On the Inaudibility of Black Lives Matter

I made the decision to go to graduate school in the summer of 2015. If you can recall, this was the summer that Dylann Roof opened fire during a Bible study in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the summer Bree Newsome tore down the confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. This was the summer I heard people in my home state of Georgia cry out and cling onto the myth of “heritage not hate.” This was the summer Trump announced that he would be running for President.

I was naïve enough to believe that if I went to graduate school, people would believe what I’m saying. That they would understand the anti-Black racism was thriving in this country. That symbols of racism are damning and are attached to false narratives of rebellion. That what you mean when you insist that Trump is “finally telling the truth” is that we finally have someone willing to say the quiet parts out loud.

After five years, I’m a bit wiser. Or maybe a bit more cynical.

As someone whose life has been bookended by Black death at the hands of police and as someone who has had a lot of time to think during a pandemic, I’ve been considering the seeming inaudibility of the phrase Black Lives Matter. People seem intent upon twisting this hearing this declaration not as an affirmation of Black folks’ right to live, but as an affront to their being. As an unwarranted complaint from an ungrateful, insubordinate people.

What are you hearing when I say that my life has value? Why is there that impulse to counter with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or as I’ve heard most recently, “White Lives Matter”? I have come to realize that there are folks who believe the calls Black folks are making for freedom and liberation are viewed as literal calls for “Black supremacy.” Calls for an inversion of the white supremacist rule of law that has thrived in this country since its inception.

Now ain’t that something? That the mere utterance that Black lives matter in an anti-Black world is an affront to their (perhaps your) being?

What does this say for these folks, that they are completely incapable of imagining a world in which Black folks aren’t shot dead in the street simply because their very body is a threat to a White supremacist world order?

A Black body that has experienced joy and love and sorrow and all that humanity promises us, but also a Black body that is tethered to a long and tiresome past of racial violence– a past that these folks *refuse* to understand or reckon with?

I guess I should say what I hear when I hear these “retorts” to my life. I hear that you think anti-Black racism is exaggerated or has been overcome. I hear that you think police have the right to have access to my body and my community whenever and however they want because of a badge. I hear that you want Black people to shut the hell up and be happy. I hear that you want me dead.

Perhaps what I am hearing above all is that you have not been listening and you have no plans to do so. So, I’m done trying to explain my community’s claim to humanity to folks who consistently and willfully misunderstand a statement as simple as Black Lives Matter.

Because I’m tired.

List of Books Dealing with Race/Anti-Racism that Aren’t “White Fragility”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the state and a national reckoning with our deeply seated racial inequity, many folks are turning to books to become more knowledgeable of the realities of anti-Black racism in the United States.

That’s dope! Really!

However, based on best seller lists from USA Today and the New York Times, one of the books folks are choosing to flock to is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I don’t question the intentions of these folks in deciding to begin with this text– I’m sure they mean well; however, we should think about why there is this tendency to celebrate, amplify, or center a white voice in discussions of racism (see Anastasia Kārkliņa’s piece on this point). This issue becomes especially problematic when you consider DiAngelo has been making an enormous profit from centering herself in these discussions and thus diverting resources from BIPOC scholars who have been doing this work. Who live this work.

So, I have thrown together a list of books that may prove to be useful in thinking about Blackness and racism. This is obviously not exhaustive or perfect by any means– to be honest it’s mainly influenced by what’s on my bookshelf and what I thought could be accessible to most people. But I hope it helps someone out!

