IntroductionM4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives
As the most recent iteration of Black freedom struggles in the United States, what is the story of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)? This special issue is interested both in the political life of the M4BL and in the stories of those who made this movement possible. We are interested in the critical moment of encounter, when because someone's life was taken, a community's life, an activist's life, or our collective lives changed. From representations of maternal, familial, or communal grief to the sexual and gender politics which prescribe and proscribe how individual Black lives come to matter or not matter, this issue interrogates the politics of Black life and Black living. These interrogations are especially salient in a political moment where liberal humanist conceptions of "the human" fail to compel broad empathy and structural protection for the value of Black people. We collectively ponder: what does "life" mean in the context of M4BL and what is the fundamental meaning of "lives" when centering those on the margins? How has technology shaped the way we tell the stories of individual and collective Black lives? What tools does the Movement for Black Lives offer up to us, not only for reconceptualizing the social structures which shape Black living, but also for reconceptualizing our current understandings of Black life in the first place? How do we center healing, restoration, and transformative justice in our freedom and justice praxes? What forms of mourning and becoming emerge as a result of communal and activist encounters with police violence? What does a life lived in solidarity with other social movements around the globe, for instance in Brazil and Palestine, look like? In asking these questions, both the co-editors and the contributors seek to understand the life contexts and livelihoods of Black people living at the beginning of the 21st century. Although contemporary realities are deeply rooted in historical lived experiences, we have entered a unique era in anti-Black racial terror. These living stories must be told. This special issue is but one collective documentation of a wide range of stories from multiple frequencies of contemporary Black life, death, community, healing, freedom-dreaming, and working.
We were exiting the doors of the first national convening of the Movement for Black Lives at Cleveland State University in the summer of 2015, plotting our strategy of how to leave the city when police cars were rolling deep, a visual show meant to intimidate those of us who had come together in defense of Black life. Just then, the crowd started running down the block, passing information back like a game of telephone as we ran. The police had arrested a teenager, a fourteen-year-old, for alleged public drunkenness. Buoyed by a weekend of collective radical imagining of what it would look like to build a world where Black lives can live and thrive, our comrades could simply not allow this young Black boy to be handed over to the state. By the time we made it to the scene, some movement folks had sat down cross-legged, preventing the cop car from moving. Women were yelling at the young man, "What's your name?! What's your mama's phone number?!" Others lined the sidewalk with arms locked. The absolute resolve of the protesters stood in stark contrast to the other scene happening simultaneously. Some of the protesters were scattered across the grassy area, writhing in pain, screaming. Just before the two of us arrived, an overzealous police officer had walked into the crowd and pepper-sprayed some of those peacefully assembled. Another protester was wondering loudly: "Where can we get some milk?" You can't diffuse pepper spray with water.
One of us assisted a young woman wailing because of the pain of the pepper spray. The other of us took a jug of milk and steered a young man—he had been sprayed badly and could not see—into the dorms, into a bathtub, and then poured a milk bath to bring him some relief. None of us in these encounters of care knew each other. But we needed each other. [End Page 731]
The protesters held the line, keeping the police from arresting the fourteen-year-old, standing vigil until his mother could arrive. She came swiftly to get her boy. The police, faced with protesters, who collectively valued Black life and were determined to save this particular individual from the clutches of the state, relented. They gave a son back to his mother. When she pulled away with her baby in her small red sedan, the crowd went up, in the Blackest of praise.
We had adopted Kendrick Lamar's "We Gon' Be Alright" from his To Pimp a Butterfly album as our unofficial movement anthem that weekend. (The DJ was lit.) The crowd broke out in an ecstatic utterance of that song, almost as if speaking in a collective tongue of freedom and redemption. In case we missed the spiritual significance of the fight, a Black butterfly flew through the crowd at just that moment. We were exultant. But all night long and into the next day, our lips and our hands and every part of our bodies that touched and cared for those who had been pepper sprayed burned and tingled with the memory, the residue of trauma and violation.
