In mid-August, I receive an email request from my colleague:
Dana, can you do a lecture in my “Just City” course on Black Lives Matter?
Me (to myself): Why me?
Me (to my colleague): Sure
My Colleague: I need a list of readings SOON.
What can I select as readings for a class of mostly adult students who have returned to school to get their MA – knowing that the readings should be narrow in scope?
I dream of what an ideal reading list would look like: Nikki Giovanni’s Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgment because of the way Giovanni makes politics matter/matter; because she imagines we can “build what we can become when we dream.” I want them to read both Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones by Carole Boyce Davies and Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle by Gregg Andrews, because even though this struggle is not the struggle of the past, we still need to remember. These two Black women engaged in activism that really speaks to the global connections and lessons that the contemporary BlackLivesMatter movement and the Movement for Black Lives embrace. Placing these women in dialogue reaffirms the role women of color have had in movement building. I want them to read Arundhati Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire in part because she knows we cannot relax and because she hears change coming. And finally, in this dream, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor is included because of Taylor’s nuanced discussion of the development of racism. Taylor lays out the processes of racism as they are inextricably linked to political and economic exploitation. The present past.
I chose Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter, but hesitated to give a lecture. It didn’t seem reasonable to talk about a movement without having people move. Instead, a sort of workshop began to unfold. I found a series of timelines on Black life in the United from the 1600s to 2000 and determined that in class we were going to generate a timeline. The selection of events are categorized to cover the following topics:
AR= American Revolution BP = Black Power
CB = Coalition Building CR = Civil Rights
D = Domination and Control E = Emancipation
EN = Enslavement FB= Free Blacks
O= Organizing RR= Racial Restrictions
R= Resistance S = Segregation
The timeline is divided into 50-year increments from 1600 to 2000 making the list about 10 pages long. Sample events with the appropriate code look like this:
1625 EN The first enslaved Africans arrive in the New Amsterdam with the Dutch West India Company
1663 RR In South Carolina every new white settler is granted twenty acres for each black male slave and ten acres for each black female slave he or she brings into the colony.
1774 R A group of enslaved blacks petition the Massachusetts General Court (legislature) insisting they too have a natural right to their freedom.
I separate all the events and put them into an envelope.
On the day of the class, I walk around campus for 40 minutes in search of the classroom because my colleague had forgotten to tell me which room the class was being held. I enter the room after roaming up and down the hallway. Staring at me are 50 faces; they are tired, hot and annoyed I am late. Taking the high road and refusing to give in to the malaise I draw a timeline on the board:
1600-1649 1650-1699 1700-1749 1750-1799, and so on.
I open with the following question: What do you think led to the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter?
“Trayvon Martin!” and “Freddie Gray!” students yell out. Walking around the room, maneuvering between desks not the least bit in anything that can be called rows, students pick one event from the envelope. “What do you think led up to the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter? In turn, each student reads their slip of paper aloud and then makes their way to the board to tape it in the appropriate period. After 30 minutes of this activity we have a timeline with close to 70 events reflecting the historical precedents of restrictions, domination, anti-black racism, gender related violence, resistance, activism, and political engagement that are linked and led to the emergence of the movement.
Then we start tracing the genealogy of Black Lives Matter, discussing the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. This genealogy focuses on Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. We talk Black Lives Matter using Taylor’s analysis. Everyone is animated: hands going up; people talking over people.
After nearly 35 minutes, a Black woman in her mid-to-late 40s sitting near the front of the class raises her hand. “I need to understand Black Lives Matter, because I want to do something. I want to do something because my grandson was shot by police in Florida. At close range while he was lying on the ground.” She gives more details and there is silence; complete and painful, silence. There really is no emotional recovery from her story, but then we circle back around to the importance of organizing and movement building. We all need to do something.
We all breath. We all breath.
- Andrews, Gregg. (2011). Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle
- Boyce Davies, Carole (2008). Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones
- Giovanni, Nikki. (1970). Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgment
- Roy, Arundhati. (2004). An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.
- Taylor, Keeanga Yamahtta. (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.