Image credit: Oxford University Press
When I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, Black liberation movements in the United States and most places in the world were in what the social movement literature calls abeyance—a state of temporary disuse or suspension. The Black civil rights movement, which reached its zenith in the 1960s, had been, for better and worse, fully incorporated into the regular flow of common discourse and institutionalized politics, so it was not my primary subject of study. Because I wanted to examine the ways that social movements change our understandings of politics and create new political possibilities in real time, I wrote about the then active and growing struggles around the living wage and marriage equality in my first book, The Politics of Common Sense. Later, as I was getting into research on what I planned to be my second book, an empirical examination of popular understandings of “the economy,” what it means to different segments of the American population, and how it might be changing, videos of Black people being murdered by police started circulating online in a terrifying proliferation. Without making a conscious decision, my nascent mappings of American economic discourse slowed, and I began researching and writing about the political implications of the movement that was rising in defense of Black lives.
Of course, I had been primed to pay attention to the mass demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and other American cities because in 2013, I, like most other Black Americans, had followed the trial of Trayvon Martin’s murderer closely. I had engaged in online discussions about the details of the case. I had talked to my parents, my colleagues, my friends. I was outraged that the prosecution slandered the teenager—a boy who died with Skittles in his pocket—after he had been hunted in the neighborhood where his father lived. I had been upset at the way both the prosecution and some Black people lambasted the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, critiquing her demeanor, her speech, her clearly present anger and sadness, as though she were not a human being, but instead a failed vessel for respectability. Even with these foreshadowing pieces of evidence that the purpose of the trial was not to judge the murderer, but to prove that Trayvon’s life didn’t matter, I was still hopeful that the man who had stalked and murdered this teenage boy would be found guilty.
But he wasn’t.
I am a Black woman, the wife of Black man, and the mother of Black children. I was already aware that police could, would, and did harm Black, brown, and poor people without cause and based on their own whims and fears, but I had not understood the stultifying regularity with which police and vigilantes who believed themselves aligned with the state executed Black people—men, women, and children—for minor alleged infractions or no reason at all. And, more pointedly, I had not understood how easily they would get away with these acts of racial terror even when they murdered people on video and in plainview of the public. I was shocked by the excuses that were made for wanton police violence in public discourse, the ways that the Black victims of aggression and assault were demonized, always already deemed terminally guilty of something, having once smoked marijuana or being possessed of the gall to fight for the lives that vigilantes, police, and the state clearly indicated did not matter. It was heartbreaking. I can hardly describe my furious grief.
Almost four years before that savage acquittal, I had stood in Chicago’s Grant Park on the evening of November 4, 2008, surrounded by an ebullient multiracial crowd of classmates, friends, and strangers as we waited for the results of the presidential election. I will never forget the roar of the tens of thousands of voices when, around nine o’clock, much earlier than we expected to know the outcome, an Obama campaign aide walked to the microphone on a raised stage facing the throng, and said into the hushed anticipation, “Check, check. Mic check. Mic check for the president-elect of the United States of America.” The night seemed to explode with joy. We were carried away. The first Black president. Such a stunning declamation to kick off the second decade of the twenty-first century. Reader, I was never under any impression that the election of Barack Obama would usher in a so-called post-racial society, but I did think, “We have come so far.” I did hope that it would be the beginning of something good, the clearing of a path forward, the sign that the American polity might be ready to become what it had always claimed to be.
But the next eight years showed that this hoped-for future had not arrived after all.
