Image credit: Front cover of To Build a Black Future by Christopher Paul Harris (Princeton University Press, 2023).

The wave of protests that swept across the country and world in the aftermath of George Floyd’s lynching in 2020 was a reminder that the historical record of this latest iteration of the Black liberation struggle is still being written. Nevertheless, the scale, composition, and geographical scope of the protests were a testament to the political and cultural imprint the movement has already established, an unambiguous register of rage and grief. Between late May 2020, when Floyd was killed, up until the end of April 2021—amid the deadly and poorly handled pandemic—there were over 11,000 demonstrations connected to #BlackLivesMatter across almost 3,000 cities and towns in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., many promoting the clear and uncompromising demand to defund the police. One of the largest and most powerful of these protests occurred on a Sunday afternoon in mid-June in Brooklyn, where more than 10,000 people gathered to rally and march for Black trans lives. The size of the crowd was an indication that many of us are now refusing to allow the subjection of some (e.g., Black cis heterosexual men) to carry more weight than everyone else. Globally, the number of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations was just as impressive, with nearly 9,000 taking place in 74 dif­ferent countries, which only goes to show that racialized police violence—and resistance to it—knows no borders.

The burning of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, “an enemy outpost,” as Geo Maher poignantly described it, just three days after Floyd perished under the pressure of Derek Chauvin’s knee, set the tone for the weeks to come. As the summer unfolded, burned-out police cars, broken storefront windows, and toppled monuments that previously stood as tributes to white supremacy and colonialism all became militant markers of a growing consensus, a line in the sand, and a way forward. The uprisings reflected the disillusionment of the era, which is why notable that many of the sites of collective discontent during the rebellion also featured prominent displays of Black joy, a joy we might think of as an embodied practice, theory, and vision of the future performed in the present, in this case enacted through the countermodalities of Black culture.

Over the course of the summer, the streets brimmed with music and movement: protesters singing together to classic R&B songs like Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” in the nation’s capital and dancing to modern remakes of familiar favorites like Beyoncé’s take on the Frankie and Maze hit “Before I Let Go” in George Floyd’s city. The transgressive interventions of hip-hop were just as prominent, such as when songs by the rappers BeatKing, Missy Elliott, and Chief Keef elevated a protest turned block party as the evening waned in Chicago. More than a somber procession or an expression of collective anger chorused by the dispossessed, Black culture and performance—an unapologetic Black joy—were centered at and central to the aesthetics of the uprisings. They were key parts of what made the demonstrations “rehearsals of revolution,” as the Marxist art critic and novelist John Berger once put it, transforming the streets into a “temporary stage” to “dramatize the power [Black people] still lack” while simultaneously “confirming [our] potential.”

The uprisings were by no means a Black-only affair. Commentators have pointed out that, in an appreciable change from previous rebellions connected to the movement—Ferguson in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015, for example—the charge against anti-Black racism was often multiracial, taking place in both major cities and small towns located in areas thought to be more racially homogeneous (e.g., white) and conservative. Consequently, many of the cell-phone videos capturing the character-defining jubilance—and destructive defiance—of these protests show Black people in song and step with non-Blacks, unequally harmed but nevertheless impacted by the violence of our shared social order.

If only temporarily, then, the 2020 rebellions offered a glimpse of what a multiracial and cross-class coalition could consist of, the analytic glue that, if taken seriously, will hold it together. The poet and theorist Fred Moten explains the dynamic well. True coalition among Black and non-Black people “emerges out of [the] recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us.” The message for Moten is as assertive as it is clear. Rather than try to “help” Black people in the life-or-death battle for liberation, we need to “recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” Coalition requires acknowledging that Black liberation is not an outcome solely reserved for Black people; it means liberation for all, regardless of color, class, or creed.

It is no accident that M4BL has demonstrated a global, multiracial reach. Nor can it be reduced to the unique convergence of circumstances that colored the uprisings. One of the critical features of the contemporary moment in Black movement, the time of #BlackLivesMatter, is how capacious the definitions of Blackness and, with it, Black radicalism have become. Included in this constellation are the variety of spaces in which these definitions are hashed out and the types of actions they manifest. To approach M4BL as a social movement whose presumed viability gets measured by traditional organizational structures, campaign wins, or mass mobilization alone is to turn a blind eye to the full extent of its impact. The movement is much more expansive, its potential, much more profound, at least in so far as it maintains a political and cultural praxis that avoids not seeing the forest for the trees or, as Sylvia Wynter cautions, mistaking the map for the territory.

