From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
Reviewed by Lauren Brownlee
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Haymarket Books, 2016. 288 pages. $17.95/paperback; $17.99/eBook.
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor places the Black Lives Matter movement into a historical framework and explores the most immediate catalysts for the movement. This book is not a quick or easy read; rather it is a thoughtful and thorough engagement with the complexities of the present moment. Each chapter is filled with significant quotations from primary sources as well analysis from scholars. For those interested in the topic but less enthusiastic about the academic nature of the writing, there is a conclusion section at the end of each chapter that reviews the core arguments from that chapter. This book removes any excuse that one might have about not understanding the purpose or tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation answers the question of “how did we get here?” Taylor explains that “[r]acial discrimination, sanctioned by law in the South and custom and public policy in the North over much of the twentieth century, caused disparities between Blacks and whites in employment, poverty, housing quality, and access to education,” and the book provides ample evidence for each of these points. The book explores how systemic, institutional racism throughout U.S. history led to Black Americans being economically disadvantaged as well as the criminalization of poverty and the association of Black Americans with crime, all of which has led to a U.S. justice system that has “reinforced and reproduced racial inequality.” Taylor also describes that in recent history former President Obama’s inability to deliver on his promises of racial justice and the Occupy movement’s re-legitimization of public protest laid a foundation for a new social movement to emerge.
One of the gifts of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is lessons to be learned from the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the key lessons highlighted in the book is about the harm the comes from colorblindness. The book features the many ways in which not acknowledging the different lived experiences of people of color lead to Americans not addressing the structural reforms that are necessary to end the racial stratification of the United States. Taylor believes that the narrative that the United States has built about its history and values makes it too hard for Americans to understand the obstacles faced by those on the margins and too easy to falsely point to exceptions as disproving the real patterns. She stresses the importance of understanding intersectionality, defined as the points of intersection between different core aspects of a person’s identity.
Much of the book is dedicated to the connection between racial and economic justice. Taylor writes, “The struggle for Black liberation . . . is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them.” Finally, she illustrates how both overt and subtle racism have become part of the discriminatory systems that the Black Lives Matter movement is working to dismantle, as she clarifies that “[i]t is the outcome that matters, not the intentions of the individuals involved.”
Taylor does not simply lay out the national problems that the Black Lives Matter movement is addressing. She also encourages her readers to take personal responsibility for being a part of the solution. She makes me feel proud to be a part of the movement, as she explains that “justice is not a natural part of the lifecycle of the United States, nor is it a product of evolution; it is always the outcome of struggle.” She acknowledges that allies are often slow to embrace actions that have a fast-paced or radical feel, and she shares examples of periods in American history when such fears have been an obstacle to progress. My sense from conversations with f/Friends is that many do not understand the inclusive, nonviolent platform of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many would prefer for activists to work through political means instead of engaging in direct action. Taylor makes it clear that politics and protest are mutually encouraging rather than mutually exclusive.
Overall, the book feels like a call to action, encouraging those who are uncomfortable with the movement to develop an understanding of its work and find a way to plug in. She describes the meaningful impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has on American politics, while making it clear that “Black people in America cannot ‘get free’ alone” and that “[s]olidarity is not just an option; it is crucial, . . . Success or failure are contingent on whether or not working people see themselves as brothers and sisters whose liberation is inextricably bound together.”