Although we were friends before that moment—junior Black women colleagues learning to navigate the tricky and difficult terrain of the academy that doesn't love Black lives any more than the state does—our friendship was forged in these fires of movement building. This comradeship praxis—a commitment to having each other's back in the streets—had begun in Ferguson. After we first encountered the site in Canfield where Mike Brown's body had lain for four-and-a-half hours in sweltering August heat, we struggled with whether the tears were ours to cry when we had other places to go back home to, a privilege not enjoyed by the folks who were residents of Canfield, a respite not available to Mike Brown's family and loved ones. The tears fell anyway.
To the folks in this community, Mike Brown was not simply a hashtag. He was a young man on the brink of becoming, one who loved hip-hop just as two generations of young Black men coming before him had. Mike was a reader of music trends, and his favorite rap group was Migos. In 2014, they were just at the beginning, and the superstardom they now enjoy was not at all clear. Though we both rock out to Migos on occasion, for one of us, hearing any Migos song reminds us of Mike Brown, a Black boy we didn't know who reminds us lovingly of so many of the Black boys we do know.
We went to Cleveland together. Texted each other important personal information when one of us found ourselves in the streets apart and needed to make sure somebody knew how to get in touch with our parents if the cops happened on any particular night to win the war. But we also showed up [End Page 732] for Black women, even when others didn't. This meant going to Oklahoma together and holding vigil in the courtroom for all of the women and girls harmed by former police officer and convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw.
Whether you demarcate when this new era of Black activism began as the mobilization around the Jena 6, the murder of Trayvon Martin and the nationwide protests, or the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson Uprising, it is important to note the range of Black collective responses to white supremacy in the twenty-first century. Pinpointing the moment when we knew this was a movement is challenging because of the prospect of erasure. As two Black women coediting this special issue, we had to think deeply and intently about what it meant that though we could illuminate the activism of transgender and cisgender Black women, and queer, and trans people at every juncture in twenty-first-century Black freedom struggles, the incidents where large-scale organizing and mobilizing occurred pivoted around the lives of Black men and boys.
As Black feminist scholars, we knew we had to #SayHerName (h/t Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum). We also knew that our assertion of #BlackLivesMatter was empty at best and fatally violent at worst if we didn't affirm that #BlackTransLivesMatter, too. The stakes are simply too high to participate in practices of erasure when chronicling anti-Black violence. Aiyana Stanley Jones, Deborah Danner, Chikesia Clemmons, and Mya Hall aren't anomalous victims of anti-Black state violence. Their stories remain on the peripheries of how most people discuss the pervasiveness of anti-Black police violence. Andrea Ritchie's work on police violence against Black women and girls alongside the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum were important interventions for robustly documenting the effects of state violence on Black women and girls, yet both of us still find that our conversations and national mobilizations almost exclusively focus on police violence against cisgender Black men and boys. Perhaps the most notable exception to this tendency to erase victimization was the collective rage expressed about the death of Sandra Bland in police custody.
The suspicious death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County jail in Texas shook us to our core. Neither one of us could find the words when we first talked about the story. Without question, we felt connected to Bland. Her mugshot—we will never forget that image. She looked defeated, resigned, and, most eerily, lifeless. The video of Bland with arresting Officer Brian Encina was infuriating—most notably when he told her he would "light her up." His contempt for her coupled with his authority as a police officer were a lethal combination. Although we may never know what really happened in [End Page 733] those three days between her arrest and her death, it was clear to us that she was killed. She was a victim of the state's incessant need to devalue and devour Black lives. Bland struck a chord with us, not simply because she was a Black woman, but because we bore witness to her calling out anti-Black racism as well as the fatal consequence of Black woman truth-telling. Posthumously, Bland's life and encounter with state violence continues to reveal painful truths. In the fall of 2018, HBO released Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland—a documentary about Bland filled with interviews with her family and details about her life before that fatal encounter.
