Black Lives Matter. #BlackLivesMatter. Black lives matter. It’s a phrase, a hashtag, a saying, a declaration, an affirmation of resistance, and above all, a call for change to an American society that is unjust in its treatment of black people.
Unfortunately, not everyone believes black lives matter. This may be a function of bigoted racism – the belief and insistence that black is less than, not equal to; seemingly inferior. But more than this blatantly racist belief, there is a certain ignorance that prevails in the mischaracterization of what black lives matter actually means.
There are those who believe that black lives matter translates to only black lives matter. There are those who believe that the phrase is “divisive” to the American culture as a whole. And yet still, there are those who feel the desperate need to diminish the attention that ought to be paid to black lives specifically, by insisting that all lives matter.
The notion that all lives matter, strikes me as more than anything else, a stance that is willfully ignorant to the context in which black lives matter is affirmed. This is also true for comprehending this phrase as divisive or deeming that a silent “only” exists before its utterance. Context is not only key, without it, the phrase becomes an empty pronouncement.
As it has been uttered many times, the reality of this nation is that from its birth, all lives have not mattered. Some have had to endure struggle and time and change, in order to “earn” their significance as ordinary human beings under the law. From its inception, the United States declared black people three-fifths of a person in law. When the law was changed, black people then had to fight explicit laws of segregation and discrimination. And when some of those laws were changed, black people then had to fight covert laws of discrimination. That’s the fight that we’re in right now, and through all these fights, there has always been an ongoing one: to be treated fairly and equitably not just by the law, but by one’s fellow humans, as another human.
These are uncomfortable truths about the United States, but they are truths nonetheless; each generation inheriting the sins of the last – the sins of one’s forefathers. Some people like to declare that they are not responsible for past sins. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that. We are all tied to the history of each other, and the history of our cultures and our peoples. If you enjoy any privileges because of your history, then you must also endure responsibility for any pain.
The backstory of black lives matter is one of pain. Certainly, it is a response to specific situations that were brought to national attention – the specific response to the fatal interactions of black individuals with many times, police personnel. But it is a response, I believe, to the reality of blackness in a space that has enslaved it, segregated it, devastated it, stolen from it, appropriated it, hated it, and still demanded its silence. Black lives matter is a response to this history of not mattering at all; of not mattering by the very existence of one’s humanity.
Aside from the derailment to the affirmation of black lives matter discussed earlier, there exists a dangerous notion that black people do not treat each other’s lives as if they matter by the erroneous argument that is “black on black crime,” or classist and racist commentary of the black and poor. When these are made, I often find it confusing how people fail to also bring up the history of institutional racism that plague the black and poor. For example, that the ghetto is public policy, or that it is difficult for a community of people who were historically disenfranchised for hundreds of years, and only granted civil rights within baby boomers’ lifetime to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” – that odious and deceitful cultural catchphrase.
The resistance to black lives matter is a token of the historical amnesia that penetrates a certain Western culture, a certain American culture, where the historically disenfranchised are asked to forget. But how can one forget when the present sometimes eerily mirrors the past? There is no romanticization of history when you live in a disenfranchised body. The pains of those who came before you live inside the very skin that contains your body.
Of the past, it is also easy to believe that during the time of slavery or segregation or civil rights, one would have done the right thing – the human thing. It is easy to think that you would have been an abolitionist or advocated integration, or protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr., or been sympathetic to Malcolm X, or sat alongside Rose Parks, or at the very least understood, and did your own bit in your tiny part of the world. Some people did – many whose names are not mentioned in the history books. It is easy think you would have been one of these. To those I ask, what do you say of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown? Do you know the stories of Freddy Gray or Walter Scott? Has Sandra Bland been on your mind? And what do you do for Tamir Rice? Because if you are silent now, you would have been silent then – do not tell yourselves otherwise.
So yes, black lives matter matters because thus far each generation of American history is littered with stories that it doesn’t; that we don’t – our generation is no different. Black lives matter matters because it is an acknowledgement of the truth that a nation, and perhaps a world, has sought to deny throughout time. Black lives matter matters because we know that we are human, and we know that our humanity matters, but we are in the unfortunate position of having to demand that we get treated accordingly.