It’s comforting to think that the arc of the moral universe inevitably bends towards justice, to believe that the passage of time guarantees change. But such thinking masks another arc of American history— one of brutal repression. The killing of George Floyd catalyzed a transnational mass mobilization and unveiled the precarity and state violence that circumscribe the black experience. A post-racial nation that embraced diversity and multiculturalism now confronted the racial terror that has always underwritten American history. The knee has always been on the necks of black people— long before Derek Chauvin encountered George Floyd. These killings are the rule and not the exception. Amadou Diallo, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and so many others are casualties of the state’s never-ending war on black life.
While the left often derides the conservative cry of “fake news,” the interface of structural and interpersonal violence in the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of Floyd’s asphyxiation reveals that a fake history exists too—one that presupposes an inevitable progression towards justice. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s rearrangements of history frustrate the comforting myth of an unbroken line towards futures of equity and liberation. This colorblind history obscures the anti-blackness built into American institutions that makes black people illegible in the dominant narrative.
The United States does not meet the greatness of its formidable origin myths. A chasm separates who this nation is and who we need it to be. As a black woman and the daughter of immigrants who came to this country yearning to breathe free, I have hoped that we can bend the arc of repression towards equity and human liberation. Many who came before us dared to imagine an America in which they did not live. So, you and I together must negotiate our fidelity to the arc we want to exist and an understanding of the arc of repression that defers the American dream. By narrating the present, Taylor and Crenshaw guide us in that process, reminding us that the past has not yet passed. The contestation of the social and historical forces that brought us here is a battle we fight today to bring black liberation to the generations of tomorrow.
The fight to write a history of the moment is a fight to chart the course of human liberation. To historicize the present while centering black voices is to weaponize knowledge in the struggle against oppression. These new histories penned by black scholar-activists disinter what has been hidden and intentionally misrepresented. They unravel the mythology and aim the light of critique on intersectional oppression before the burial of its history. In her book #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor elucidates the undermentioned workings of white supremacy, bridging the intersections of racial and economic injustice to give activists a new vision of solidarity that goes beyond melanin and attacks the roots of the capitalist system. In her article “When Blackness is a Pre-Existing Condition,” Kimberlé Crenshaw analyzes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to paint a vivid picture of black vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic. Both writers attack the nexus of knowledge and power in dominant narratives by reconstructing the historical record.
Taylor weaponizes historical knowledge by linking anti-blackness and the American imperial project. The settler-colonial mythology that elevates the United States as the paragon of freedom and democracy justifies its global hegemony. Yet, the structural oppression of black people, and the consequent black liberation movements, subvert that mythology and pose an existential threat to America’s political legitimacy. In a free and democratic society like ours, how could we so easily and violently dispose of the life of a fourteen-year-old boy in Mississippi because he allegedly flirted with a white woman? How can a democratic society grounded in equal justice before the law allow for the continual killings and brutalization of unarmed black men like George Floyd?
Black people experience violence collectively, but black bodies—whether lynched, castrated, or asphyxiated—are the sites of the inscription of state power. Rather than individual injustice highlighted by the names that make the news, this is a collective phenomenon experienced by generations of people whose names we’ve forgotten. By centering lived experiences, Crenshaw marries that structural and individual violence, refuting narratives of linear progress and illuminating the intersectional failures that marginalize black people. With the story of Ethel Freeman, Crenshaw begins her article and names the nameless, resisting the normalization of black deaths in a world that not only prevents us from thriving but surviving. Abandoned at the New Orleans Convention Center during the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, the ninety-one-year-old died waiting for the help that never came. In Ethel Freeman, Crenshaw finds a metonym for the many black people who remain nameless, faceless, and disposable in a white supremacist society. Erasure allows the American imperial project to look benevolent; it cannot coexist with black struggle.
When the passage of time does not assure change, progress is nearly impossible to quantify as the strength of the forces of racism and antiracism oscillate. But perhaps, the benchmark of liberation will always move. The world I inhabit is one that first existed in imagination. Even though Jim Crow policed their bodies and their lives, activists protested and endured violence so that in a sea of raised white hands in a classroom, I could raise my own. Perhaps arriving at black liberation isn’t the point. The project of liberation will always be an unfinished one, a symphony amid composition. So, we write the notes and melodies and harmonies we can, even in our grief, because the worst thing that white supremacy can kill is our imagination. Like Olaudah Equiano and W.E.B. Du Bois, we envision futures without white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery because the alternative is untenable. The day we shall overcome is unknown, but deep in my heart, I do believe that it will be someday. Writing ourselves into the histories that muffle our screams is what we do until that day arrives.
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2016.