In the same month of Bland's death, July 2015, at least five other black women died in police custody: Kindra Chapman of Alabama, Joyce Curnell of South Carolina, Ralkina Jones of Ohio, Alexis McGovern of Missouri, and Raynetta Turner of New York. Although Bland's story became the most well-known, each of these women's deaths should've raised questions and concerns about the treatment of Black women in police custody. We did not hear the stories of these other five women. We kept listening and hoping for a change in whose deaths sparked organizing efforts. From that summer to now, we noted how infrequently the stories of Black women and girls were central to how we talked about anti-Black police violence. Despite the tremendous efforts of countless Black women, queer Black folks of all genders, Black trans and gender non-binary activists, along with organizers, writers, artists, scholars, protesters, and journalists, we have yet to reach a point where our collective outrage extends comparably to all Black lives. The reality is simple: folks can't be pro-Black and only focus on cisgender, heterosexual Black men and boys. That's not how we get free.
This special issue is pro-Black. The pro-Blackness expressed by this tremendous collection of thinkers, healers, artists, and activists is one anchored in truth-telling. From a wide array of perspectives, what's within these pages is an unapologetic centering of the critical matter of Black life. By critical matter, we mean the fleshy materiality of the Black body, as we encounter it in life, death, connection, and struggle. But in invoking a notion of criticality, we are also attuned to the ways that different communities of Black people have experienced this most recent onslaught of anti-Black state violence. We care here about feelings, impressions, relationships, forms of mourning and remembrance, epiphanies had in struggle—all of the "stuff" that regimes of racial terror are studiously interested in not seeing and/or disavowing. To be pro-Black is to care about all of these elements that help to make up any Black life and every Black life. Finally, to turn our attention to Black life as a critical matter is to remind us of the urgency of attending to Black lives; it is [End Page 734] a reminder of the critical condition in which Black people continually find themselves, always gasping for breath, always figuring out how to survive, always forced to wrestle joy from the death-dealing clutches of white supremacy. Critical matters get top billing on political agendas. Our agenda in this special issue is, therefore, Black people and our ideas about what it looks like for our lives to matter.
When we first discussed coediting this special issue, a million and one ideas ran through our respective minds. We thought about themes, possible contributors, and what we could uniquely and powerfully offer to larger discussions about Black Life and the Movement for Black Lives. We knew we would be unable to cover all of the contours, perspectives, and ideas about the Movement for Black Lives. Nevertheless, we strove to create a call for papers that reflected an unwavering commitment to justice-centered and thought-provoking pieces. We were overwhelmed by the tremendous response and still lament not being able to include more of the voices, stories, and analyses people submitted.
Where we landed was a special issue that took up healing and mental wellness, visual consumption of Black death, the meaning of transnational solidarity, Black motherhood and maternal activism, R.I.P. T-shirts, firsthand accounts of protest, cartographies of Black intimacy and friendship, slow and spectacular Black death, and anti-Black violence outside of the United States. Robin Brooks's piece demands that we bear "withness" to communal practices of grief through visual life writing and an emphasis on the significance of sartorial politics in the expression of Black mourning and grief. Tabitha Chester's piece hones in on our internal relationalities and creates a space to unpack friendship, intimacy, and the cartographies of relationship building within the Movement for Black Lives and Black liberatory struggles more broadly. Rhaisa Williams offers us a powerful excavation of the intimacy of Black life when critically considered in conjunction with Black lives. Williams's piece is a call to account for both inclusive breadth and intentional specificity when detailing the toll of anti-Black state violence against Black people.
