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Achieving Black Liberation: A Conversation With Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (Photo courtesy of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor)

Part of the Series

What led to the current movement insisting that Black lives do matter and demanding that Black people be treated accordingly? Find out in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book, which Michelle Alexander calls “a searching examination of the social, political and economic dimensions of the prevailing racial order.” From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation also looks at what the future of the movement might hold – order the book today with a donation to Truthout!

As the Black Lives Matter movement hovers in the political imaginations of many across the United States amid a contentious election season, a book on the movement couldn’t be more timely. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation comes at a moment of thought, contemplation and uncertainty. The political atmosphere in the US has, for years, been dominated by a growing far-right base and a compromising liberal establishment. This environment has been conducive to disappointment and outrage, particularly on issues of racial injustice, and the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged as a current capturing the attention of the country. It’s for these very reasons that a book about where the movement is headed feels absolutely necessary amid election season. Taylor’s analysis of decisions that have been made and ones that need to be made point a liberatory way forward.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a writer and activist with a reputation of being a dynamic public speaker. Just like a good speech, Taylor’s book builds in passion throughout. She gives us both a vital factual account of the history of Black liberation movements, and a sharp analysis that guides the reader through the corridors of critical thinking around issues of race and class. Taylor’s injection of a staunch left perspective on how to move forward centers her writing in a way many might not expect. The book demonstrates that the past is often one of our greatest guides when it comes to navigating the present.

I got the chance to speak with Taylor about her book. What follows are some key aspects of our conversation.

William C. Anderson: How does it feel to write your first book?

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I wrote this book really quickly. I was asked to write it in December of 2014. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it because I had just moved across the country. I was trying to adjust to a new job and I was actually supposed to be working on another book that, of course, I’m now behind on. When I was first asked I said “no” because I felt like I didn’t have time to do it. Maybe a week later I went to a coffee shop and just sat down to see if I could actually write anything about the movement … and there was so much.

“When I think of the history of Black people in this country, I think of endless struggle and resistance to oppression.”

I don’t know if you recall, but December of 2014 is really when Black Lives Matter, the movement, went from kind of being a kind of locally focused campaign in Ferguson to a national phenomenon over the course of a month. So it seemed like there was so much going on that it would be difficult to capture. But when I sat down to think about it and to really start to map out what I wanted to argue or what I could argue, I realized that there was quite a bit there to go through.

I probably spent between six and eight weeks writing the manuscript and at one point I was working maybe 15 to 16 hours a day around the clock. It really became almost like a math problem I was trying to figure out – how the history influenced the contemporary moment, trying to understand the politics of the movement, as it was something in development and evolving at the same time. All of that was pretty exciting. In the end, I feel like I wrote the book that I wanted to read – and that didn’t exist – and that answered a number of questions that I had about the history and politics of the movement. And I have to say I’m proud of the work that I produced.

Was it hard for you to relive a lot of that trauma that Black America has been through?

I think that if Black people’s history in this country was only about trauma, then yeah, that would be difficult. But, for as much trauma that has happened in the history of Black people in this country, it has often been met with the same amount of resistance. So, in that sense I was actually quite fascinated to sort of look at the history of different iterations of Black resistance or the different incarnations of the Black freedom struggle to understand how this contemporary moment fits into that overall history. To me, that was the most exciting but also the most important aspect of this. Especially when you get into the 1960s and really looking at the history and understanding the absolute centrality of the Black struggle to pushing all of American politics to the left, not just the Black movement itself. When we think back and look at the 1960s and the creation of the Johnson welfare state and all of the social policy that comes out of that era, there’s really an effort to keep pace and keep up with the movement as it is evolving. That to me is the centrality of the Black movement …

The reason why the state consistently overreacts to the Black movement – I think that we’re seeing that again today with Black Lives Matter – is because the movement itself really begins to explode all of the mythologies that the United States is deeply invested in: that this is a country of exception, the notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is a place where anything can happen, boundless opportunity, and all of those lies that the United States really uses [in] its self-appointed role of policing the rest of the globe. It comes undone when you look at the history of Black people in this country … When I think of the history of Black people in this country, I think of endless struggle and resistance to oppression that has not only been important to our ability to survive in this country, but our struggle has been inspirational to people around the planet.

If Black people can survive the United States, then wherever we are around the world, we are able to struggle and potentially win as well.