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
    • “Praised by Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier as ‘brave and bold,’ this book directly challenges the notion that the presidency of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that ‘we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.’ By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.”
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson
    • “Carefully linking… historical flashpoints when social progress for African Americans was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.”
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
    • “At once a powerful evocation of his childhood in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, The Fire Next Time, which galvanized the nation in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, stands as one of the essential works of our literature.”
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
    • “Austin Channing Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools and churches, Austin writes, ‘I had to learn what it means to love blackness,’ a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion. In a time when nearly every institution (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claims to value diversity in its mission statement, Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice.”
  • Eloquent Rage: a Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
    • “So what if it’s true that Black women are mad as hell? They have the right to be. In the Black feminist tradition of Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting. Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. Black women’s eloquent rage is what makes Serena Williams such a powerful tennis player. It’s what makes Beyoncé’s girl power anthems resonate so hard. It’s what makes Michelle Obama an icon. Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable. It reminds women that they don’t have to settle for less.”
  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors
    • “Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin…. When They Call You a Terrorist is Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s reflection on humanity. It is an empowering account of survival, strength and resilience and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.”
  • Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, Edited by Angela Davis
    • “A comprehensive, readable analysis of the key issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, this thought-provoking and compelling anthology features essays by some of the nation’s most influential and respected criminal justice experts and legal scholars. Policing the Black Man explores and critiques the many ways the criminal justice system impacts the lives of African American boys and men at every stage of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing. Essays range from an explication of the historical roots of racism in the criminal justice system to an examination of modern-day police killings of unarmed black men.”
  • From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, Elizabeth Hinton
    • “In the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the ‘land of the free’ become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America’s prison problem originated with the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the civil rights era.”
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
    • “A classic work of feminist scholarship, Ain’t I a Woman has become a must-read for all those interested in the nature of black womanhood. Examining the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism among feminists, and the black woman’s involvement with feminism, hooks attempts to move us beyond racist and sexist assumptions. The result is nothing short of groundbreaking, giving this book a critical place on every feminist scholar’s bookshelf.”
  • Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, E. Patrick Johnson
    • “While over the past decade a number of scholars have done significant work on questions of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered identities, this volume is the first to collect this groundbreaking work and make black queer studies visible as a developing field of study in the United States. Bringing together essays by established and emergent scholars, this collection assesses the strengths and weaknesses of prior work on race and sexuality and highlights the theoretical and political issues at stake in the nascent field of black queer studies. Including work by scholars based in English, film studies, black studies, sociology, history, political science, legal studies, cultural studies, and performance studies, the volume showcases the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the black queer studies project.”
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
    • “Presenting the essential writings of black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider celebrates an influential voice in twentieth-century literature. In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope.”
  • Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley
    • “Kelley unearths freedom dreams in this exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora in the twentieth century. Focusing on the visions of activists from C. L. R. James to Aime Cesaire and Malcolm X, Kelley writes of the hope that Communism offered, the mindscapes of Surrealism, the transformative potential of radical feminism, and of the four-hundred-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. From’the preeminent historian of black popular culture’ (Cornel West), an inspiring work on the power of imagination to transform society.”
  • Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls In Schools, Monique Morris
    • “In a work that Lisa Delpit calls “imperative reading,” Monique W. Morris (Black Stats, Too Beautiful for Words) chronicles the experiences of Black girls across the country whose intricate lives are misunderstood, highly judged–by teachers, administrators, and the justice system–and degraded by the very institutions charged with helping them flourish. Called “compelling” and ‘thought-provoking’ by Kirkus Reviews, Pushout exposes a world of confined potential and supports the rising movement to challenge the policies, practices, and cultural illiteracy that push countless students out of school and into unhealthy, unstable, and often unsafe futures.”
  • The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison
    • “America’s foremost novelist reflects on the themes that preoccupy her work and increasingly dominate national and world politics: race, fear, borders, the mass movement of peoples, the desire for belonging. What is race and why does it matter? What motivates the human tendency to construct Others? Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?”
  • The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Khalil Gibran Muhammad
    • “How did we come to think of race as synonymous with crime? A brilliant and deeply disturbing biography of the idea of black criminality in the making of modern urban America, The Condemnation of Blackness reveals the influence this pernicious myth, rooted in crime statistics, has had on our society and our sense of self. Black crime statistics have shaped debates about everything from public education to policing to presidential elections, fueling racism and justifying inequality. How was this statistical link between blackness and criminality initially forged? Why was the same link not made for whites? In the age of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump, under the shadow of Ferguson and Baltimore, no questions could be more urgent.”
  • The History of White People, Nell Painter
    • “Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of whiteness for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of race is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.”
  • Black Lives Matter & Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection, Edited by Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan
    • “Music has always been integral to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, with songs such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ J. Cole’s ‘Be Free,’ D’Angelo and the Vanguard ‘The Charade,’ The Game’s ‘Don’t Shoot,’ Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout,’ Usher’s ‘Chains,’ and many others serving as unofficial anthems and soundtracks for members and allies of the movement. In this collection of critical studies, contributors draw from ethnographic research and personal encounters to illustrate how scholarly research of, approaches to, and teaching about the role of music in the Black Lives Matter movement can contribute to public awareness of the social, economic, political, scientific, and other forms of injustices in our society.”
  • Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall
    • “The first major anthology to trace the development, from the early 1800s to the present, of black feminist thought in the United States, Words of Fire is Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s comprehensive collection of writings, in the feminist tradition, of more than sixty African American women. From the pioneering work of abolitionist Maria Miller Stewart and anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells-Barnett to the writings of contemporary feminist critics Michele Wallace and bell hooks, black women have been writing about the multiple jeopardies–racism, sexism, and classicm–that have made it imperative for them to forge a brand of feminism uniquely their own.”
  • From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
    • “For most of US history, the police have used violence against African Americans with impunity—but after the murder of unarmed teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, mass protests erupted to challenge that impunity. In the process, a new generation of Black activists has come to question the old methods of struggle, puncture the Obama-era illusion of a ‘postracial’ United States, and declare without apology that #BlackLivesMatter. In this stirring and insightful analysis, activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor surveys the history and current realities of US racism. Taylor examines how institutional racism has created and shaped the structural problems that affect Black people, such as mass incarceration and unemployment, even as more Black people hold political office than ever before. She paints a vivid picture of the context for this new struggle against police violence—and shows the potential of the Black Lives Matter movement to reignite and broaden the struggle for liberation.”
  • From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity, Miles White
    • “This multilayered study of the representation of black masculinity in musical and cultural performance takes aim at the reduction of African American male culture to stereotypes of deviance, misogyny, and excess. Broadening the significance of hip-hop culture by linking it to other expressive forms within popular culture, Miles White examines how these representations have both encouraged the demonization of young black males in the United States and abroad and contributed to the construction of their identities. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z traces black male representations to chattel slavery and American minstrelsy as early examples of fetishization and commodification of black male subjectivity.”
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
    • “In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America.”
  • Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, George Yancy
    • “When George Yancy penned a New York Times op-ed entitled ‘Dear White America’ asking white Americans to confront the ways that they benefit from racism, he knew his article would be controversial. But he was unprepared for the flood of vitriol in response. The resulting blowback played out in the national media, with critics attacking Yancy in every form possible–including death threats–and supporters rallying to his side. Despite the rhetoric of a ‘post-race’ America, Yancy quickly discovered that racism is still alive, crude, and vicious in its expression. In Backlash, Yancy expands upon the original article and chronicles the ensuing controversy as he seeks to understand what it was about the op-ed that created so much rage among so many white readers. He challenges white Americans to rise above the vitriol and to develop a new empathy for the African American experience.”

