Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement (Introduction Part I)

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Bianca Williams. She provides the first contribution to the series “Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement.” Bianca is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism, under contract with Duke University Press. Dana-Ain Davis, her co-editor for this series, is an Associate Professor at Queen’s College and the CUNY Graduate Center and co-author of Feminist Activist Ethnography (2013) with Christa Craven.]

As many prepare to attend AAA 2015 in a couple of weeks, some of us are remembering the variety of emotions and sentiments we brought to the meetings last year. Anger. Frustration. Sadness. A longing for justice and peace. A desire for change. A willingness to fight. An inability to proceed with business as usual. We watched Ferguson, Missouri erupt in rebellion on our televisions and computer screens the week before showing up in Washington, D.C. And then we gathered together during the meetings, simultaneously astonished and unsurprised by the news that those responsible for the death of Eric Garner would not be brought to justice. Numerous anthropologists made their voices heard at the AAA 2014 business meeting, demanding that the AAA Executive Board actively search for ways the discipline could intervene and push against the anti-Black practices and racist ideologies disproportionately affecting Black communities. Subsequently, the Working Group on Racialized Brutality and Extrajudicial Violence was created.

The Working Group has been charged with making efforts to track racialized police brutality and develop resources that will assist in reducing this form of state-sanctioned violence. As members of the Working Group, me and Dana-Ain Davis edited this series of essays centered on stories from the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. These short essays offer an ethnographic and/or self-reflexive lens on activities connected to the organizing and activism taking place in multiple communities and cities. While all the contributors do not identify as anthropologists, all use the tools of participant observation, auto-ethnography, and/or narrative to provide a snapshot of the #BLM Movement during the past year. Through their stories, we begin to understand the complexities and emotional toll of organizing and resistance, while also getting a sense of how new forms of connection and community can reinvigorate and feed the soul, even in the midst of crisis. We offer these essays as a way for anthropologists and all to reflect on where we were a year ago, and as a call to keep pressing forward. The struggle continues.

As the first contribution to this series of essays, I offer remarks I gave in a keynote address at the #WeResist community summit in Denver, Colorado in March 2015. After weeks of planning the summit with community members (who would eventually become members of Black Lives Matter 5280, a chartered chapter of the national BLM organization), I was asked to give  attendees a brief introduction to the strategies we were using to resist anti-Black racism. On this Sunday, I stood nervously at the altar of the First Unitarian Society of Denver, wondering if the multi-racial crowd would pleasantly receive my attempt to blend our group’s ever-evolving organizing tactics with the fierce analytics of Black feminist activist-scholars. I quickly glanced at the “Black Lives Matter” sign hanging behind me, took a deep breath, and began to speak:

“As families across the U.S. came together to celebrate one another and express gratitude for all that they had during the holiday season of 2014, many of us, Black and Brown persons in particular, were mourning the deaths of members of our communities. I couldn’t turn my eyes away from the television and online livestreams, where the streets of Ferguson were ignited with outrage and tears as local residents and visitors protested, some of whom had been organizing for over 90 days since Brown’s death. Although I teach in Africana Studies, my training is in cultural anthropology, and at the time I was preparing to attend the national anthropology meetings the following week in Washington DC. I couldn’t imagine sitting in conference rooms, listening to people present theoretical papers, as a social movement, the Black Lives Matters movement, was coming alive outside our conference hotel. I wasn’t down with continuing business as usual. So me and Victoria Massie, a graduate student from Berkeley decided to bring one of the strategies from the movement into our hotel lobby. Along with a small group of other conference attendees, we organized a die-in, forcing attendees to take note of the events happening across the country, and supporting the efforts of anthropologists calling for a national taskforce on racism and police brutality.

I’m hoping that you are here today, filled with the type of energy we had on that day, ready to engage in actions and trainings that scream that we are no longer going to allow business to go on as it has been for the past year, decade, fifty years, or four hundred years, depending on when you want to start this story of oppression. I’m hoping that you are here to press forward and emerge victorious in battles our ancestors started. It is my hope that you are here to build community and repair the fractures that those before us created, and that we sometimes perpetuate. Subsequently, I want to spend the rest of my time sharing my perspective and experience with the four concepts of resistance that will guide our work today.

Disruption. We have defined “disruption” as resistance through civil disobedience. One of the most powerful things about engaging in the die-in at our conference hotel was seeing my mentors, my elders, people representing the future of our discipline, and folks who didn’t look like me, laying on the ground next to one another, in silence, in prayer, in self-reflection, in defiance, with rage, connecting with one another by disrupting business as usual. I haven’t ever experienced anything like it, and there is a community that is created out of those forms of collaboration, out of a collective action that says that we’ve had enough, and we’re going to do something about it. For just a few minutes the hotel couldn’t check anyone in, all business was brought to a halt, and we forced those who may have missed the memo that a revolution was starting, to take notice.

