This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a powerhouse of a writer and a brilliant thinker and analyst of the American political scene. In this updated version of her first book, Taylor asks and answers a major question about the Black Lives Matter movement: Why do we see the rise of #BlackLivesMatter during the tenure of President Barack Obama–America’s first black president?
After the election of President Obama many pundits, journalists, academics, and everyday people hailed the coming of a new, colorblind era–a “post-racial” America where race no longer influenced a person’s position in life. Yet, even as many celebrated the dawning of this new age black poverty continued to grow, and police violence against black people did not stop or even slow down.
After the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, community organizer Alicia Garza posted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter to Facebook. Garza and fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi transformed this hashtag into an organization of the same name. “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry across the United States and is now the subject of intense backlash in the form of “Blue Lives” pro-police counter-organizing.
The response to the verdict by these Black Lives Matter activists was quite different from the response of President Obama. Taylor quotes him as saying, “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this” (p. 150). Taylor complicates his statement, asking us to consider how a “nation of laws” can function when there is a dual system of criminal justice for black and white Americans. As Obama called for individual introspection, communities across the country were coming together to collectively mourn and organize.
For Taylor, a major reason why we see the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement during the Obama presidency is precisely because of the contradictions he and his presidency highlighted and amplified. As a black political leader, President Obama joined the (slowly) growing ranks of black elites who, as Taylor explains, generally use their position to scold black non-elites for not behaving properly. President Obama wasn’t–and isn’t–alone in this. As Taylor explains, black elites are able to critique and diminish black activists in ways white elites can no longer get away with, such as when the Reverend Al Sharpton blamed protestors for the violence they experienced at the hands of police during the movement for Mike Brown in Ferguson. For Taylor, these black elites then serve a vital role in maintaining existing power structures.
Taylor’s argument is deep and complex, but the book itself is an easy read. Taylor has the thoughtfulness to deliver her argument clearly and concisely. Although the updated version adds a forward by Angela Davis and an entire chapter, the book is still the perfect length to discuss the historical, contemporary, and future aspects of Black Lives Matter as a black liberation movement.
As Taylor turns towards the future she asks what needs to change to make black liberation truly possible. She calls for a deep acknowledgement of the structural inequality in our lives–in particular the ways that capitalism and colonialism shape race–and for sustained solidarity between oppressed groups. This is no easy task. American history is also the history of groups with much in common–including common enemies and shared goals–fighting against one another. She also asks us to be critical of our support for elites who promise much but fail to deliver true progress, or even prevent forward momentum.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to know more about the origin of the Black Lives Matter movement and its potential future. I know I will be thinking about the arguments presented in this book for a long, long time.
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