Black Love Post-Death
From: Jessica Marie Johnson
Date: September 22, 2015, 10:13pm
I am late. I write this response in the wake of the Ferguson Is the Future conference hosted by Princeton AAS, post- the quiet around #SandraBland (addressed beautifully and painfully in a recent essay by Kali Gross), post- the dystopic snuff film horror show that was the #NatashaMcKenna video, post- meetings and protests in Chicago demanding #RekiaBoyd’s killer be brought to some kind of justice. Post- the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Post-screams and post-death.
Post- battle after battle where black women and black femmes lay their bodies on the front lines to try to make a better world. #SayHerName, as a rallying cry around black women whose lives were and are being extinguished by the police, was initiated by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie in a brief written for and published by the African American Policy Forum. It extends and deepens a conversation articulated on the ground and in academic work by scholars like Crenshaw and Ritchie, by organizations like Incite:
Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence, and in texts (reissued or in the process of being reissued) like This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.
#BlackTransLiberationTuesday, which occurred on August 25th, 2015, was organized nationwide under the general architecture of the Black Lives Matter movement but took its own form and built on histories of organizing in different locations. In Chicago, tapping into decades old networks of labor organizing and on the ground organizing by groups like F. L. Y. (Fearless Leading by the Youth), #BlackTransLiberatonTuesday took the form of a forum on job discrimination and other labor issues facing the black trans community of Chicago. In New York, #BlackTransLiberation organizers shut down AfroPunk’s three stages to draw attention to the (then) 18 trans people killed (including at least ten trans women of color) in the U.S. since the start of 2015.
Earlier in the Response series, Rinaldo wrote: “Anyone who cares to know, knows that three black, queer women coined the term BLM in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin.” I love Rinaldo’s phrasing: To “anyone who cares to know.” Anyone who cares to know, knows the facts above as well.
Anyone who cares to know, knows this year, 2015, was the 60-year anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, which occurred the day before 10-year anniversary of the day the levees broke and water flooded the city of New Orleans and the one year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. Sixty years ago, a child’s body was found in the water and a mother draped herself over her son’s body and demanded the violence done to him be seen, demanded media play a part in witnessing her son’s murder. Mamie Till cared if you knew. Ten years ago, bodies washed away and and black women bent over backward to keep their kin afloat and then were displaced and called “refugees” in a timeless erasure and hysterical insult (these descendants of slaves who created New Orleans?? Refugees, you say?!?).
One year ago, bodies, many of them black women and black femmes, once again moved toward the front lines to help organize, protest, support, and heal. Not because St. Louis and St. Louis County couldn’t organize, protest, support, or heal itself. We moved toward St. Louis in solidarity with members of the community and, to be true, with some tension over what solidarity meant. Who would care about whom? Who would be seen in the fray, that weekend and in the weeks and months ahead as marches, Twitter chats, teach-ins, syllabi, political campaigns, and communities responded to each person killed, each murderer who would never be brought to justice? Which issue would be lost in the mix? Black trans femmes? Afrxlatinas? Black girls and gender non-conforming youth? The insurgent and defiantly independent Black Midwest? Who would we, black activists, organizers, and supporters, care to commemorate and who would be bothered to take care of our memory and our kin if and when we were caught in the crossfire and disappeared?
As a movement, #BlackLivesMatter is a demand for institutions and individuals (those with guns and those without) to see us (black people) in the fullness of our humanity, to stop stealing us away, as Joy suggested. It is a testimony and it, as Joy points out, transforms ordinary black people into scientists and witnesses. It is also a charge of genocide, as Charlene described, and the youth activists who brought the city of Chicago before the United Nations and finally won reparations for victims of CPD torture knew this as well.
But #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan resonates in part because it is a demand for care. I’m interested in ways #BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a call like this before. #BlackLivesMatter is not static, and although slogans never are, #BlackLivesMatter wears its shapeshifter identity like a badge or banner crafted from our Trickster past (a fact participants and panelists at the #FergusonFuture symposium returned to again and again). It is tricky, after all, to care for us, a sleight of hand against Western modernity.
#BlackLivesMatter also isn’t humble or even always noble, as Eddie points out, but, flagrant in its willfulness; wakeful, disrespectful and vulnerable. It demands to be seen, all hours of the day, in all formats, it pings us through notifications, it appears in our timelines and email inboxes, it slaps us in the face as graffiti along train tracks and unexpected traffic snarls due to impromptu marches and awkward conversations with white co-workers at lunch. It won’t go away. It won’t play by the rules. How nasty, how rude! And in doing so, #BlackLivesMatter asks us to remember the problematic and human in our liberation histories — to remember that OUR narratives of freedom time and civil rights success often forget what it meant to lose sleep, friends, family, money, our minds in the middle of the war. To be turned against ourselves (#COINTELPro). Octavia Butler knew (and Katherine McKittrick tried to remind us) that there are ways to get free, there are ways to get out, but you always lose a limb on the way home. In like and as terrifying fashion, #BlackLivesMatter won’t let us forget we are human too.
Recovering the human in our visions of freedom and internalizing the messy, dirty, soft, and unkempt pieces we carry with us, caring for ourselves despite those bits and in the face of and facing down something so much bigger — our own genocide — is the kind of care #blacklivesmatter demands.
We needed this kind of care — a deep and virulent acceptance of our own flesh — to confront the loss and mourning that accompanies evidence of 800 dead black bodies strewn across the U.S., to demand retribution from institutions built on black death and do it all without killing ourselves and eating our own young in defiance.
We needed this kind of care to live life post-death. And the resonance in #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan is not only what this demand for action has done to galvanize organizers, policy-makers, and communities around the country but what it has done and continues to do to transform the zombies who walked among us, black and hard and cold as ice. There is no stopping the zombie apocalypse, it has already happened and it will happen again, but if there is a potion that brings us back home to ourselves, #BlackLivesMatter may actually be it.