One of the most useful terms I’ve learned, passed on to me by Kari Barclay, is “Kingsplaining.” It’s a verb that describes the process by which people in power use misleading representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work to claim that contemporary activists’ techniques are illegitimate. For example, during the Charlotte Uprising, some white guy on Twitter wrote “Martin Luther King would be disappointed in [the organizers of the uprising],” with a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching, chanting, and taking a street below the text. The irony is, the Charlotte Uprising included extensive use of the exact tactics shown in that image. Often, Kingsplaining is employed in arguments that label contemporary protests as “violent” and claim that conditions of Black life have improved so much as to render protest unnecessary. Kingsplaining seems to come from a malignant misunderstanding of the complexities of the political terrain of contemporary times and of Martin Luther King’s era.
Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, works to provide a clearer account of the present terrain of activism, and the movement histories that shape this present, than what Kingsplaining allows. She tries to resolve the paradoxical question of how we got to a historical moment when a Movement for Black Lives spread under the first Black president of the US. The 2008 election of President Obama seemed to resolve questions of the possibilities of Black political power, by demonstrating that a Black man could get elected to the highest political office, signaling the age of racist “colorblindness.” However, Professor Taylor shows that President Obama’s power did not open new possibilities for structural change that contributed to liberation of Black and working class people. She shows that the #BlackLivesMatter movements are responding to long histories of structural oppression of Black people.
Professor Taylor takes the reader through the ideological and social movement histories that have led to the movement’s institutionalized emphasis on Black political power that simultaneously justifies social and economic disempowerment of people in the Black liberation movement of the mid-20th century. She shows how the racist idea that inequality is caused by Black cultural difference has continued beyond the Moynihan Report, a report in the 1960s that blamed Black parenting structures for poverty in Black communities, and is operative in political discourse today. She also discusses the histories of racialized policing in the US, and how these histories have continued to the present, though data on police violence have only recently become available. One of the most striking and useful chapters to me was Chapter Two, “From Civil Rights to Colorblind,” which showed how the rise of “colorblindness” operated to justify austerity measures under Nixon and Reagan during periods of expanding global, racial capitalism. The clear argument and message of the chapters answer questions about what became of the energies of Black liberationist movements of the 20th century, and why #BlackLivesMatter ignited in 2014.
This book feels a little outdated today, though it was only just published in 2016. It seems that since the rise of Trump in the 2016 election, the consensus among leftists has been that colorblindness is a myth that obscured, but did not eradicate, the outright racism of the Trump movement. Taylor seems to be battling a sense of victory and satisfaction that was a part of the zeitgeist of the Obama presidency, but is no longer commonly shared on the left. However, the analysis and imperative the book offers of the Movement for Black Lives is no less relevant under Trump. Perhaps the best chapter of the book is Chapter Six, “Black Lives Matter: A Movement, Not a Moment,” which recounts some of the early history of the Black Lives Matter protests, especially those in Ferguson. Taylor examines why the movement converged in Ferguson after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown, discussing the various disagreements between leaders of the movement as it grew. She encourages this brilliantly decentralized movement to become more clearly organized so it can more sustainably work for Black life, and against all assaults on Black lives. She demonstrates a genuine hope for the possibilities of this movement building a world where Black lives matter.
Perhaps this book is not the answer to the many misuses of Black liberationist movements’ histories, but it can help to add nuance and insight to the incomplete, generally accepted narratives. As many of us are involved in #theresistance to the Trump administration and the structures that empower it, it is vital that we understand movement histories to know how successes can be won and lost. The movement for Black liberation will win!