When All Lives Matter

In the Oakland streets on Monday night responding to the failure to indict Darren Wilson, some protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter” while others answered with the revised echo, “All Lives Matter.” This could be heard and held lots of ways. But the way that I hear it and have heard it over the years is as an insistence that we can’t just do something in the name of black life, which is too specific. The something we do needs to be done on behalf of “all lives.” A deceptive little revision, a phrase that beams with the false polish of inclusion. It sounds like it broadens our understanding of the kinds of bodies we care about and, yet, “all lives” can’t accommodate or account for blackness because the universal “all” can only understand itself through the erasure of its other: blackness.

My hesitancy around how to hear the call of “all” comes from the ways that each successive call for the eradication of the police, triggered by the extrajudicial executions of black men, simply pass through the bodies of the dead without lingering there with them. To assert that the eruption over whether black life matters is only a symptom of a problem that affects us “all” reminds me, rightly or wrongly, of Frantz Fanon’s exacting critique in Black Skin, White Masks of Jean Paul Sartre’s suggestion that the négritude was merely a phase to pass through to get at universal issues:

“And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history.”

Instead of a dubiously universal, colorblind insistence that “all” lives matter, instead of insisting the police hurt us all and so we all should care, instead of needing to recenter the self as a possible victim of state coercion, what about defending the call “black lives matter” in the spirit of black lesbian feminism that has long asserted that her fight is every fight? The central claim of the Combahee River Collective bears repeating here, now, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

To actually believe black lives matter—without needing to revise or broaden that qualified life—more effectively does what “all lives” respondents wish they were doing: actually including us all. To talk about black life is to hold two extremes side by side, to imagine abjected blackness inching closer to legibility. At the same time, to utter or RT #blacklivesmatter is to be reduced, to concede that there is something called life that we are wholly outside of. Perhaps, then, to say that not all but black life matters is to so unsettle the contented category of “the human” that, by insisting on its possible proximity or penetration by blackness, we might hope to destroy “the human” altogether.

Firelight glancing off a cheek downtown, #FergusonDecision

The unspoken companion, the echo to every hoarse cry that “black life matters” is that black life does not matter at all. Still, Audre Lorde instructs us, “it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.”

We can burn this shit down and keep each other warm; we can do both at the same time. This torch is ours to shape, to raise.