Black Lives Matter activists in Mississauga, Canada, protest the death of Abdirahman Abdi, killed by Ottawa police on August 25, 2016. Image credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock
The late political theorist Cedric Robinson once wrote that, as it concerns the historical premises and practices of Black struggle, “the most important issue is conceptualization: how are we to conceptualize what we were, what we are, what we are becoming?” The essay in question is titled “Coming to Terms.” It is a fitting formulation for considering the accomplishments of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) through the lens of Robinson’s query, on the one hand, and on the other, the conceptual rendering of the movement offered by Deva Woodly in her beautifully crafted new book, Reckoning.
In essence, I want to “come to terms” with M4BL as it has evolved, and also with one of Woodly’s key tools of interpretation: what she describes as the “canonical thinkers in political theory.” The hope is to arrive at a provisional and necessarily incomplete answer to the question that concludes Woodly’s text: “What shall we do?,” a path forward based on “what we were, what we are, and what we are becoming.”
The “we” in this context has, I think, a three-fold meaning. It refers, first and foremost, to Black people freedom dreaming on the front lines of struggle, past and present, be that through organized movement spaces or otherwise. In a second sense, it refers to Black academics, and “the Negro intellectual,” as Harold Cruse once put it—two groups that include both Woodly and myself—and how we have collectively (and historically) engaged with Black rebellion as a political phenomenon. Finally, this “we” refers to all of us, Black and non-Black alike—a totalizing we—and not just people living in the United States, but around the world.
In “Emergence,” the first chapter of her study on Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, Woodly notes “the movement was born twice,” first as a hashtag online (#BlackLivesMatter). It was then reborn as a post-Ferguson organizational matrix (M4BL) emanating from a 2015 convening of allied organizers and groups in Cleveland. The two-births thesis, as I’ll call it, is a useful starting point, a way of marking where we were.
And if we take the flux of this temporal framing seriously, if we think the movement was really born twice—as we should—then the unprecedented global uprisings of 2020 might best be understood as the zenith of the second phase, evidence that the decade to come has the potential to be a “moment for reconstruction,” just as Woodly hopes.
At the same time, last year’s Black-led rebellion might also be conceived as the beginning of the end of this second phase, which is where I’d suggest “we are,” marching toward a yet to be determined third phase, which I think represents what “we are becoming.” For the time being and for lack of a better name, I’ll assign this third phase the label “post-#BlackLivesMatter.”
The suggestion we are moving towards a period that could be persuasively described as “post- #BlackLivesMatter” may seem contradictory. Perhaps it is. The scope of the 2020 uprisings in many ways undermines such a statement. But the destructive and jubilant dynamism seen in the streets, coupled with how the organizational infrastructure of M4BL was able to harness that dynamism and mobilize it further, papers over fractures that, to my mind, inform what “post- #BlackLivesMatter” might mean and what the praxis of a “post-#BlackLivesMatter” world might look like.
Put somewhat differently, in noting the ways M4BL has innovatively intervened in American political life through the “re-politicization of the public sphere,” and the possibilities this opens for the future, as Woodly does in her book, we must also take stock of why 2020 ended up being a watershed moment for a different kind of reckoning. This reckoning, a series of ruptures years in the making, saw organizers in the M4BL ecosystem, along with those observing from beyond, conclude that the movement, as represented by the M4BL constellation of leaders and groups, had lost its way.
Perhaps the most public example of this came in late November of 2020, when a group of chapters affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN) publicly broke with the organization. The chapters (dubbed BLM10 and later the BLM10Plus) charged that the BLMGN, as shepherded by Patrisse Cullors, had long suffered from a lack of transparency, principled accountability, and democratic decision making, which was undermining the movement. As the group later described, their concerns were less about “individual leaders” and more about “the ways liberalism and capitalism have manifested in BLMGN and the current iteration of the Black liberation movement as a whole, co-opting and deradicalizing this critical historic moment of revolutionary possibility.”
Similar critiques were raised by members of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), the national, chapter-based organization I was an active participant in, and with which I am still nominally affiliated. But the dissenters in BYP100 also decried the organization’s sharpened focus on electoral politics, and what they saw as its structural submergence in the “nonprofit industrial complex,” allowing for the reproduction of hierarchies and the slow creep of harmful liberal-capitalist logics. Some also critiqued the outsized role the M4BL umbrella organization played in directing strategy, often without the buy-in of grassroots BYP100 members. Consequently, several chapters chose to “sunset” their involvement with BYP100, concluding that it could no longer act as their political home.
When coupled with recurring attacks on “celebrity” movement activists and lawyers—a group that includes Cullers, Shaun King, Tamika Mallory, and Benjamin Crump—for what their critics, among them mothers of the dead, have taken to be a crass and disingenuous penchant for profiting off Black pain, a clear but complex picture of where we are emerges.
From the perspective of M4BL’s detractors, its original radical promise has been hopelessly compromised. The social forces and material conditions that galvanized the movement in its first phase remain largely unchanged. The organizational matrix, fortified over the course of the second phase, has become well-resourced, and to a degree, politically influential. M4BL has set its sights on winning influence in more establishment venues, while waging digital campaigns to educate, organize, and bring more people into its fold.
But that approach—to set one’s sights on mainstream power—although sensible and “pragmatic,” doesn’t fly if you want the establishment to burn. It doesn’t cohere if you believe liberation depends on the end of the world and the creativity that arrives with destruction.
In other words, a number of activists who have defected from the M4BL ecosystem believe that the war against anti-Blackness and its attendant ills cannot be waged and won on the oppressors’ terms, using the oppressors’ tools. And if this is the anchor of your analysis, then regardless of shifts in political discourse and public opinion, policy wins, or the salience of slogans like “defund the police,” you’re likely to conclude that #BlackLivesMatter, along with allied groups such as BLMGN and BYP100, have been captured.