Happy reading ‘n learning!

Note: the hyperlinks will take you to either Black owned bookstores or Bookshop.

A More Loving Fire: Collectively Reimagining a Better World

“Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us ” Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

I have grown up in a country that seems intent on my destruction. Perhaps that feels like an exaggeration to some, but I have listened as others casually discuss the murder of Black folks as if it were a natural consequence of their skin my entire life.

When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, I remember expressing frustration and anger to a White friend. They coolly responded, “Zimmerman did what anyone would have done.” I was initially shocked and disgusted after they said this to me—a Black woman; however, after further reflection, I realized that this statement was disgusting, but true. The ability to take Black life is a right that has been granted to folks in this country since its inception—from slavery to Emmett Till to J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith to Tamir Rice to Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor…

In that moment, I realized that this country was not built for me. In fact, this country thrives in its ability to constantly strip me of my humanity.

Perhaps after watching our country disastrously handle a pandemic, confronting the realities of anti-Black racism and police brutality, seeing children locked in cages, witnessing folks being criminalized for poverty, seeing folks go into monumental debt because they’re sick, and you know…growing hip to the shear callousness of the United States, you have also come to realize that this system was not built for you either.

We deserve more, those who came before us deserved more, and those who are yet to come deserve more. It is no longer acceptable to simply be in denial of the country we live in. I also do not believe that it is enough to only want to burn it down without any thought of the “after.” That, again, would be a disservice to myself, my ancestors, and those who will come after me.

What we need, I think, is a more loving fire– a term articulated by sister-scholar Allie Martin. A willingness to burn down the systems that are literally killing us, while also holding space for thinking about the world that might be. That should be.

This is not a new thought— Black folks have been radically imagining possible futures and making a way outta no way for generations. However, I do feel like some current revolutionary rhetoric is missing this imagination and a certain (as my sister-scholar Andrea Marie puts it) politic of love.