When Trayvon’s murderer was acquitted in Florida, I took to my Facebook page and wrote the following:
I have been struggling with what to say. I’m a political scientist. And a political junky. I ought to say something politically productive. But my predominant response to this verdict—the very need for the 45 days of protest to even bring this vigilante to trial—is pain. And fear. I am the mother of Black children. The wife of a Black man. They are not safe. They are not safe. They are not safe. I cannot keep them safe from eyes that have no capacity to consider their humanity and no notion that they might be ordinary people, innocent of any crime but walking around in their skin. My loves, my whole life, everything we have built together, may be snuffed out by any armed coward who takes it upon themselves to exercise their prejudice at any time in any place. And there may be no recourse. And there will certainly be no justice. Because all my pictures here of my beautiful, brilliant boy. My ebullient, gifted girl. Of my talented and dedicated and hardworking husband. They mean nothing to a stranger with a gun. I am overcome with sadness that this is my America. And sadder still that this sentiment is not new. This fear is a fear that has flooded the heart of every Black woman since the nation’s inception. And the pity of it is, this fear recedes in moments. Many moments. It recedes among my multi-racial and multi-cultural friends and colleagues and associates. My family lives in a liberal, racially, and economically mixed artistic town on a beautiful river in a charmed valley. And it is no accident that we do. Because here, this fear, this hurt, recedes. But always, something like this brings that fear, that rage at being always out of place, never ordinary, never innocent, back. And so I mourn. I mourn for the life I wanted for my children. The country I wanted for them. Because that world, that country is not to be. Listen, I am not naive, I know about probabilities, I understand how rare justice is, how fundamental struggles are, for all intents and purposes, unending. But I am an American. So I dream. And my American dream, cherished and mostly unspoken, has been that despite what I know of history, what I know of structural-isms, what I know of the stickiness of old paradigms in new days, despite all of that, perhaps, in my children’s time, they could be free. Free of this fear and this rage. Free to be an individual. Free. I have held this kernel of hope in my heart that their generation would be gifted with struggles that were at least a little different. I know, I know. Impossible! Of course. But I am an American. So I dream. Because honestly, how could I be who I am without the dreamers who came before? The dreamers who worked and died for things the world could barely fathom? It is my birthright to “dream a world,” as Langston Hughes wrote. And yet, the reality of my American life, of my son’s and my daughter’s, swirls down and down around the same narrow drain of possibility that has sucked us—all of us, every single American—down from the very beginning. So I turned my profile picture into a black box in mourning. Soon I will think about politics. Soon I will think about remedies. Soon I will think about struggle. Soon. Because these things give me hope. And something productive to do in the face of this great sadness. But today I mourn. Because though I should have known, though I did know in every measurable way, even still, I am shocked and more hurt than I thought I would be, that this is my America. Still.
My America. Some of you will read that cynically. During the course of the writing and review of this book, many have asked me: Why not let go of this American idea? It has never been. This place has always been a shining city built upon the unmarked and unremarked-upon graves of Black and Indigenous people. And, if the slaughter were not bad enough, all of the institutions of the country, and almost everybody who got rich under their auspices, have traded in our bones.
My first impulse is to give an answer about ideas. That the audacity of the American idea is worth nurturing, worth bringing into being, even if the apparatus built to enact it was built to fail Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. But that answer is a dodge. Logically, a thing that is built to fail most people ought to be scrapped. So let me be honest. My attachment to the American idea is much more personal. Like most Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people, my family can’t trace all the generations that have been born in this land, but as far as we can tell, my roots in this country go back at least seven generations on both sides. Those generations include the often forced but sometimes passionately defiant intermixture of Black, white, and Indigenous bloodlines that make up most of the African diaspora. Those generations toiled to build and serve this nation while being brutalized, stolen from, disrespected, and disavowed. They built triumphantly, tragically effervescent human lives in the face of systematic dehumanization. They are owed—for both their unpaid labor and their faith that this American idea could one day justly serve the entire polity.
What that means to me is that this nation is mine. Mine to claim. Mine to hold to account. Mine to participate in reshaping. So I tell an American story because it is my story to tell. It is why I reflected, in 2015, shortly after the coalescence of what had become the Movement for Black Lives:
Listen, the movement was born, as all beings are, in pain. But what made it possible, what lets it live, is ecstatic, defiant, world-beating, unconditional love. The love of a people for our own breath. Our own raised hands. Our own spoken names. Our own queerness. Our own magic.
Mine is the only story I can tell. I speak it. Sing it. Tweet it. Me and the rest of we who figured out how to love us and turn up. And so there are a million true tales whipping across the screen in real time. Vivid as fiction, but instead a history. This is what it looks like not to despair.
We remember what every political animal has ever known: speech-is-action-that-creates. And all these players slaying, giving life, unapologetically declaring their political love as power because survival is not enough. We want to live.
Let me tell you, there is no “post-”. There is the unmasking. The deconstruction of grins and lies. The deferred dream of other possible worlds that are not yet. The breach to which we return.
Listen, my grandmother was born to sharecroppers on a farm in North Carolina in 1924. At two years old, she was run over by a horse and buggy. Somehow, she stood up, unbroken, crying, ready. When she was grown, she moved north so she could work, vote, live. But my mother, a dentist’s daughter, spent her youth wiping the spittle of white children from her face and learning not to let the word nigger knock her down. Later, I was told, Black girls are never beautiful unless they look like white girls. Good thing I was smart, “like Oprah.” Smart enough to walk the halls of one ivory tower after another, not minding—not too much, not enough to fall—the loud whispers wondering how such a Black girl could take up so much white space.
And of course, along the way, there have been too many losses. Unspeakable losses. In money and blood. Yet to mention reparation is not polite. We are supposed to get up (pants pulled up, hoodie shed, respectable). Unbroken, crying, ready. They call us to forgive. But the movement reminds us that the choice in answering is ours. That’s how I know the movement loves us—is us—getting free.
Listen, this hearing will be no easier than any other trial. The outcome, as uncertain. All I can report is what movements have long showed: together, we are a reckoning.
Excerpted from Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Necessity of Democratic Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Deva Woodly is an associate professor of politics at The New School.