On Breaks and Specters

By: Joseph Winters

October 19, 2016

Religion and Black Lives Matter

There is a certain cultural common sense that determines how we imagine the relationship between emergent struggles against anti-black violence and previous black liberation movements. Whether people lament or celebrate the differences between the present and the past, or Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, the shared assumption is that the present marks a clear departure or break from the past. While the iconic leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were predominately male, Christian, and practitioners of a respectability politics, the appointed leaders of BLM (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors) are queer women who practice unorthodox strands of black religion (Cullors’ political vision is deeply shaped by the Nigerian religious tradition of Ifa). In addition, we are usually told that previous civil rights struggles included concrete goals and worked within electoral politics while the thrust of BLM is centrifugal—the emphasis is on movement, contestation, and working outside the system (or complicating the very distinction between inside and outside).

Perhaps no image captures this imagined break between the present and past than Johnetta Elzie and members of the Ferguson “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement rushing the stage and seizing Al Sharpton’s microphone at the “Justice for All” march (a march precipitated by the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer that killed Michael Brown). While we can read this interruption in many ways, it seems to immediately signify a fissure between the civil rights and post-soul generations. While Sharpton often authorizes his voice by invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King and performing civil rights politics, the young protesters that usurped the stage seemed to suggest that the emergent movement against state violence cannot be contained or controlled by the imagined legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

But, of course, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts have been made to contain the movement. Think, for instance, of how Ava Duvernay’s widely acclaimed Selma (released shortly after the November 2014 uprising in Ferguson) has been interpreted and marshaled by black celebrities to chide the strategies of emerging protesters and activists. In successive interviews, icons like Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry suggested that the film demonstrates what a real movement looks like—one that is supposedly defined by traditional leadership, congenial protest, a unified goal, realistic demands, and a vision that includes “everyone.” In other words, Winfrey and Perry deploy Selma and its associated images as a stringent benchmark for present and future black freedom struggles. In addition, they construct a palatable version of the Civil Rights Movement in opposition to the dissonant and discomforting politics of BLM.

The widely accepted version of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s dovetails with the general sense that emerging forms of black resistance mark a radical break, or decline, with respect to the past. These positions rely on certain assumptions about the Civil Rights Movement and black freedom struggles more generally. For instance, there is a recalcitrant assumption that black freedom struggles have always been attached to the Black Church and black Protestantism. As scholars like Barbara Savage and Bill Hart point out, there is similarly a wide assumption that the Black Church is a unified entity with a generally progressive political vision. This is connected to the idea that black people are naturally religious or religious in a certain manner. In addition, even with attempts to complicate and pluralize black freedom struggles, we often subordinate the complexities and contradictions of these struggles to dominant icons, such as King, Selma, the Civil Rights Act, Barack Obama, or reconciliation. As Erica Edwards so beautifully argues in her work on charisma, standard versions of the Civil Rights Movement often privilege the heroic acts of a male leader, a tendency that obscures the multiple forces, interactions, and relationships that enable and constrain democratic movements.

But since we are not completely confined by these controlling images and narratives, we might pose some questions that open up alternative ways of thinking and remembering. What happens to our understanding of black political striving when we redirect our attention to the less legible expressions of resistance—the Black Panther Party, socialist movements that initiated the March on Washington, Rosa Parks’ involvement in movements to end sexual violence against black women? What happens to our image of (heterosexual) male leadership when we underscore the writings and activism of Ella Baker, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin? How might the writings and activism of Malcolm X inspire us to think creatively about the relationship between anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and empire? My sense is that a re-imagination of the richness and density of black freedom struggles will make us talk differently about the continuities and discontinuities between the past and the present.

Final thought experiment: To challenge the conflation of civil rights struggles with black Christianity is not to dismiss the complex contributions of black churches. In fact, this troubling endeavor might point to more creative and playful ways to perform, relate to, and be in/outside black church practices. Here I think of writer James Baldwin’s vexed relationship to the church—while he eventually left the institution after being a junior preacher, he never abandoned the sense of simultaneous power and vulnerability associated with worship and music. For Baldwin, this musical assemblage of black bodies occasioned an ecstatic experience marked by hope and despair, joy and pain, anguish and pleasure. The cry is both a moan and a celebration; the break is both a wound and an opening. Remember that Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal inspired Garza and Cullors to disseminate the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. In other words, the movement is situated somewhere between (black) death and life, between tragedy and hope, anguish and possibility. BLM invites, and even compels, us to confront the nexus between blackness, death, and the sacred.

Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher…

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