Whether or not you consider “capture” to be the appropriate term to describe what has happened in M4BL’s second phase, aspects of the movement have unquestionably become institutionalized. This has happened in a manner that not only more directly engages the state, especially on the federal level, but also helps to normalize the movement’s presence within—rather than stridently against—American liberal institutions. In some respects, an argument can be made that the M4BL umbrella organization has become like an oppositional tendency adjacent to the Democratic Party, gunning for a seat at the table. And it is precisely this kind of strategy, and the kinds of practices and tactics it produced, that caused a rupture in the shadows of the 2020 rebellion.
It’s possible that some sort of schism was inevitable. I certainly could see the seeds of it being planted as far back as 2016, and the fact is, channeling the benefits of nonprofit status, and effectively changing public policy, were always among the explicit goals of organizers in the M4BL ecosystem. It’s also the case that the radical energy that inspires the creation of radical movements comes and goes, as do movement organizations more generally.
When organizations survive, they often moderate their strategies, if not their objectives, in accordance with whatever their current leadership thinks the moment requires. From this we might say that there’s a dialectical relationship between “what we are becoming” and the question “what shall we do?” Our understanding of the former impacts how we respond to the latter, and vice versa.
Which brings me back to the issue of conceptualization.
If we’re headed towards a yet-to-be-determined third phase, a “post #BlackLivesMatter” world, it won’t be one where the current constellation of movement organizations simply disappear or become ineffective in their attempts to bring Black people closer to liberation. Instead, it will be a world where movement ideas and principles are taken up anew and materialize in novel forms designed to resist the pitfalls of institutionalization. After all, the objections raised by M4BL’s critics were never about political beliefs. The dissent was about how those beliefs were put into practice, driven by a desire to ensure—as the critics in BLM10Plus put it—that “capitalism and liberalism” would be unable to co-opt or blunt “this critical historic moment of revolutionary possibility.”
So, if this is one possibility of what we might become, then how are we to conceptualize and make sense of the political horizons of a “post #BlackLivesMatter” world? Will the key organizers in that world build on the radical spirit of the protesters who burned the Minneapolis Third Precinct to the ground at the onset of uprisings in 2020? What are the interpretive tools we should use, and importantly, how should we wield them?
These questions are especially urgent for Black academics and intellectuals committed to Black struggle.
Woodly’s answer to the question of what conceptual tools we need is “radical Black feminist pragmatism,” a political philosophy through which “one can view all of the forces that inhibit Black people’s ability to live and thrive.” Guided by a carefully considered encounter with the words and lived experiences of movement leaders, her extended theoretical engagement with M4BL through the prism of “radical Black feminist pragmatism” is a testament to the love she has for Black people.
It also shows her deep admiration for the movement’s approach to what she terms “the art of organizing”—though she is equally clear that M4BL is a work in progress—and her well founded intuition that “the ideas present in this movement are offering the substance, the matter, that can help us to craft a new era . . . that has not yet been named.”
A similar sense—that a new era of possibilities had dawned—was indeed one of the reasons critics of M4BL concluded that the movement’s institutionalization was evidence it had lost its way.
But Woodly’s text has another stated objective: to demonstrate M4BL’s “usefulness to canonical political and social thought,” and in doing so, “disrupt, challenge, and revolutionize canonical thinking.” This goal partially explains why, throughout the book, many of her theoretical interlocutors come from the white western canon of political theory rather than the trove of Black thinkers who might be equally—if not better—positioned to conceptualize our historical moment.
For example, Woodly draws on John Dewey’s notion of “social intelligence,” which she says the movement uses, in part, “to press foundational American ideals into service to salve and correct the structural conditions that enable domination and oppression in present day.”
Deploying the term “social intelligence” to describe M4BL’s approach to problem solving is one thing. But it’s hard not to see her framing as rephrasing a redemption narrative that is all too familiar, whereby the ideas and innovations of Black movements, born out of the pain of Black struggle, are placed in the service of correcting, but ultimately upholding the American project.
We must reject this narrative: neither America, nor any other nation-state, can be “redeemed.”
Furthermore, the idea of pragmatism itself has its own genealogy in Black feminist thought, one that, like Woodly’s interpretation of M4BL, is “grounded in pragmatic activism,” as Stanlie James put it, and that similarly understands that “the future is something to be pondered and set as a goal for today in our theories and in our practices,” to borrow from V. Denise James. In this genealogy, the use of the term pragmatism, as a way of naming the nature of the work, emerged independent of any explicit engagement with Dewey, even if scholars like V. Denise James later sought to explore how Dewey might “supplement” Black feminist theorizing.
The point is this: relying on the canon to help interpret Black movements, and explain their contribution to mainstream political theory, does more to reify the canon than it does to disrupt, let alone “revolutionize” it. This is a version of being on the oppressors’ terms and using the oppressors’ tools, all for the sake of legibility to a canon that has never really concerned itself with Black life.
Reification is obviously not Woodly’s intent, and her desire to champion the movement is clear. She is also not alone in explicitly adapting Dewey’s pragmatism and applying it to an analysis of Black life. Cornel West laid out the argument decades ago, and more recently, Eddie Glaude Jr. comes to mind.
But what we are and what we’re becoming might require something different from us now, something more. Perhaps that’s among the things we need to come to terms with, as the uprisings and internal ruptures usher in a new, post #BlackLivesMatter phase, in Black struggle.
Click here to read an excerpt from Reckoning, courtesy of Deva Woodly and Oxford University Press.
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.