the political process was worth divestiture. That it was okay to be “too woke to vote.”
And then Donald Trump won.
There’s always a deeper analysis.
I recently listened to a podcast hosted by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude and produced by Princeton’s African American Studies department, and he interviewed his mentor, Cornel West, professor of public philosophy at Harvard–his second round there. In the midst of the anthropological and ontological shade that only West could throw at other black colleagues of his, he stuck to his guns about his criticism of the Obama presidency. Specifically the ways in which Obama, as president, continued to perpetuate the “rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer” dynamic when it came to economic bailouts of Wall Street, as well as the human rights ethics around drone strikes. He also, poignantly noted that we will eventually have to deal with the fact that a “black lives matter” campaign was generated under the nation’s first black president. This is a deeper analysis that most people don’t want to delve into. It’s much more popular to relish in the representation of blackness in the White House–the hip rhetoric of Obama, the images of Michelle dancing, BET hosting a farewell bash in the actual White House. But Black Lives Matter taught me there’s always a deeper analysis.
That is to say, this battle, maybe even the war, as it’s laid out is not going to be fought with hashtags as bows and arrows. Twitter assassins cannot and will not move the levers of power in this country; Facebook screeds are but a fart in the high wind of market forces. Social media, most times, doesn’t allow for a deeper analysis. That deeper analysis comes when you log out and actually talk to people. When you get in their face and have a conversation. Part of what I think doomed Black Lives Matter as a movement was that we saw many people on bullhorns at marches taking Twitter hashtag musings and trying to translate that to real people. And it fell flat.
I will always commit to a deeper analysis. Not for the sake of trying to be “the deep one,” but for the sake of making sure we’re thinking this thing through all the way. Black people will never get justice if we’re half stepping our analysis of the situation. If we’re more interested in the person occupying the seat of power rather than the invisible sourcing of the power, we will stay losing.
My life is more than a hashtag.
About the only time I invoke the written words “black” “lives” and “matter” is to make a hashtag. Twitter appropriately created a permanent emoji of black fists across the color spectrum–light skinned to dark skinned–that accompanies that hashtag. In a real sense, Black Lives Matter has been reduced to a hashtag. I look back at that tweet from January 12, 2015 and I wonder was ever even more than a hashtag. At times it felt like it was. Like it should have been. Like it could have been. Could it have been more during the Baltimore uprising? More at the death of Walter Scott? The shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church? The election of Donald Trump?
I am reminded that I am more than a hashtag, and I am more than what I choose to write and say. My words point to bigger meanings and ideas; things that are greater I. That is to suggest, my criticism in the face of popular opinion or my reasons for voting are all more than just words to read on a screen, or 140 characters to scroll by and retweet on a timeline. My black life matters not because an organization says so, but because I say so and the real and lived community I live in affirms that.