Terrence L. Johnson is a professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School. He was a senior fellow at the Berkley Center from February to September 2022, after having previously served as a senior research fellow from April 2019 to January 2022. From 2015 to 2022 he was an associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University's Department of Government, as well as an affiliate member of the Department of African American Studies and member of the executive committee of the Center for Jewish Civilization. Johnson’s research interests include African American political thought, ethics, American religions, and the role of religion in public life. He is the author of Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (2022, with Jacques Berlinerblau); We Testify with Our Lives: How Religion Transformed Radical Thought from Black Power to Black Lives Matter (2021); and Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (2012). He also serves as co-editor of the Duke University Press Series Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. Johnson holds a B.A. from Morehouse College, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Brown University.
“The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
When the lesbian poet and writer Audre Lorde voiced those piercing words in a speech at the Modern Language Association’s 1979 annual meeting, she introduced a new political discourse to build upon Black feminists and Womanists’ criticisms of patriarchy, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. As Lorde saw it, the existing language and way of imagining freedom and justice assumed that America was built to protect the rights and dignity of every human being. Clearly it was not.
For years, scholars and writers have wrestled with the weight of Lorde’s criticism of the use and import of applying existing tools and structures to dismantle discrimination. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Spelman College, quipped in a recent email exchange with me on Lorde: “What would a gendered analysis look like in terms of transforming the criminal justice system or policing? Most of the analysis to present has been focused on race and class…feminist organizations are mostly absent from media discussions and discussions even among Black intellectuals.” Guy-Sheftall’s point illuminates the impending afterlife of the Black rebellion: trying to solve the problem through analyses of race and class. Lorde inserted identity, specifically gender, into the political debate to radicalize Black politics. But Lorde’s argument has faced criticism over the years from both the far right and some liberals for her speech: Can we use our very identity—what some call identity politics—to fight against 400-plus years of oppression?
In the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, the great sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois grappled with the developing economic, political, and cultural identity of those formerly enslaved in the United States. There, he lifted the veil on Black life to share with his readers “the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.” More than a century ago, he predicted that the problem of the color-line would discredit and expose the ongoing contradictions of American democracy and its liberal principles. Du Bois even went so far as to question whether America, its economic infrastructure and democratic aspirations, would exist without Black labor, political ideals, and moral practices: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?”
Du Bois’ question is as unremarkable as it is monumental. Blacks are as fundamental to the United States as the American Revolution and its first casualty, Crispus Attucks, are to imagining the nation’s self-understanding of freedom and democracy. Indeed, Blacks not only clean white folks’ homes and take care of their children and elderly parents, they also work collaboratively with them in sports and the workplace, and share intimate relations told and untold. But do whites see us as full citizens deserving equal protection and equality under the law? Are we co-creators in the land we call America?
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the majority of Blacks and whites believe the criminal justice system treats Blacks less fairly than whites. This is a positive sign of potential collaboration on criminal justice reform. But lingering questions remain: Can we come to an agreement that the criminal justice system is designed to unduly subdue, survey, and punish Blacks? Can an entire social system be reformed if it was designed to exclude non-whites? Many of our discussions on anti-Black racism intend to preserve rather than transform inadequate paradigms. We are still using the master’s tools to try to bring about change.
Du Bois legitimated Black intellectual life. Lorde masterfully extended it by exposing the limits of uncritically applying familiar terms and categories. She gave us permission to insert our voices and bodies as reference points for thinking anew about race and gender during a time when many felt forced to mask their differences. Political transformation, however, would be possible only when women employed “our differences and ma[d]e them strengths.” Naming difference as a legitimate starting point opened the pathway for Lorde to imagine politics through competing and overlapping voices. Many wrongly criticized Lorde and women activists for reducing politics to a social identity. But the criticisms failed to understand Lorde’s argument: Individual narratives give us a glimpse into how social, political, and economic systems function at the micro-level.
From personal narratives of difference, we gain additional insight into the strengths and weaknesses of previously ignored voices. For Lorde, identity was a necessary starting point for deconstructing the master’s house and tools. Kimberlé Crenshaw built upon Lorde’s theory. In 1989, she developed a theory of intersectionality that opened our eyes to the interfacing of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., that demands a greater attention to the irreducibility of identity. Black women are neither just Black nor just women. They face particular injustices that require an intersectional lens to address.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have triggered a national and international response unlike any since the 1954 Montgomery Bus Boycott precipitated a national movement to address Black political disenfranchisement. In both instances, ordinary Blacks raised their voices to demand restoration from generations of systemic—and in many cases intentional—efforts to exploit, kill, and subjugate Blacks and their communities.
Unlike the heralded Civil Rights Movement, which was largely undergirded by a fundamental belief in a constitutional democracy’s ability to overcome racial prejudices and economic disparity, the current moment is being steered by Black feminists whose political starting point is the disbelief in America and its democratic ideals. The system is not broken. It is functioning as it was designed. To believe otherwise, many protestors scream, is to believe in a lie. On Twitter, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza questioned the limits of “tinkering” with broken systems: “Are we going to keep tinkering with the same old same old – or will we find the courage to transform?” Rapper and social critic Killer Mike described it this way at an Atlanta press conference following days of social protest: “We don’t want to see Targets burning—we want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burned to the ground.” This new form of political expression of breaking silences and taboos is far reaching and consequential.
Black Lives Matter is without a doubt building upon Lorde’s rich legacy. Since 2012, BLM and its supporters have been organizing, marching, and gaining influence at state and local levels. By speaking the painful truth that the nation has not valued Black lives, BLM has stood and continues to stand unflinchingly in the face of power. In those eight years, many others ignored the evidence. Some considered police shootings of unarmed Blacks to be an aberration, the actions of the rare “bad apple” in an otherwise fair police force. They chose to believe in a lie.
Eight years later, the nation is painstakingly accepting the truth. The system is broken. Tinkering with it will not work. It needs fundamental, deep-rooted transformation.
What does this mean? It begins with speaking the truths ignored by those in power or blinded by power’s intoxicating glitter. In 1977, Lorde articulated her truth of experiencing racism within the largely white women’s movement in the United States to an audience at the Modern Language Association. She used her experience to call others to find their courage to break their silences, a courage and strength that she suggested would come out of our very vulnerability: “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson—that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”
Lorde is beckoning us to advocate for more than police reform. Efforts to reform policing following the civil rights movement undermined the legitimate concerns of all stakeholders by increasing police surveillance of Black communities and fueling violence against Blacks. Lorde’s call to transform our “silence into language and action” is living today in the BLM movement and Crenshaw’s #SayHerName. The charge by Black feminists is to tackle mental illness, violence against transgendered communities, poverty, and domestic violence as we reimagine policing in a house in which “we too sing America.” Make no mistake about it, BLM and Black feminists are dismantling the master’s house.