You talk about the Black political class a lot. Can you talk about the Black political class’s conservative direction that you mention and their support for “law and order,” which is a very rich theme in your work? Can you explain the reason that you emphasized that for readers?

I think the most significant change in Black life over the last 50 years, since the last generation of the Black freedom struggle, has been the development of the Black middle class. That has many different elements to it. I think that there was an effort at the end of the ’60s to absorb a layer of African Americans into the mainstream of American society to create some success stories. This was in reaction to the massive Black insurgency that took place during the middle part of the 1960s. So from ’63 to ’68 you have almost 500,000 African Americans engaged in open rebellion in 500 cities in the US. So, there’s a recognition from the political establishment that this can’t go on. Part of the strategy is to create some success stories of African Americans who can live out their version of the American dream. Who can become homeowners, middle management types, and can have some level of investment in the current society. I think that was one aspect of it.

I think politically, there was also a need to approach the Black politics and really create a rift between radical elements who were pushing not just for Black political representation, but who were questioning the entire makeup and structure of American society. So, there was a concerted effort I think to really draw Black political operatives into the Democratic Party and to present the Democratic Party as a legitimate place for Black politics.

And so we see over time as the movement has increasingly less influence on Black political operatives and the deeper that they get into the political system, the more conservative they actually become. By today there is an enormous rift between the Black political class and the Black working class, but it’s mainly because Black political operatives have to organize themselves by the same principle every political operative must organize themselves by, which is fundraising and negotiation – and that’s it. And so to expect Black politicians to somehow act differently is really to engage in wishful thinking and to be naive.

In the book, you brought up the risk of the co-optation of Black Lives Matter and mentioned some weak spots. Can you talk about some of your critiques of the movement right now and expand on some of these risks?

There’s always an ongoing effort to try to undermine political movements, especially Black political movements – for the reasons that I said earlier – that the Black struggle, more than any other struggle in the United States, is always seen as the most threatening because it destroys all of the mythologies that are bound up in what the United States purports to be. So there’s always a particular focus on Black activists and Black activism. In a democracy, it’s very difficult for the state to just come out, denounce people and put people in jail – and do that sort of thing. So, there tends to be a sort of multipronged effort. One is from the foundations and funders and nongovernmental organizations [that] always find a way to insert themselves in the middle of political organizations around the question of funding and resource assistance. And that is certainly not a new phenomenon; it’s not something that has just happened just now with Black Lives Matter.

I think that probably the most concerted effort around these sorts of things really took place during the civil rights movement, when there was a concerted effort from funders working in concert with state operators or state actors – to try to warp the effects of the movement – to try to redirect the focus of the movement from a more broad and robust critique of society in general into a single-issue focus on voting. And you know voting is very important in terms of an expression of civil rights, but it’s not something that is going to challenge the basic order of society. So, I think there’s a historical record of interference and attempts to influence within movements, and I go through some of that history.

What do you want people to get out of your book?

I want people to understand why these movements happen in some circumstances and not others. I want people to understand the reason why police brutality is often a catalyst for Black protest because it serves as a constant reminder of the compromised citizenship that Black people have in this country. So, I want people to understand some of the issues affecting the movement, and not just understand them but really absorb some of the arguments that are made in the sixth chapter – so, for movement activists to debate and to talk about some of the issues that I raise among their fellow activists. And for different organizing groups to think about – and take on, and disagree or agree or whatever – with some of the things I’m raising, but to engage in those questions and begin to think about where is the movement going? And how do we gain control over directing it as opposed to being led by events where the next egregious police shooting will bring people out?

What does it mean for Black people to be free? It doesn’t mean that cops wear body cameras. It doesn’t mean that cops get sensitivity training. So, how do we think beyond the parameters of the existing society? That means raising the question of why we have police in the first place. And what function does racism play in this society. And how do we take and transform that knowledge into a deeper political commitment to a fight for an altogether different society.

When we talk about getting free, that’s a process and struggle that we must engage in directly. It can’t be outsourced to a city council person. It can’t be outsourced to the Black political class. It can’t be outsourced to any other entity.

In Chicago? Catch Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in conversation with activist and scholar Barbara Ransby on Wednesday, April 6. The event will begin at 7pm in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall. Tickets are free and can be reserved in advance via Eventbrite.

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