Black Lives Matter: Queer Black Women and Contemporary Black Leadership

The black encounter with the absurd in racist American society yields a profound spiritual need for human affirmation and recognition –  Race Matters, Cornel West

Black Lives Matter Logo

In February of 2014 I attended a faith-based LGBT Film Festival in Pasadena, CA as part of my work with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. This festival also included a number of workshops and discussions held at a gallery near the theatre. The events were primarily attended and organized by white participants and proved to bring about quite a number of problematic moments for me as a queer black woman. One moment in particular that sticks out in my memory in the wake of recent events in Ferguson was a subtle undermining of my contribution to a room of public messages. This room was made of mirrors that everyone could draw and write messages on with colorful erasable markers. I wrote in large pink letters, “Black Lives Matter,” on one of the mirrors.

I don’t quite remember what was going on for me personally, socially or politically at the time, but I felt that that phrase needed to be added to this room that was filled with pretty tame and apoliticized phrases. I came back to the room several hours later to find that someone had written under my message, “All Lives Matter.” I was so upset about this at the time and wished that I had the opportunity to articulate to this person why the Black in Black Lives Matter was so important. I wanted to let them know that illuminating the historical and contemporaneous devaluing and denigration of black bodies as well as the contributions and resiliency of black peoples is at the heart of this campaign. To erase blackness from it is to reinscribe the inefficacy of colorblindness.

I did not realize until recently that this online media platform was created by three queer black women, one of whom I know from a circle of friends in Los Angeles. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter social media hashtag and have since infused their organizing efforts with analysis and action rooted in this rallying cry for the affirmation of black humanity in the face of systemic criminalization and police brutality (and perhaps by extension in the face of black cultural nihilism and cynicism).

Much of the collectivized work that has been done by these organizers and their teams of activists speaks directly to the “Crisis of Black Leadership” discussed in Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994). As he reflects on what is to be done about this postmodern gap in creative and effective black leadership in both intellectual and political frameworks, West states, “locally based collective (and especially multigendered) models of black leadership are needed. These models must shun the idea of one black national leader; they also should put a premium on critical dialogue and democratic accountability in black organizations” (45).

Organizations like Dignity and Power Now, founded by Patrisse Cullors, exemplify and expand upon the politics of this model. However the visibility of the work and commitments of these organizers are being threatened and overshadowed in waves of online, organizational, and corporate media co-optations of the Black Lives Matter messaging campaign. In an article for the Feminist Wire, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Alicia Garza discusses in detail the genesis and meanings of Black Lives Matter and the nature of the invisiblizing of black queer women’s contributions to movements for social change. She states:

When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice.  It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions.  Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy….In 2014, hetero-patriarchy and anti-Black racism within our movement is real and felt. It’s killing us and it’s killing our potential to build power for transformative social change.

Just two days ago on November 29th, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry did a special on the Black Lives Matter movement titled, What it means to say ‘black lives matter.’ Guess who was not invited to this discussion? What It Means To Say ‘Black Lives Matter’ Although the cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter have been interviewed and featured in many local and independent media outlets since the online platform’s inception (as documented on their Facebook page), the nature of viral social media, national solidarity efforts, and national media discourse present familiar problems of accountability and acknowledgment for marginalized voices within social change movements.

As Garza states, this campaign and much of the organizing work we as a public have witnessed in Ferguson is “a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” How do we amplify these deeply engaged dialogues? How do we shape this call for a collective consciousness to be inclusive but not reductive of our histories and realties? What’s next?

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