Intimacy and the cost of raging against the ubiquity of anti-Blackness is also explored in Tef Poe's life writing from the front lines. His meditations on Black masculinity, Ferguson, and Black liberatory work offer a distinct perspective for exploring how protests can reshape one's ideas about what is critical in the shaping, making, and sustaining of Black life. Furthering this exploration, Rasul Mowatt's piece focuses on the visual consumption of Black death as integral to how we think about the politics of inclusion and exclusion for radical mobilizing and organizing. What does visual evidence do at [End Page 735] this juncture? What are the gender and sexual politics of the visual consumption of Black death?
More generally, what are the gender and sexual politics of the Movement for Black Lives? Although we do not have a piece that specifically delves into these politics, we carefully chose pieces that approached gender and sexual politics as constitutive of the critical matter of Black life. In fact, we included two dynamic pieces about Black mothering. Danielle Morgan renders Black mothering legible as a public good and rightfully posits Black childhood as worthy of protection. Kaila A. Story reclaims outrage as part of resistive Black mothering praxes and provides us with tools for analyzing Black mothering in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.
It was also important for us to consider the global impact of the Movement for Black Lives in this special issue. Maris Jones take us to Brazil through a devastating ethnographic study that illuminates the stark reality of anti-Black police violence in Brazil. The numbers are harrowing. We couldn't help but think about the 2018 assassination of radical, queer, Black Brazilian, woman politician, and activist Marielle Franco as we reread Maris's piece. Franco was unapologetically outspoken about anti-Black racism and police brutality in Brazil. Marc Lamont Hill's piece on Palestine and the possibilities of transnational solidarity also felt particularly timely, as dozens of Palestinians were killed in the spring of 2018 protesting for their right of return. It was Palestinians who tweeted to Ferguson protesters about using milk as a palliative for being gassed by a hyper-militarized law enforcement. Hill interrogates how we can build collectivity in sustainable and liberatory ways.
While in Ferguson in August 2014 with our fellow Black Life Matters Riders, having healers present was life-affirming. We couldn't imagine a special issue of this nature without incorporating Black healing, mental health, and well-being. Jameta Barlow's piece explores the contours of Black trauma as a way to create spaces committed to the mental health and well-being of Black people. Coauthors/conspirators Kai Green, Je Naé Taylor, Chris Roberts, and Ifé Williams provided us with insight into Black healing. Their piece demands not only that we articulate what radical healing is, but that we create a movement anchored in liberatory healing practices. Our healing matters.
Life writing offered a distinct form of telling these stories and thinking through various aspects of the Movement for Black Lives. Thematically, what connects each piece in this special issue is a commitment to the very critical matter that is Black life in the context of the Trump presidency, the racial backlash to the Obama Years, and the continuing rise of digital media, which has shifted how we witness and document the violence done to Black [End Page 736] communities. What is most striking for us as editors, however, is the depths of the relationality extant among the pieces. There's intimacy in these pages—and that intimacy also exists in our journey as guest coeditors.
Coediting this journal felt like a natural progression in both our scholarship and our friendship. As feminist scholars in the academy, we cherish the opportunity to collaborate. But we would be lying if we said that doing this work together is not first and foremost anchored in a friendship. Our friendship deepened through our engagement with the Movement for Black Lives. We both participated in the Rides to Ferguson in August 2014. Our respective journeys to Ferguson were eventful to say the least, but they brought us closer together. We knew something had shifted within each of us—it's as though we knew our scholarship, teaching, and outreach could never be the same. I don't think either of us realized just how much that experience affected us, how much it changed us. We bore withness together, and our friendship deepened as our commitment to the Movement for Black Lives strengthened.
We traveled to Cleveland together for the first convening of the Movement for Black Lives. As we prepared to head home, we bore withness to the police unnecessarily arresting a Black boy and using pepper spray to target those protesting the arrest. We poured milk down the faces and on the bodies of our comrades, and we helped to make sure others were safe. Folks checked on us, too. We will never forget that young boy being un-arrested and seeing the power of Black people win. We knew it was a small victory in the broad scheme of white supremacy, but it also brought everyone there a little closer. A few of the contributors to this special issue were there as well. We bore withness together.
