Power often seems totalizing; it is everywhere you look and yet hidden from plain sight. Still, as all-encompassing power appears, it is made fragile by “counternarratives”— narratives that push back against the dominant order to expose something previously hidden. This visibility begins the work of making suspect that which is normalized as well as imagining alternatives to these prevailing ideologies.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime exhibit the strength of counternarratives.
Both texts provide a recent genealogy to the dominating and interlocking structures of US anti-Black racism and racial capitalism. They position power as vulnerable by poking holes in common understandings of crime, safety, policing, incarceration, welfare, and freedom. By bringing these histories (of the present) to the fore, the texts create space for imagination and set the stage for their publics to wield that imagination in creating a new world. As Taylor writes, “a more encompassing analysis…creates a space to then ask why” (168).
One “why” that Taylor and Hinton’s counternarratives engage is the building-up of and resistance against state-sanctioned anti-Blackness, and its relationship to collective memory. Taylor, focusing on Black radicalism launched under #BlackLivesMatter, situates collective memory among organizers as making possible building upon the knowledge, tactics, and strategies of the Black freedom movement’s forebears when new generations took up the mantle.
Not unlike this inheritance, federal policy led in bipartisan coalitions utilized amnesia (collective memory’s foil) to create the infrastructure upon which the American Carceral State could develop. As Hinton describes, “expanding networks of institutions… born from the fusion of law enforcement and job training, public housing…metastasized into the modern carceral state” (14). Here, the deliberate absence of collective memory around the state’s capacity to harm served to rationalize the state’s expansion of power and disproportionate punishment of BIPOC.
This contrast between inheritance as it appears within Black organizing and federal policymakers across the political spectrum raises an important question about what the tools of resistance are and how they may doubly be used to expand and constrict freedom. Still, in the nuance it presents, the counternarrative primarily forces the public to both acknowledge and question the ideological conditions that structure the world, shaping visions and dreams for an elsewhere.
Counternarratives may also serve to re-orient public awareness towards those people who have been marginalized, motivating both interpersonal actions (such as how we address harm) and political actions (such as the formation of just and equitable policies). In Taylor’s counternarrative, the writing challenges ideological conditions — like a “culture of poverty,” “color blindness,” and “Black faces in high places” — that are used as a tool to distract from and thus entrench the consequences of racial capitalism. These challengings of power help sustain insurgency by forming solidarity among the oppressed. Such a solidarity is important for social change because it allows the counternarratives from differently oppressed groups to coalesce and strengthen each other, unifying challenges against the dominant order.
One essential task of writers accompanying movements for social change is to make visible that which is hidden. Counternarratives are a practice in that visibility. They acknowledge that abolishing structures of domination must go hand in hand with eliminating ideologies of harm. When this concert between analyses of structural and ideological conditions is achieved, new visions of freedom are possible.
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2016.
- Hinton, Elizabeth. From the war on poverty to the war on crime: The making of mass incarceration in America. Harvard University Press, 2016.