Book Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016)

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Where do we go from here?

five out of five stars

From the mutual foundation of slavery and freedom at the country’s inception to the genocide of the Native population that made the “peculiar institution” possible to the racist promulgation of “manifest destiny” to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the codified subordinate status of Black people for a hundred years after slavery ended, they are all grim reminders of the millions of bodies upon which the audacious smugness of American hubris is built. Race and racism have not been exceptions; instead, they have been the glue that holds the United States together.

Pathologizing “Black” crime while making “white” crime invisible creates a barrier between the two, when solidarity could unite both in confronting the excesses of the criminal justice system. This, in a sense, is the other product of the “culture of poverty” and of naturalizing Black inequality. This narrative works to deepen the cleavages between groups of people who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces.

— 4.5 stars —

I picked up From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation expecting a discussion about police brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of blackness and poverty; what I found was a little different, and much more far-reaching.

While Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor does talk about recent, high-profile cases of police brutality and murder – and the protest movement these injustices have birthed – she also goes further back, in order to examine the current wave of activism in its historical context. Reaching as far back as Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1920s and LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms in the 1960s, Taylor shows how each came about as a result of social unrest – and was later undermined and dismantled as activism waned (or was routinely suppressed by the government), often under the guise of some utopian, post-racial colorblindness. Tracing the beginning of harmful racist stereotypes to the rise of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, she argues that the path to black liberation is primarily economic, i.e., dismantling the capitalist system and/or embracing socialist initiatives (presumably resembling the People’s Platform recently presented to the Democrats).

The early chapters on politics that predate me were a little rough to get through, I’m not gonna lie. But this is a personal preference, and you or may not feel the same. Once Taylor hit more contemporary events, my interest picked up too. Her argument is shrewd, impassioned, and all but guaranteed to make you think – even if you don’t agree with her conclusions 100%.

Before my reading, I perused the reviews on Goodreads to get a feel for the material. My attention was drawn to the lone two-star review, which took Taylor to task for ignoring the racism of early leftists, “equating racism by whites & black people’s response to it as if they are on the same level” (which I definitely don’t remember seeing). I think maybe some of the confusion lies in the terms; for example, Taylor frequently criticizes liberals for erasure (e.g., ignoring racism and racial identity in their policies and agendas), or engaging in racism themselves. Can the terms “liberal,” “progressive,” and “socialist” be used interchangeably, though? More importantly, are they here? It wasn’t always clear to me.

To this first point – erasure, for example, by focusing on class instead of race – I wondered what Taylor would make of Bernie Sanders, who has been roundly criticized by women and people of color for throwing these groups under the bus (‘identity politics are divisive’) in order to attract white, middle- and working-class Christian men (i.e., Trump’s base). Taylor does mention Sanders briefly, only to dismiss him as part of the “right wing” of the socialist party. I have to wonder how different (if at all) this book might have looked it it was written and published a year or two later. (fwiw, I supported Sanders in the primary, but voted for Clinton in the general election. I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with Sanders’s focus on white men to the exclusion of marginalized groups. It’s almost like the Dems didn’t learn anything in November!)

Though not without some minor flaws, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is a book that informs, educates, and challenges. I really hope it gets published with an update four or eight years down the line.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction: Black Awakening in Obama’s America

Chapter 1. A Culture of Racism
Chapter 2. From Civil Rights to Colorblind
Chapter 3. Black Faces in High Places
Chapter 4. The Double Standard of Justice
Chapter 5. Barack Obama: The End of an Illusion
Chapter 6. Black Lives Matter: A Movement, Not a Moment
Chapter 7. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

Acknowledgments

Notes

About the Author

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry (2017)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A difficult yet necessary read.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence related to slavery, including racism and rape.)

This book is written in a historical moment that historians have not yet named—a moment when black persons are disproportionately being killed and their deaths recorded. We witness the destruction of their lives via cell phones and dash and body cameras. The current voyeuristic gaze contains a level of brutality grounded in slavery. I call this moment the historic spectacle of black death: a chronicling of racial violence, a foreshadowing of medical exploitation, a rehearsing of ritualized lynching that took place in the postslavery era. African Americans and their allies respond by rejecting the devaluation of their bodies with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter. This book, however, argues that the historical record is clear: #BlackBodiesMatter.

Dear wife, they cannot sell the rose
Of love, that in my bosom glows.
Remember, as your tears may start,
They cannot sell th’ immortal part!

(A poem carved by an enslaved black man named Mingo, on the beam of his cell, as he awaited trial and execution.)

Whether it’s some rando on a plantation tour, or a nationally syndicated talk show host, it always boggles my mind when people insist that some slaves were treated well: “like members of the family.” I guess this means they weren’t flogged on the daily, forced to live in unheated shacks, or forcibly bred? Idk, given that women and children were largely considered the property of their husbands and fathers; the first case of child abuse wasn’t prosecuted in the United States until 1874; and marital rape wasn’t a thing in all 50 states until 1993, forgive me if I don’t find this argument terribly compelling. But I digress.

I may have received the same sanitized, whitewashed public high school education as everyone else – but it doesn’t take an especially critical thinker to realize that, at the end of the day, slaves were property. In the eyes of the law, they were more somethings than someones: more like a television set or CD player (or, to use more contemporary examples, a banjo or a milk pan) than a human being. Some enslavers may have been less cruel than others, sure, but that doesn’t negate the power differential one bit. To borrow an example from this text, kindly patriarch Dr. Carson may have provided medical care for his slaves, and worried about their well-being after his death, but if he had had a bad day, there was nothing preventing him from taking his frustrations out on one of them. As his property, it was well within his right to punch, whip, stab, shoot, starve, dismember, rape, or molest them. And therein lays the problem: when you dehumanize and objectify others, especially but not only by relegating them to the status of property, it excuses any and every abuse imaginable. Slaves exist at their captors’ mercy.

(More below the fold…)