We met in Oklahoma City to bear withness to the sentencing to Daniel Holtzclaw—and though both of us knew that imprisoning this sexual predator who used his position as a police officer to target Black women and girls was exceptional and not indicative of a shift in our criminally unjust justice system, we felt a wave of relief. If only for a moment, a Black girl's song was sung. It meant a lot to be there together and to support the Black women and girls victimized by Holtzclaw. Once again, we knew this was a single "victory" and that the work to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and misogyny was as pressing as ever. We even paused to think about what it meant to revel in Holtzclaw's pending incarceration given our growing commitments to prison abolition. Without a doubt, Holtzclaw needed to be held accountable for the sexual/gender/racial terror he inflicted upon Black women and girls. We struggled to imagine wanting a different outcome, but in that moment [End Page 737] we knew his containment immediately kept Black women and girls safer in a world that refuses to believe or protect us. Holding him accountable was an urgent matter, a critical matter of Black life.
This special issue speaks to that urgency, while also posing questions about where we go from here. In fact, we pen this introduction just as Black protest has again exploded. On March 18, 2018, two Sacramento police officers shot Stephon Clark eight times (six of them in the back), when they mistook his cell phone for a gun. In response, protesters shut down the interstate and a Sacramento Kings NBA game. Stephon's brother Stevante disrupted a city council meeting, demanding answers to the questions about his brother's Black life. Despite the resurgence of protest and questions, Black men still dominate the narrative. Six days before the police killed Stephon Clark, police in Elgin, Illinois, killed Decynthia Clements, a thirty-four-year-old Black woman, reportedly struggling with suicide and depression. There have been no mass protests for her, even though the only weapon she seemed to possess was a knife.
In the context of what feels like a never-ending story of the state brutalization of Black lives, we have committed to the work of interrogating the Critical Matter of Black Life. It critically matters that we tell this group of stories, which are important not just for their analytic rigor but also for their realness and rawness. All of us come to this work with our own personal traumas and with the collective trauma of watching Black people die over and over again at the hands of police and other forms of state and state-sanctioned violence. The raw materiality of Black lives and of Black life—of the ways Black folks live and die, come together and come apart, laugh and cry, and bullshit and politic—shifts the terrain of traditional academic production.
Understanding the stories presented in this special issue as simultaneously about violence, resistance, (in)justice, and freedom, we center interrogations and representations of individual and collective Black lives to unearth both the possibilities and potential challenges for those living and fighting in the era of the Movement for Black Lives. In our call for papers, we offered these questions: What does "life" mean in the context of M4BL? What is the fundamental meaning of "lives" when centering those on the margins? Each of these pieces directly and indirectly responds to these questions. As editors, we continually converse about the distinction between Black lives and Black life, while always connecting through our unwavering commitment to both.
For us, it has been helpful to make critical distinctions among terms like Black Life, Black life, and Black lives. The power in movements has to do with their ability to tell a collective story and to marshal the energy of collectivity [End Page 738] to make changes that are greater than any one person. The peril of collectivity is that the magic, importance, and particularity of a single Black life can get lost. The vast majority of us who have built these movements did not know Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Sandra Bland or Mya Hall or Tamir Rice. We did not know their favorite songs or music, did not know anything of their daily habits, likes, or dislikes. The movement genealogies into which they have been adopted tell the story of family trees built from strange fruit. This is an entirely different set of considerations than the family trees and legacies that get celebrated on those gaudy family reunion tees that Black folks rock every summer. Of those trees and how they held the lives of the slain that we mourn, we can say very little.
