In our years of classroom instruction, we have found that teaching about past social movements tends to be easy; lessons proceed without controversy. Students seem inspired to learn about the suffrage movement and the Civil Rights Movement, and public memory of those movements regards them as largely favorable (if Whitewashed). Teaching about current events, though, presents us with more of a challenge. How can we teach about ongoing social movements, unfolding in real time as our semesters progress? Black Lives Matter (BLM) in particular presents university faculty with rich potential and myriad political landmines, especially in conservative areas and in a climate of increased scrutiny and distrust of higher education from elected officials, conservative media outlets, and large swaths of the population (including many of the families who reluctantly send their adult offspring to our campuses to learn--or, as it often seems--to get a degree so they can get a job). We come to communication, literature, and gender studies classrooms as colleagues in a department of interdisciplinary and communication studies. Leland holds a PhD in communication and teaches courses in communication and women's, gender, and sexuality studies (WGS), while Helane holds a PhD in English and teaches courses in literature, writing, Black World Studies, Latin American Studies, and WGS.
In this essay, we think through the practical and theoretical opportunities and implications of teaching BLM, a movement that joins a long tradition of Black American protest, resistance, and work for liberation. Specifically, we reflect on the ways in which BLM helps us illustrate intersectionality--a concept we have long taught in our classes, but one that students sometimes have trouble grasping without tangible, contemporary applications. Founded by three Black women, two of whom identify as queer, BLM has from its outset intentionally defined itself intersectionally, rejecting the pop-bead metaphysics of the Civil Rights Movement, Black nationalism, the White feminisms of the first and second wave, and the virulently Whitewashed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements for liberal inclusion.
To make our argument, we take as a case study the controversy surrounding the Cincinnati Women's March in January 2018: BLM Cincinnati declined to participate in the march after organizers of the Women's March refused to listen to BLM's critiques of the march's theme "Hear Our Vote." BLM wanted the march organizers to use the term "Voice" instead of "Vote," arguing that the ballot is not available to many people of color, including those convicted of felonies, those who are immigrants, and those without identification, transportation, or the economic privilege of time off on voting day to go to the polls (among other critiques). Our essay analyzes the events, mainstream discourse, and activist position statements around the controversy. Ultimately, we use the march and BLM's boycott of it to illustrate how BLM builds on a rich history of activism against statist violence that traces its roots through abolitionism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement, contemporary Black literature, and intersectional feminisms such as the position articulated by the Combahee River Collective. Moreover, we consider the theoretical and practical implications for teaching BLM in university classrooms, including a discussion of the utility of this particular case study as a pedagogical exemplar.
BLM and the History of Black American Activism
In one sense, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and associated movement began in 2013 when Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi took to the Internet to decry the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed Neighborhood Watch vigilante who gunned down unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida for the so-called offense of wearing a hoodie, being Black, and walking down the street. Zimmerman's claim to feeling threatened rendered Zimmerman innocent under the state's Stand Your Ground law that allows shootings in self-defense (evidently capaciously defined)--a reality that serves as the warrant for Cullors, Garza, and Tometi's argument that the state (Florida, and more broadly, the United States) values White feelings more than Black lives. Innocent Black deaths at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere over the following year fomented activist energy both online and in the streets. (1)
In another sense, though, the message that Black lives matter (notice the lowercase) has persisted for centuries on the North American continent--as long as legal structures, statist violence, economic exploitation, abuses of human dignity, and other social systems of oppression have treated Black lives as excessive, dangerous, and ultimately disposable (Hill Collins; Giroux). We necessarily pause to point out that indeed Black lives have mattered since the introduction of Africans into the Americas. Here, we situate Black lives in relationship to what "matters" to suggest that broader contextualization is a worthwhile exercise and opportunity found in interdisciplinary classrooms. We want to suggest that there is a tension between Black bodies as signifiers for the sacred, invoked within the question of whether Black lives matter, and that such tension provides useful direction in the conversations that can occur in classrooms. This tension has been enacted and addressed in ways that place historic Black activism in closer relationship to the contemporary moment than our students realize and, as a result, allows us to consider this historical trajectory through a more continuous narrative.
To begin, we recall the systemic structures that have bound and unwound Black bodies in direct correlation to economic pressures on American Whites. We acknowledge how those lives have been constructed and reconstructed in value--as lives that "matter" or not within a comparatively short history. Teaching about this contemporary moment necessarily points us historically backward yet draws us nearer to understanding the significance of and relationship to the idea of what it means to "matter." The layers of mattering indicate unavoidable politics that intersect race, gender, and class and also help us to understand how we have conceptualized how bodies matter in terms of the institutions and systems Americans consider sacred.
During slavery, Black lives mattered. This seems an odd usage to be sure, but the question of what it means for lives to "matter" is inseparable from systems of economy and justice in the United States. Insofar as profit could be made from slave labor, Black men's bodies could be ruthlessly damaged, but owners would resist, when they considered it possible, the loss of life--because as chattel those bodies mattered to the survival and upward mobility of White lives and the retention of the socio-economic structures that aligned Whiteness with privilege. The loss of slave labor was a devastation that implied that Black lives mattered more than White privilege; it was, in effect, the first of a familiar argument: abolition flew in the face of the assumptions that "all lives matter"--when "all" is defined as a majority, thereby diluting the focus on the humanity of those bodies in question, such that "all" equates to "southern and White." But this is also an obvious question of economy and justice insofar as those systems had always been sacred in the protection of White privilege and supremacy. We have the evidence for this in the rituals that resulted--well-oiled jail cell doors that flung open in the face of mobs and militias invoking martial law to perform the most violent rites of White supremacy. Lynchings have been part of the narrative of Black bodies since antebellum times when there was a clear transition in the significance of Black bodies. In these moments journalist Ida B. Wells engaged in public activism of words, reconstructing the public narrative about the relationship between Black bodies and justice as a sacred system in this country. Her book The Red Record was a public outcry against the deceit of justice that implicated and signified on Black bodies as criminal without evidence or due process. Wells also decried the intersection of gender bias in such rites by attacking the assumption that White femininity (also sacred) presumed the kind of fragility and unequivocal compassion that led to the sort of temporary insanity it must require for a White woman to involve herself with a Black man willingly. When revealed, such involvement would, in a society protective of the sacred tenets of White supremacy and femininity, lead to ritualized lynchings. Wells wrote what should not be written--that White privilege would be enacted on a White body if that body was a woman's and stepped against the sacred tenets of White male supremacy by making a Black man matter to her romantically. In this too we see how Black bodies mattered in upholding the rituals of White supremacy and reinforcing the value of race over gender. Regardless of the obvious rape and subsequent miscegenation occurring during slavery, what mattered most after slavery was the continuity of performances that privileged race and created a very specific tension between Black men's bodies and the sacred. Even so, the Black man's body as a signifier in relationship to sacred systems was not new (Logan).
In the antebellum period, pervasive stereotypes once again made Black bodies matter. Juxtaposed against the acquired privilege of a suddenly floundering and unstable southern economy, Black bodies could take on new significance as a beacon for declaring the necessity to protect what was sacred--that uniquely White southern way of life. Given the clarity of a post-slavery economy, Black lives mattered, again according to White social mores and economic needs of the time, providing a well-documented...