Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on black liberation, a Lannan Foundation event
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR ON BLACK LIBERATION
It is common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson, founding father of American democracy and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves — and it’s been proven via DNA testing that he impregnated at least one of the black women he considered his property. Yet the dominant modern historical viewpoint tends to discount these truths, characterizing Jefferson as a patriot whose racism was a product of his time, as if there was a time in history when the practice of owning other humans wasn’t morally repugnant. Jefferson rationalized this violent exploitation by blaming slaves for their own condition. In 1785, when advocating for freed black people to settle outside of white settlements in Virginia, where he lived, he said of the black slave: “His imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste. ... The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. ... It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction. ... Whether further observation will or will not verify with conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head.”
Though Jefferson’s language is more florid than that usually used today, it doesn’t differ substantially from the race-based reasons trotted out by politicians, media pundits, and aggravating family members for the condition of black lives in our country. Many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have an ingrained tendency to view multigenerational poverty as being one of nature and personal choice rather than a condition that is deeply embedded in public policy, as well as in the very fiber of how our country was always intended to operate. In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, forthcoming in February from Haymarket Books, Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes that Jefferson’s “naked racism flattened the contradiction between enslavement and freedom and, in doing do, justified slavery as a legitimate, if not natural, condition for African Americans. This, of course, was not driven by blind hatred but by the lucrative enterprise of forced labor.”
A century after Jefferson made those remarks, in the first decades after emancipation, freedom for African-Americans was a formal, legal concept only, Taylor explains. “Black Codes,” special laws imposed on African-Americans throughout the southern states, made it easy to arrest people for innocuous crimes like vagrancy and then sentence them to hard labor in conditions that resembled slavery. After the Civil War, St. Landry’s Parish in Louisiana required freed former slaves to possess special permits from their
employers, African-Americans were not allowed to rent a house or live in the parish, and all African-Americans were required to work for white employers. Violators of these and other rules incurred fines that they were forced to work off if they could not pay, or be subject to corporal punishment.
“The issue of police violence and police brutality is not new,” Taylor told Pasatiempo in advance of her presentation at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Jan. 20, as part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom lecture series. She is joined in conversation by Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
“We just see it as more common due to the speed of social media,” Taylor said. “There’s no golden era of policing that can be pointed to as a model for what we should be going back to in all this talk about reforming the police. Black people have been enduring this kind of oppression since emancipation.”
In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Taylor lays out the history of police violence against African-Americans, much of which is entwined with segregated housing and bank-lending policies dating back a century or more, in the South and in the North. She then leads readers to the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood-watch vigilante who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, on his way home from the store. The BLM movement, which began as a hashtag and blossomed into a national movement with chapters in various cities, took on more urgent steam in 2014 after Michael Brown, another unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The term “Black Lives Matter” is now so ubiquitous it has spurred numerous copycat slogans, including the deceptively divisive “All Lives Matter” and the more solidarity-minded “Native Lives Matter.” But it was originally coined by Alicia Garza, a social justice activist in California. The organized national movement is headed by Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The BLM movement differs from past civilrights movements, often led by ministers and male activists, by putting women at the center of the fight and prioritizing the struggles of queer, transgendered, and disabled African-Americans — oppressed groups within black communities.
Taylor’s book looks at how the grassroots actions of BLM protestors can gather enough widespread support to spur lasting social change. One way to understand the BLM movement is to understand civil unrest by African-Americans as more than the “riots” they are painted as by politicians and the mainstream media. From emancipation until the present, Taylor points to the historical facts underscoring that such events almost always happen in response to police or police-sanctioned violence. During what is known as the Red Summer of 1919 in Chicago, race riots broke out across the city after Eugene Williams, an African-American teenager, was killed by white men for swimming at the wrong beach — and most of the ensuing violence was perpetrated by whites against blacks. The Watts rebellion in Los Angeles, in August 1965, started after twenty-one-year-old Marquette Frye and his mother had an altercation with police. The 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King on the side of the road for a traffic violation, and the first protests erupted in Ferguson only after Michael Brown’s lifeless body was left in the street for hours on a hot day, and after police supporters repeatedly destroyed memorials erected in his honor. When viewed on a continuum, these protests look less like isolated rioting by poor people responsible for their own poverty, and more like pockets of revolution by the proletariat, conveniently suppressed and explained away by the powerful state.
“I always wonder, when white people ask why black people are ‘burning down their own community’ — It’s like, what do you expect them to do? If you’re from West Baltimore, where there has been double-digit-deep poverty for at least two generations, if not more, where police have completely free reign to do to you whatever they want to do? Freddie Grey’s neck was broken by police, and we get hung juries and mistrials. There can’t even be a conclusive understanding that someone was responsible for his life, that someone was responsible for his arrest, and someone was responsible for his death,” Taylor said. “You have these repeated instances of this kind of abject lack of humanity for African-Americans in this country. It’s always confounding to me what people think that poor and working-class people in this country are supposed to do when there’s no other sort of viable means of correcting these problems.”
Taylor also looks at the reasons getting African-Americans elected to local and national political office has failed as a long-term strategy for true black liberation in the United States, noting that #BlackLivesMatter emerged after the country elected its first African-American president. Taylor points to the fact that like most politicians, elected black leaders are swayed by lobbyists, deep-pocket corporate interests, and the personal power of holding office, leading them to care more about reelection than the interests of their constituencies, especially if those constituencies are asking for federal tax dollars for social programs and education. She argues that capitalism is an inherently oppressive system based on control of wealth and resources, rather than human need, and that socialism is the most inclusive and humane path forward for African-Amer and working class Americ
“I think it’s telling that most black mov the course of the 20th century have evol some sympathy, understanding, or exp socialist politics in one form or another,” Taylor said. “Martin Luther King, who has been sanitized as this peacenik in the United States, drew some sort of socialist conclusions about what had to happen to liberate not just black people, but humanity in general. Martin Luther King said we had to start asking questions about who owns the iron ore. Why are we paying water bills when the world is two-thirds water? What is it about a system that turns people into things? Socialism is far from this fringe thing that some white people engage in.
“The idea that we should have a society based on the equal distribution of wealth and resources is deeply embedded in the black experience. We talk about wanting black people to be free, so we have to think through what that means, which involves understanding what limits black freedom and what black freedom — beyond statutory, formal freedom — could look like.”
THE MOVEMENT DIFFERS FROM PAST CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTS, OFTEN LED BY MINISTERS AND MALE ACTIVISTS, BY PUTTING WOMEN AT THE CENTER OF THE FIGHT AND PRIORITIZING THE STRUGGLES OF QUEER, TRANSGENDERED, AND DISABLED AFRICAN-AMERICANS — OPPRESSED GROUPS WITHIN BLACK COMMUNITIES.