Though the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has become the popular phrasing for the movement, the 2014 Labor Day Ferguson Rides, organized by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Darnell Moore, were actually called the "Black Life Matters Rides." Black Lives Matter seems to hold the possibility of both particularity and collectivity, since the word "lives" points us to a plurality of individual lives. This framing reminds us that though we ride, move, and fight for all Black lives, each person lived an individual life among loved ones in communities and families of both origin and choosing. The insistence in the movement for Black Lives in calling the individual names of Black people lost to state violence demands of us an attention to the particularities of each Black life—that Trayvon Martin was watching the all-star game and loved talking on the phone to his homegirl Rachel Jeantel, that Sandra Bland graduated from Prairie View A&M and was returning to start her dream job, and that Eric Garner was loved by a community of women, including his mom, his wife, and his daughter, Erica. We have lost so many Black lives to state violence that sometimes the details run together. But each of the details matters.
Western conceptions of the human are rooted in anti-Blackness and offer little political ground on which to argue for the value of Black life and Black lives. Capital-B, Capital-L Black Life rises to the level of the social and the structural. Questions about whether or not Black Life matters are questions about the possibilities and limitations of liberal humanism. Do our current conceptions of the human actually hold the possibility of conceptualizing and valuing Black Life as part of the human project? To invoke Sylvia Wynter, does attention to the notion of Black Life make apparent the operation of a different genre of the human? That the value of Black Life and Black lives has to be proclaimed suggests that Black Life as a valued human category runs squarely up against the grain of the Western liberal humanist project. In this way, the Movement for Black Lives and the proclamation about the critical [End Page 739] matter of Black lives and Black life points us to a rupture and an opening, a new way of understanding what it means to be human, what it means to live, what it means to have value, beyond Westernized conceptions that find their legibility through notions of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.
All of these questions and ideas anchor this special issue, but more important than any of these questions and ideas is our shared commitment to Black life, Black being, and Black thriving, as a critical, and indeed, a most urgent matter. We unequivocally affirm that it is our duty to fight for freedom. We believe that we will win.
Brittney Cooper is Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches courses on Black feminist theory, Black Intellectual Thought, Hip Hop, Gender and Media. Cooper is author of Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (U of Illinois P, 2017), winner of the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Prize for Top Book in U.S. Intellectual History, and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (St. Martin's Press, 2018), named one of NPR's best books of 2018. She is also co-editor of The Crunk Feminist Collection (The Feminist Press, 2017). A recipient of many other fellowships and awards for her writing, scholarship, and activism, Cooper is a widely sought-after public speaker at universities throughout the country and an in-demand commentator for radio, podcasts, and television. Her work and words have appeared at MSNBC, BET, NPR, PBS, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, TV Guide, New York Magazine, Salon.com, Cosmopolitan.com, The Root.com, and Al Jazeera America, among many others. She is co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and blog. She was recently named to Essence Magazine's #Woke100 for 2018, and she was named to The Root.com's Root 100, an annual list of top Black influencers, in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2018.
Treva B. Lindsey is an Associate Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching interests include African American women's history, black popular and expressive culture, black feminism(s), hip hop studies, critical race and gender theory, and sexual politics. Her first book, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (U of Illinois P, 2017) is a Choice 2017 "Outstanding Academic Title." She has published in The Journal of Pan-African Studies, Souls, African and Black Diaspora, Journal of African American Studies, African American Review, The Journal of African American History, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Urban Education, The Black Scholar, Feminist Studies, and Signs. She was the inaugural Equity for Women and Girls of Color Fellow at Harvard University (2016–2017). She was also a 2017–2018 Du Bois Non-Residential Fellow at Harvard University. She is currently working on her next book project, tentatively titled Hear The Screams: Black Women, Violence, and The Struggle for Justice. She is the recipient of several awards and fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Emory University, the National Women's Studies Association, the Coca Cola Critical Difference for Women Grant, the Center for Arts and Humanities at the University of Missouri, and the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University. She is the co-editor of a forthcoming collection on the future of Black Popular Culture Studies (New York UP). She writes for and contributes to outlets such as Al Jazeera, BET, Complex, Vox, The Root, Huffington Post, Popsugar, Teen Vogue, Grazia UK, The Grio, and Cosmopolitan.