While dramatic street protests and disruptive direct actions like those seen during the rebellion were hallmarks of the movement’s early, hashtag-driven phase, M4BL has quietly and self-consciously evolved into a sophisticated network of activists, organizations, and cultural workers whose broad aim—abolition—has, for many, come to mean not just the end of policing, prisons, and the carceral state. It names the pursuit of another world altogether, one free from the institutions that structure and dominate our lives, systems that discipline and punish in the name of a racialized and gendered social cartography whose primary function is to maintain the territorial hegemony of capitalist social relations. In parallel fashion, the movement has also proven to be a powerful, borderless political and cultural zeitgeist with a shared language, aesthetic, and critique challenging the death-wielding mandates of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. This critique loudly and unabashedly confronts, and most importantly celebrates, dif­ferent aspects of the Black experience as a key component of what it means to get free. I understand the movement’s cultural dimensions to be fundamentally interlinked with the proliferation of institutions and collectives organizing on the ground. Black culture and Black politics are inseparable from one another.

To read M4BL in this way is to attempt to account for its influence over, connection to, and reliance on arenas often placed adjacent to the “political,” if not beyond it altogether, such as when social media platforms get treated as ancillary to social movements rather than a constituent of them. Similarly, the vast expanse of expressive culture and practice, especially in the popular realm, is often taken to be in conversation with but separate from political action. With M4BL, however, the distinction between what is and is not political is often blurred. So too are the domains in which political action does or does not take place. The blurring of these lines allows the movement to utilize and flourish from an expanded “repertoire of contention” that designates the tools we use to register dissent, assert our demands, and build bonds of solidarity.

The political and cultural zeitgeist triggered by M4BL, organizationally, and across the assortment of spaces it appears, has helped facilitate a collective drive to unbind the meaning of Blackness from those who’ve sought to contain it and, in doing so, redefine justice—what it means to be with and for each other, regardless of differences and absent hierarchies. A desire to operate according to this kind of unity is another illustration of the movement’s inheritance from radical Black feminist writers such as Audre Lorde, whose body of work is rightfully regarded as movement gospel. The following quote is demonstrative of her thinking and its relationship to M4BL’s political culture, especially when it comes to dealing with difference and intramural conflict. “Black people,” Lorde writes, “are not some standardly digestible quantity”:

In order to work together we do not have to become a mix of indistinguishable particles resembling a vat of homogenized chocolate milk. Unity implies the coming together of elements which are, to begin with, varied and diverse in their particular natures. Our persistence in examining the tensions within diversity encourages growth towards our common goal.

Refusing to shed our differences, and accepting them in kind, encourages growth on both an individual and collective level. It is crucial to an ethics of care.

Settled atop these unruly grounds, the dialectical encounter between crisis and the creative complexities of Black radicalism, M4BL has mounted a compelling and sorely needed challenge to the logic and values that inform the modern world—racial capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, carceral power, liberal democracy, the nation-state—exposing the impossibility of reform within existing structures and premised on current law. To put it another way, the movement maps a wayward route that leads beyond the colonial enclosures of “white sense,” what Marisa Solomon and I have elsewhere defined as “the everyday language of law and order, civility, reform, and progress that shield . . . racial violence.” In articulating a total indictment of white sense, and the principles of capitalist modernity that comprise its core dictates, M4BL heralds a radically reimagined society and sense of collectivity premised on non-domination, inclusivity, and horizontal community control, a world that has been undone and remade—a Black future.

Excerpted from TO BUILD A BLACK FUTURE: The Radical Politics of Joy, Pain, and Care by Christopher Paul Harris. Copyright © 2023 by Christopher Paul Harris. Reprinted by permission.

Christopher Paul Harris is an assistant professor of Global and International Studies at University of California, Irvine. He holds a PhD in politics and historical studies from The New School for Social Research.

Listen to an interview with Christopher Paul Harris at the Why Now? podcast, hosted by contributing editor Claire Potter.