- Nobody's Protest NovelNovelistic Strategies of the Black Lives Matter Movement
Though the medium of the novel may seem anachronistic for a Black liberation movement founded by three queer Black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi—on Twitter, the stunning blockbuster success of Angie Thomas's 2017 debut novel The Hate U Give represents a high-water mark for an already-rich archive of what we might label BLM novels.1 A fictionalized representation of the precipitating events and formation of BLM, the retrospective quality of this realist novel offers an opportunity to reflect on the novelistic strategies pursued by African American novelists since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and to interrogate which formal commitments and affective states best align with and provoke the Movement's radical imaginary. While similarities in content are evident in a survey of these novels (nearly all, for example, focalize from the perspective of young Black adults and feature violent and sometimes fatal confrontations with police officers), there is significant diversity in the novelistic strategies and forms these works undertake.2 When measured against the now fully developed Movement for Black Lives platform, fissures between some novelistic strategies and the Movement become visible, whereas others demonstrate the potentiality of the novel to expand and animate the politics of Black liberation. More specifically, the conservative impulses I will identify in The Hate U Give as compared to the Movement's political objectives, in terms of race and even gender and sexuality, are embedded in the conservatism of its commitment to the historical form of literary realism.3 In contrast, experimentations on linearity and fictionality like we see in Kiese Laymon's 2013 debut speculative novel Long Division, which I see as the first contribution to this growing and impressive archive, not only connects more closely to the politics of the Movement, but also offers it an aesthetic, if also dissonant, vision for Black liberation. Through a comparative analysis of The Hate U Give's realist construction of empathy and Long Division's speculative strategy of collective revision and queer love, this article assesses the aesthetic and political potential of novels that claim a relation to the BLM movement and outlines what different and successful forms the BLM novel can and should adopt.4
Told from the grief-stricken perspective of teen-aged Starr Carter who witnesses her close friend Khalil fatally shot by a white police officer, The Hate U Give delivers [End Page 40] a powerful first-person account of the impact of racial terror on a young Black woman within the conventions of literary realism. Stocked with real-life references and allusions to BLM, readers are granted unfettered access to Starr Carter's inner life as she grieves the unjust slaying of her friend, navigates between her poor, urban neighborhood in Garden Heights and a wealthy, mostly white suburban private school, and comes into her own as an activist following the inevitable and predictable acquittal of the guilty officer. The linear plot charts out a clear progression from rising action (biased criminal investigation of the guilty police officer) and climax (BLM protest compromised by violence) to a clean and uplifting resolution.
Through this structure, the novel fulfills a commonplace, transcendental view of the novel as a privileged aesthetic to produce empathy; in Guido Mazzoni's words, "its ability to make us see the world through the eyes and conscience of someone else, its ability to allow us to step into a possible life that is not ours" (55).5 Yet, as calls for empathy have become a ritual and hollow imperative after the video documentation and circulation of the murders of unarmed Black citizens by police,6 tracking the ways a BLM novel actually functions to produce empathy, and calling these processes into question, is crucial. The Hate U Give re-asserts what Saidiya V. Hartman calls the "precariousness of empathy" from 19th century accounts of racial terror, in which there becomes an "uncertain line between witness and spectator" for the reader, and demonstrates how the direction of empathy all too easily shifts away from victims and towards the perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence (4...