The goal of disruption, of a series of actions fueled by a long-term commitment to change, is to transform the system that is being critiqued. Our work is not done. Some of us have been disrupting and engaging in civil disobedience for decades. At city council meetings. Outside election halls. At the homes of our representatives. On college campuses. In our churches. Outside the businesses that profit from our consumption. However, the momentum of this movement, the momentum that has been generated by the recognition that Black bodies and Black lives still DON’T matter, demands that we find ways to strategically and thoughtfully transform the legislation, business practices, and historical values that seek to keep us silenced and disempowered. We must be committed to long-term disruption, because much of the recent evidence shows that if we don’t, many of us, may eventually be choked to death, shot, killed in our homes, imprisoned, or experience violence while simply living in our bodies.

Voice. For today, we define voice as resistance through protest and speaking out. It is undeniable that music, words, performance, art, are effective and persuasive ways of speaking truth to power. Voice enables us to expose the contradictions in the world we live in. It helps us self-define, and be clear about what we mean when we fight for freedom, liberation, empowerment, and joy. I will say this: If you believe that we are living in a post-racial society, then you are in the wrong place today. This idea that we are past race, that we need to strive for a society where race doesn’t matter, and we are colorblind, actually silences and shuts down Voice. We need to have MORE conversations about race and racism, instead of promoting a colorblind approach to living. Because for many people of color, particularly Black and Brown folks, transcending their race, or ignoring the important ways it influences their experience, is not an option when they are met with bullets, teargas, batons, chokeholds, or bombs.

Some of you may have already heard me quote one of my favorite anthropologists and writers, Zora Neale Hurston. She said, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Here, she points to the need, the requirement, that we speak out about how we are experiencing the world. That we use our voice in multiple ways to make others aware. But I want to push her quote a bit further and say, that once you educate yourself, and have listened deeply to those who experience the world differently than you, then it is also your responsibility to use your voice, and speak about the injustices that those who look and live differently than you experience. As a cisgender, heterosexual woman, I understand that I have a lot of work to do in understanding how members of the LGBTQ community and gender-nonconforming folks experience the world we all live in. A transgender person of color has been killed almost every week since the beginning of this year, and the silence around this is ear-piercing. I’m aware that there are times when I need to be quiet, step back, and learn, and there are other times when my gendered and sexualized privilege means I can speak against oppressions and be heard in ways others may not. My privilege comes with responsibility. And using my voice is one way I can perform my duty.

Life. We are using “life” to describe resistance through economic choices. Be clear: racism is fundamental to how the U.S. and the global economic market functions. It is, and probably will always be, central to capitalism. Subsequently, it matters where you spend your money, and where you choose to live. Which communities become gentrified, and how they become gentrified matters, and is deeply connected to the economic choices that we, and those in power, make. Resistance through economic choices is a simplistic idea, but it is sometimes the most difficult to effectively participate in. Some report that the longest, consistent form of resistance in U.S. history was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which took place during the Civil Rights Movement. This boycott led to the actual desegregation of buses, trains, and other public spaces. It was effective, and future forms of this resistance can be effective, because to an individual or corporation, money and wealth matter. Economic resistance can have the greatest impact. However, this strategy is also sometimes the slowest, the one that requires the most diligence and commitment, the one that is not as sexy as blocking a street. Economic resistance is the silent threat of any movement.

And now we get to collaboration. This summit, #WeResist, is built on this particular strategy of resistance. We define collaboration as resistance through community-building. Community-building can be hard work because it is about trust, vulnerability, speaking through and across difference, shared strategies, and collective action. It is based in the understanding that systemic and institutional issues such as a lack of diverse curriculua in K-12 schools and higher education; unequal access to academic institutions; educational and housing segregation; food deserts; inadequate healthcare; the school-prison pipeline; a lack of job opportunities; the oppression of immigrants, are affecting ALL of us, in cities and rural areas across the U.S. While these issues may affect us differently, and we may experience privilege in some of these areas, and disempowerment in others, all of these issues are part of an interlocking system of oppression that requires our participation and silence. If we build strong relationships and strong communities, we can engage in transformative and restorative justice for us all. This is frequently described as “intersectionality” which is a concept created by Kimberle Crenshaw, a Black feminist law scholar who teaches us that various forms of oppression define one another and work as an interlocking system. That racism works because of patriarchy. That sexism works because of heteronormativity.”

Part 2 of this keynote will be presented in the next contribution to the series. Stay tuned…

Bianca C. Williams

I am a feminist cultural anthropologist whose research interests include Black women & happiness; race, gender, and emotional labor in higher education; feminist pedagogies; and Black feminist leadership and organizing, particularly in relation to #BlackLivesMatter. My book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism,” examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing happiness and leisure; creating intimate relationships and friendships; and critiquing American racism and sexism (Duke University Press, 2018). I have the pleasure of teaching at The Graduate Center, CUNY.