What is that world, free from anti-Blackness, misogyny, transphobia, sexism, imperialism, racism, and White supremacy, that we wish to create? How do we create that world by embodying it daily? As Allie Martin says, “Imagining/practicing the better world will both create the better world and burn down the old one.”

So I ask, how are we actively imagining, embodying, and thus, creating a world in which we’re all free? Because this world ain’t it.

On (Mis)Hearing of Black Women and Why I’m Tired

Black women in the United States occupy a unique intersection of race, class, and gender that frequently results in their being constantly misheard and denied the right of voice and expression. My work currently looks at how Black girls experience this in the classroom and the ways in which sound is used to deny their humanity and childhood. Oddly, I always thought of myself as doing this work for other Black girls and women, but not myself.

It’s not as if I have not had unofficial lessons in how to make myself small, agreeable, and nonthreatening my entire life. How to speak in a way that gets my point across, but not too harshly. Or how to speak in a way that’s not too sassy. Too angry. Too disrespectful. In fact, over the last 25 years I think I’ve gotten pretty good at making others comfortable by silencing parts of myself. Despite that, I’ve noticed that folks continue to misunderstand me—willfully or otherwise. I faithfully learned how to swallow these false ideas of who I am. I began to realize that no matter what I said or how I said it, my Black body rendered my speech unintelligible. This realization only grew stronger once I began graduate school.

My first three years of school in Bloomington, Indiana were a difficult time for me. I noticed that in coursework, my words became something for men and White folks to flatten out to something that was unrecognizable to me. My words became something they could play with and bend to the will of their argument. The actual content of what I was saying was unimportant, but the ability to use me and my body as a springboard for their own convoluted ideas was, in fact, crucial. Perhaps even necessary for the workings of academia that I was still not privy to.

 I began to grow numb to this when it occurred. Numb to my words being used as someone’s plaything. I usually just fell silent once they began to respond to some contorted argument nobody in the room was making. I didn’t want to appear outwardly confrontational or angry—a right that was (and continues to be) extended to many of my White and male colleagues. However, I was certainly growing resentful of the space I was in and how I resigned myself to a state of placation.

My work during the second year began to increasingly focus on racialized listening practices—how Blackness is not only a visual phenomenon, but a sonic one, as well. I was and remain particularly interested in how racialized listening practices lends itself to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black girls in the US school system. As someone who works with children, who is in Black studies, and who believes the humanity of Black children deserves to be honored, I found this work incredibly fulfilling. And, strangely, healing.

I did not previously think that it might be healing because I am also doing this work for myself. That realization was an embarrassingly recent one. I am doing this work to make sense of why eleven year old Kennedi was asked to leave class for asking a question disrespectfully. I am doing this work to make sense of why a White man physically flinched when I gently pushed back on a comment he made during my second year of undergrad. I am doing this work for the times people who aren’t Black have spoken to me with a “blaccent” in an effort to be funny or “hip.” I am doing this work for that one time I was told I created a hostile environment in the classroom for disagreeing with a professor.

I have attempted to approach each of these moments and similar interactions with kindness. I have always actively taken stock of my tone in moments of frustration, anger, and disappointment in fear of being registered as the “angry Black woman,” or unintelligent, or overly emotional. These efforts often proved to be pointless.

At the beginning of the month, I was talking with another Black woman about how frustrated I was in my efforts to be heard.  I was seeking to make sense of a specific interaction that occurred earlier that day, but I don’t remember the exact details—the “microaggressions” of mishearing all bleed together. However, I do remember her response.

She told me that I don’t always have to theorize my own oppression to make sense of things and to validate what is happening to the oppressor. She told me that sometimes I can just say to myself “This sucks. I’m allowed to be upset without explanation.” She continued by reminding me that constantly being expected to explain my own oppression to those who are not willing to change on their own accord, can be a distraction. That it stops me from doing the work I am passionate about: Black liberation.

Her advice felt freeing. Difficult, but freeing.

Since the conversation, I have been better able to sit with the incorrect ways people choose to hear me based on preconceived notions of Blackness, femininity, and class. I still find myself growing frustrated and wasting a lot of energy trying to find the right phrase or tone to make myself intelligible to others. In fact, I’ve been internally wrestling with this frustration for the past few weeks.

For today, I will take a break, refuse further explanations of self, allow myself to think this sucks, and feel upset.