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  • A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Its Impact on My Scholarship
  • Wil Gafney

“… they do not love your flesh.”

—Toni Morrison, Beloved

Black lives matter.

“Black lives matter” is a simple affirmative sentence. The need to affirm, explain, or qualify that affirmation stems from the fact that this statement is not universally accepted as a truthful or legitimate claim. Concomitantly, the inverse proposition is always present: Black lives do not matter. That proposition requires no amplification for explanation. It is the ground on which all other claims about black life seem to rest in this society (by which I mean in the Western world, including Europe, though I am confining my reflections to the United States).

I came into my teaching and scholarly career committed to unmasking the whiteness that is applied to the biblical text, through which it is often interpreted—including by many persons and communities of color—and decentering the white male scholarly voice that masquerades as normative and neutral.1 These commitments have only deepened with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a black woman living in the United States, I have long been aware of the disproportionately violent and lethal policing of black folk in comparison with other groups. The shooting of Amadou Diallo, forty-one times, by NYPD officers on 4 February 1999 was the shooting that raised the issue for me initially. As is the case with the majority of recent police and other shootings of black folk, the officers were acquitted of Diallo’s murder, even though he was unarmed. [End Page 204]

The killing of Trayvon Martin on 26 February 2012 marked a turning point for me in my understanding of the degree to which black folk are not regarded as fully—if even at all—human. The ready proffer (and acceptance) of a defense for shooting an unarmed child walking in his neighborhood based on the terror evoked by the mere presence of black bodies communicated to me that there is a broad acceptance of the anti-black dehumanizing bigotry of George Zimmerman. Trayvon’s killing, which I regard as a murder in spite of the legal verdict, provided the impetus that crystallized the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement organized by three black queer women who know what it is to have one’s humanity demeaned and despised: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi.2

My understanding of the utter disregard for black lives shared broadly in this country and the implication of policing in that disregard became fully heightened with the killing and demonization of Mike Brown on 4 August 2014. The repeated presentation of Mike Brown as a monster and demon, combined with the indignities visited upon his corpse, deeply underscored the degree to which the very humanity of black folk is doubted and denied as a matter of course by individuals and institutions in our social and civil frameworks. The killings of Aiyana Stanley-Jones (2012), Renisha McBride (2014), and the death of Sandra Bland while in police custody (2015) are part of an inescapable rising tide of black death. These deaths occurred and continue to occur in the same public square in which biblical interpretation takes place, and they and their implications must be accounted for in the work of interpreters of the biblical text who write, speak, teach, preach, and think to any degree in public. The public nature of much of this work has meant that a major venue for my work has been, like the groundswell of BLM, social media.

One of my projects has been to help preachers responsibly engage the biblical texts in light of the increasingly visible and ongoing killings of black folk, particularly by police officers, and the accompanying protests by BLM activists. That project made use of a hashtag,3 #what2preach,4 to organize hermeneutical and hom i letical conversations around lectionary and other texts engaging BLM, addressing its aims, its claims, and the resulting anxiety experienced by many.

As a biblical scholar in a divinity school teaching texts that are received canonically (however that is understood and articulated) by my students, I am clear that I must address BLM in...


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