Keeanga-Yamahtta Tay­lor on black lib­er­a­tion, a Lan­nan Foun­da­tion event


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin

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.”


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