Hearing the Queer Roots of Black Lives Matter
By David B. Green, Jr.
When Patrisse Khan-Cullers, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza — the founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) — collectively uttered the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” they helped to reignite the continued struggle for black freedom, liberation, and justice in the United States. As black feminists, they rooted their fight for freedom and liberation in an intersectional-justice praxis that disrupts the traditional framework of black activism — a framework that historically prioritized addressing racial injustice over and against gender injustice and sexual freedom; a framework, without question, that silenced and shunned “homosexuality” and openly gay activists across much of the twentieth century. As the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde observes about the 1960’s political climate: “The existence of Black lesbian and gay people were not even allowed to cross the public consciousness of Black America.” For black gays and lesbians who were “out” and desired liberated-public-political participation, the 1960’s became, Lorde writes, not “a guide for living but a new set of shackles.”
Unlike the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, BLM is inherently a movement sustained by a politics of blackness that is, Charlene Carruthers reminds us, unapologetically feminist, womanist, and queer. However, it would be unwise to forget and ignore the black queer cultural and political context from which this movement emerges and rests upon. The political insurgency of BLM evokes the likes of earlier black queer activists — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists of African descent — who, because of time and circumstance, spoke in various tones of “how infinitely complex any move for liberation must be.” Indeed, if one were to search for a historical context to understand the imperative and invaluable context of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, then one would have to trace its legacies on the page as well as the stage. While Black Lives Matter — in all of its glory, rhetoric, and political praxis — very much disrupts anti-black publics, its living legacy as a contemporary political movement can be traced to black queer activism, writing and public speeches that book-end twentieth century US politics and freedom movements.
Black & Queer: A Hearing En Masse
Whenever I recall hearing Alicia Garza sharing that, in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder — and the killing of black people by police officers across the United States — I not only think of how she did things with words, to evoke J.L. Austin, but how, in her efforts “transforming silence in to language and action,” I hear so many of the black queer activists before her time speaking such truth to power. And I especially hear the voices that emerged across the last decades of the twentieth century, the 1980’s and 1990’s. I hear Black-trans activist Marsha P. Johnson proclaiming that “the streets belong to the people” as she, along with Puerto Rican-trans activist Sylvia Rivera, argued that Black and Latinx transgender youth living in New York City have a right to walk up and down streets without threat or harm from everyday folkx or police officers. I hear both June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and “Who Look at Me?” proclaiming a black woman’s sight as agency and empowerment and anti-black sight as dangerous; I hear the Afro-Haitian activist, poet, writer, and playwright Assotto Saint’s theatrical production Rising to the Love We Need and his characters “singing the souls of black gays America;” I hear Joseph Beam declaring in the 1980’s that “black men loving black men is a revolutionary act;” I hear disco-diva Sylvester and Arch-Bishop Carl Bean’s lyrical funk, using music as a political instrument to address and end drag/trans/ queer/homo-phobia; I hear Barbara Smith and members of the Combahee River Collective churning radical freedom dreams into freedom practices crucial to black women surviving and thriving then and now. I hear Audre Lorde’s “Need: A Chorale of Black Women’s Voices” — a poem, in fact, that forced Lorde to stop driving and pull over on the side of the road to remember the lives of black women killed by an oppressive nation-state.
Whenever scholars and activists deliver keynote addresses within the context of Black Lives Matter, I hear Melvin Dixon’s Keynote Speech at the 1992 Out/Write Conference in Boston, where he declares that gays and lesbians are the “sexual niggers of society.” And, simultaneously, I hear — as a preemptive refrain to Dixon’s speech — DC activist Melvin Boozer standing in front of members at the Democratic National Convention, rejecting, in 1980, the Party’s nomination for his candidacy for vice president of the United States. Boozer’s political sensibility meant that he refused to romanticize political progress for the sake of increased political visibility, authority, and power. As a black gay man, Boozer was keenly aware of how racism, gender inequality, and homophobia not only entrenched his life but continued to have a stranglehold within the Democratic Party and across on the country. He spoke, boldly:
“Would you ask me how I’d dare to compare the civil rights struggle with the struggle for lesbian and gay rights? I can compare, and I do compare them. I know what it means to be called a nigger. I know what it means to be called a faggot. And I can sum up the difference in one word: none.” —Melvin Boozer
Bigotry is bigotry.
Like many Black and Chican@ feminists before them, “the two Melvins” understood that there could be no hierarchy of oppression. As black gay men, they demanded that any fight for social justice be intersectional.
Movement in Black: Always
The political immediacy of BLM launched social justice frameworks particular to the experiences of black women. Most notably, BLM led to the #SayHerName restorative justice anthem and, arguably, discourse around #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackExcellence. BLM lives against and radically resists the regime of racism that leads to black death. Towards this end, BLM represents a model of doing the kind of social justice work that addresses the criminal in/justice system and systemic racism. Yet, what often gets lost, I believe, is BLM’s instructive to Black people. This is a movement that encourages black people to remember who we are, to name ourselves as black and to name ourselves as love. Black Lives Matter is a movement of declaration. To declare black life as life is an act of radical resistance. We must articulate blackness, we must articulate who we are, our history, our possibilities in the now and future — and do so all at once.
Such declarative builds upon a history of radical black aesthetics that I call a for my people love poetics. Through such poetics we hear the writings of Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and James Baldwin, for example, critiquing and reclaiming the black community in the name of love — that life force that services survival, healing, and resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Such poetics is also true for the black lesbian feminist Pat Parker’s enduring, yet often forgotten poem, “Movement in Black.”
Black Lives Matter and Parker’s “Movement in Black,” are inextricably linked within the fabric of freedom and liberation in US political discourse. “Movement in Black” is a four-part poem that narrates black experiences from enslavement to “freedom” and as a result anticipates all restorative justice anthems manifested by BLM. It begins with a pronouncement on the enslavement of Africans — “They came in ships/ from a distant land/ bought in chains/ to serve the man.” It then articulates the inevitability of black political resistance; and it is in this resistance that a global black feminism manifests.
The most powerful part of Parker’s “Movement in Black” is, indeed, its “Roll Call” — a section in the poem where she shouts out the names of black women who have sustained and changed the word. In effect this is the poem’s #SayHerName restorative justice anthem. As she writes: “Roll call, shout em out:”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Mary McLeod Bethune
Fannie Lou Hamer
Zora Neale Hurston
& all the names we forgot to say
& all the names we didn’t know
& all the names we don’t know, yet.
I must say that Ella Baker should be added to this roll call. Nevertheless, Parker remembers and recovers radical black women who, in different ways — as artists, educators, and activists — worked to improve the lives of Black people, and black women in particular. “Movement in Black” archives the names and labors of these women who represented a diversity sexual politics — some were straight and others queer, lesbian, or bisexual. However, all were committed to the fight for liberation and justice in America, and world over.
Coda: Still Hearing
Hearing the queer roots of the Black Lives Matter means hearing the multiple ways that black queer people wrote, organized and publicly spoke about freedom, liberation, and justice. The last decades of the twentieth century is only a sliver of a much longer history through which to understand why and how black queer folks have always said, without question, that Black Lives will always matter. There is music, theatre, political organizations, literature, poetry, dance, art, sculpture, and film that serves as testament that black queer folks remain committed, to the fight for justice in and beyond America.
David B. Green, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Green is a black queer feminist southerner devoted to social and political justice for all.