The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea

By The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea

Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

David Ritz

Lebron's eloquent meditation on how to locate #BlackLivesMatter in the narratives of African American intellectual history illuminates several problems. First, it’s no easy matter to explain how writers and their works play sundry roles in #BlackLivesMatter, as well as in multiple transnational movements.

In the 21st century, political and social movements are unstable, and they encourage us to be skeptical with regard to efforts to explain them.  Consider also that literary works are indeterminate and placing them in the contexts of time-bound movements only increases our sense of uncertainty and baffling entanglements. The placement activates interdisciplinarity.  There's no formula for choices among analytic methods and competing methodologies, for how one might arrive at precise descriptions of relationships between the motions of everyday events and the material stasis of a printed text or the more challenging forms of interactive "texts" associated with social movements.

Black lives matter, because life matters.  But a scholar who is committed to continuing a fundamentally absurd  "conversation" with non-black Americans finds herself or himself making "life" a problem; she or he repeats the crisis of the intellectual in a new key, repeats either the defensive posture of James Weldon Johnson or the confirmative posture of Langston Hughes, and repeats the serious laughter of ambivalence. 

To understand what Lebron and other black thinkers are engaging, one might first read Simone de Beauvoir's meditation on freedom in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) and digest her conclusion that if each person did what she or he must, "existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death."  She did not have an answer, but she did map the chaos that Lebron has chosen to play within.

Lebron provides a succinct analogy which casts light on this problematic complexity. "Much like the way a corporate franchise works, minus revenue and profits." He contends, "#BlackLivesMatter is akin to a social movement brand that can be picked up and deployed by any interested group of activists inclined to speak out and act against racial injustice." Brands can be discarded in our increasingly disposable societies, and activists rarely have consensus about objectives.  There is a similar situation in death-bound literary and cultural studies.  Scholars tend to "speak out" or eagerly interrogate diverse aesthetic and ideological features of a text, but for many of them a praxis of "acting out" is an unacceptable option. They insist their insights are not political, and it isn't hard to see why they should do so.  

Does a full professor actually want to have a productive, mutually enlightening conversation with a janitor?  Unless the professor has the bravery to put mind and body within the range of contention, as did Walter Rodney and as Angela Davis continue to do, the conversation will be endlessly delayed, and the interrogation will endlessly retain its safe, academic characteristics.

Most scholars avoid the risks that Lebron confronts as he makes a survey of struggles native to African American intellectual history created by black lives from the 18th Century to the present. As he argues with philosophical alacrity that a politics of love, derived from works by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr., should be deployed in the combat zone of continuing manifestations of race-specific injustice. 

Lebron's aptly-titled five chapters are clues that even the blind might see: 1) "American Shame and Real Freedom"; 2) “Cultural Control against Social Control: The Radical Possibilities of the Harlem Renaissance"; 3) "For Our Sons, Daughters, and All Concerned Souls"; 4) "Where Is the Love? The Hope for America's Redemption"; 5) "The Radical Lessons We Have Not Yet Learned."  He nails the coffin with "Afterword: Nobody's Protest Essay," affirming his affinity with Baldwin.

Lebron deals with the idea that #BlackLivesMatter illuminates why it is fruitful to situate the relevance of Richard Wright's ideas about life, for example, in multiple contexts, including the dead end of being locked up in love with Baldwin and King.

Many non-black thinkers and their black allies dream that accepting the slavery of love is necessary in order to have a redemptive conversation with moral realignment and the civic virtue of national salvation. Wright instructs us to segregate airy dreams from the dead flesh of nightmares that torment contemporary lives.

Lebron struggles mightily with such discrimination but he ultimate chooses to genuflect before the altar upon which integrity of personhood rests. As he tries to transubstantiate his anger into something "more intelligent and precise,” he feels obligated to assert that, "we are not in the corner and our backs are not up against the wall.  We are free to move how we want so we should make the most of it, with charity and grace"  

One is left to wonder if the "we" included in #BlackLivesMatter is identical with the "we" self-consciously excluded from it.  And one quakes with curiosity about what logic authorizes Lebron to proclaim, "White Americans have, in one crucial respect, a more acute moral vision than many are prone to credit them with. They know, more surely than black Americans, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice." I suspect the logic is a disease for which we shall never find a cure within the black/white binary. Black moral vision has never been myopic.

Wright's relevance is a rhizome. The relevance that grows in the thinking of King and Baldwin are plants of a very different species.  One  has to speak about Wright’s works in terms of humanity’s  global concerns, in terms of issues that expose the historicity and limits of #BlackLivesMatter, alternative visions of world order, an expanding gap between wealth and poverty, hunger, vexed  ecological choices, power, and the desire of some persons to be "gods." 

Wright addressed such issues and others in his fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Wright scholars continue to make inquiries about how the content and forms (rhetorical structures) of his works provide equipment for thinking, acting and living in the present, for ongoing examination of the arc of ethics and morality that is a primal element in his works. 

Their efforts are supplemented by inquiries made in American Studies, in social science disciplines, in detailed studies of how people read and employ reading. It is essential that Wright’s legacy be evaluated  from the  perspectives of many contexts, that we strive to construct holistic explanations (and agonize that literacy pertaining to history, cultures, and social movement is slowly declining among American citizens), that the legacy not be endlessly betrayed by the Judas-kiss of Baldwin’s "Everybody's Protest Novel."  In short, it’s my affinity with Wright that leads me to swear that The Making of Black Lives Matter is an excellent book for reinforcing judicious skepticism.  Read it.

Jerry Ward is a sometime writer for the Neworld Review

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