A Writer With Writers: #BlackLivesMatter: Understanding Race, Revolution, & Resistance
Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.
Four years have passed since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched the social justice international activist movement, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). What began as a hashtag in response to the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin quickly became a rallying cry. Both the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and its meaning resonate around the world—from Ferguson to Tibet, from the White House to the United Nations. BLM is an intergenerational movement and a call for action to reform policies, racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality. Given that BLM is a movement in action, it is difficult to participate in the movement while critiquing it, but Dr Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor did just that in her new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. We begin our discussion with a shorter interview on the Maryland Humanities Council website, and an extended version can be found here with #BlackLivesMatter inspired-poetry and resources for further discussion.
today, my heart stopped
7.17.14 Eric Garner
he said, I cant breathe.
I cant breathe. I cant breathe.
I Cant Breathe. ICantBreatheICantBreathe.
I. Cant. Breathe.
they said, And you will never breathe again.
today, my heart stopped as
hoodies, skittles, iced tea
hands up, don’t shoot
loud rap music in parked cars
babies asleep on couches
mistaken homes, doors kicked in
mistaken identities, because we all look alike
have given way
to illegal choke holds
to being killed
for wanting to be left alone
for asking questions and demanding answers
for being frustrated
for not going silently into their night
for wanting to breathe
and for daring to demand these simple things outLoud
©Karsonya Wise Whitehead, RaceBrave
My Interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), which is an examination of the history and politics of Black America and the development of the social movement Black Lives Matter in response to police violence in the United States. Interested in Dr. Taylor’s work? Follow her on Twitter: @keeangayamahtta.
- Why did you decide to write this book?
I decided to write the book because I thought I had insight and analysis that would be useful for people either in the movement or sympathetic to the movement.
- What got left out in the final draft?
I forgot to include a section I had already outlined on the activist project of the 1950s called “We Charge Genocide” organized by the Civil Rights Congress. In the preamble for their report to the UN on police violence in the US they wrote:
“There was a time when racist violence had its center in the South…Once most of the violence against Negroes occurred in the countryside, but that was before the Negro emigrations of the twenties and thirties. Now there is not a great American city from New York to Cleveland or Detroit, from Washington, the nation’s capital, to Chicago, from Memphis to Atlanta or Birmingham, from New Orleans to Los Angeles, that is not disgraced by the wanton killing of innocent Negroes. It is no longer a sectional phenomenon. Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy. “
I also wanted to include a section in the conclusion on W.E.B. Du Bois and Fred Hampton where I discuss socialism as a central part of the Black Radical Tradition.
- Do you consider yourself to be a scholar/writer or an activist/writer –can you explain what this title to you?
I don’t think of myself in any of those terms. I have been an organizer most of my life. I have organized against campus budget cuts, against the death penalty and police brutality. I have organized against the endless succession of wars the US has been involved in. I have organized for equal marriage rights for LGBT people. I have organized against NATO. And I have been an organizing for housing rights. Along the way I have learned quite a bit and its informed by academic work. I am not able to organize in the same way because I have a job as an educator. I don’t know what that makes me, but I’m not very interested in labels.
- Which writers inspire you?
There is nothing like reading something that makes sense. I am a fan of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anne Petry, Toni Morrison, Leon Trotsky, Nathan Connolly, Alan Maass, Michelle Alexander, Edmund Morgan, Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s hard to pick.
- How much research did you do?
I didn’t do a ton of research. I wasn’t trying to show something new. I was trying to analyze and understand what historical dynamics have resulted in the persistence of racism in our contemporary society. I read a lot but not necessarily for new information but how to make sense of the existing information.
- When did you decide to become a writer?
I have always been writing, for as long as I can remember. My father and older brother are writers. Maybe it’s a family trade, but I have never not been writing.
- Why do you write?
I write to understand the world. Writing is a coping mechanism. It helps me clarify my ideas. It makes me think more sharply.
- What is the hardest thing about writing and/or your research?
Well, writing is hard. It is hard to get it right and to most clearly and succinctly express oneself. Probably the most difficult thing about writing now is having the time to do it the way you want. Writing is about revision. Everyone wants the hot take but writing should be a slow process. It’s about re-writing and stopping and thinking and doing it over. It is very difficult in this day and age.
- What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
Read. If you want to write then you have to read. Read a broad range of things. And then write. I don’t subscribe to the idea that writers MUST write everyday. But you should write as much as possible.
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
Hang in there. It gets better.
- Where so you see yourself in 10 years?
Doing the same things I’m doing now, but my kid will be older.
- What are you working on now? What is your next project?
I am working on my book Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s. It looks at the federal government’s promotion of single family homeownership in black communities after the riots in the 1960s. It is a critique of private institutions like banks and the real estate industry shaping public policy to their benefit and the detriment of black communities they claimed to be serving.
- What is the current state of the Black Lives Matter Movement and how do you see it moving forward?
It’s a big question. I think the movement is still sorting out what it is and what it wants to be. I do think right now that the movement is going through a process of maturation. Meaning that two years ago when everything was erupting, it was tempting to believe that a seat at the table—especially if it were a table in the White House—might put us in closer proximity to political power which might in turn get us closer to our goal of ending police violence. Instead, it was a stalling mechanism from the political establishment which has no real answers to ending police violence. Not everyone has learned that lesson, but enough people have learned the lesson that there is a greater emphasis on the political independence of the movement and advancing goals that will build the movement and worry less about appealing to those in power.
- If people wanted to get involved with Black Lives Matter, where would you suggest that they start?
In most cities there are coalitions or organizations working to end police violence. Find out who they are, where they organize and try to get involved. If there is no local organizing group then create one with other like-minded people.
- How do you think Black Lives Matter is going to be seen/defined 50 years from now?
I have no idea. It all depends on what happens in the next few years. No social movement is guaranteed to go one forever. You are either gaining momentum or you will soon be swept away. We have to focus on how to keep the momentum going.