Why has “Black Lives Matter” — as slogan, as hashtag, as rallying cry — been taken up so widely?

In the spirit of black studies’ long tradition of timely, engaged, and accessible critical analysis, the Department of African American Studies at Princeton is excited to launch our new project, Focus. It is intended as a kind of virtual conversation, bringing together members of our intellectual community with other scholars, writers, activists, and artists. We invite our readers and followers to join us as we discuss pressing issues in contemporary black life, both in United States and globally.

#StopTheCops photo by Frank Johnson

Over the past year, beginning with the Ferguson uprising, we have witnessed a remarkable outpouring of black protest and organizing activity in this country. Events from St. Louis to Baltimore, from the Charleston 9 to the death of Sandra Bland, to the countless murders of black and brown transgender women nationwide have highlighted not only the disposability of black life, but also people’s consistent determination to resist the very terms of that disposability. That resistance has taken myriad forms — including in the streets, online, in the media, and in the classroom.

Broadly speaking, much of this activity has come to be understood under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” First coined in 2014 by three black women activists as a hashtag in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the term has since been mobilized, repurposed, and appropriated widely. In 2015, “Black Lives Matter” has come to serve as a motto and to name a movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has also been commodified in a variety of ways.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

Despite this national and international swell of attention focused on the endemic problem of police violence against and extra-judicial killings of black Americans, some victims have registered far more notice than others. In response to these imbalances, black feminist activists and analysts initiated the “Say Her Name” campaign. “Say Her Name” insists on an intersectional understanding of this violence that is attuned to the specifics of gender, while placing the spotlight on women, so routinely overlooked, who have been brutalized by the state.

This is — at least in part — the context for our conversation. Over the next several weeks, we’ll consider “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Her Name,” and the related protest and organizing activity from a variety of perspectives. But to begin, I’d like to start broadly.

In your estimation, why has “Black Lives Matter” — as slogan, as hashtag, as rallying cry — been taken up so widely? How should we account for the deep resonance of the phrase in this moment? And what do you see as its limitations?

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