A Writer with Writers: #BlackLivesMatter: Understanding Race, Revolution, & Resistance

August 24, 2016

by Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

Four years have passed since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched the social justice international activist movement, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). What began as a hashtag in response to the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin quickly became a rallying cry. Both the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and its meaning resonate around the world—from Ferguson to Tibet, from the White House to the United Nations. BLM is an intergenerational movement and a call for action to reform policies, racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality. Given that BLM is a movement in action, it is difficult to participate in the movement while critiquing it, but Dr Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor did just that in her new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. We begin our discussion below with a shorter interview, and an extended version can be found on my website with poetry and resources for further discussion.


Kaye Whitehead: Why did you decide to write this book?

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I decided to write the book because I thought I had insight and analysis that would be useful for people either in the movement or sympathetic to the movement.

KW: Which writers inspire you?

KYT: There is nothing like reading something that makes sense. I am a fan of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anne Petry, Toni Morrison, Leon Trotsky, Nathan Connolly, Alan Maass, Michelle Alexander, Edmund Morgan, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

KW: How much research did you do?

KYT: I did not do a ton of research. I was not trying to show something new. I was trying to analyze and understand what historical dynamics have resulted in the persistence of racism in our contemporary society. I read a lot, not necessarily for new information but to make sense of the existing information.

KW: What is the hardest thing about writing and/or your research?

KYT: Well, writing is hard. It is hard to get it right and to most clearly and succinctly express oneself. Probably the most difficult thing about writing now is having the time to do it the way you want. Writing is about revision. Everyone wants the “hot take,” but writing should be a slow process. It is about re-writing and stopping and thinking and doing it over.

KW: What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?

Read. If you want to write then you have to read. Read a broad range of things. And then write.

KW: What is your next project?

KYT: I am working on my book, Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s. It looks at the federal government’s promotion of single-family homeownership in black communities after the riots in the 1960s. It is a critique of private institutions like banks and the real estate industry shaping public policy to their benefit and the detriment of black communities they claimed to be serving.

KW: What is the current state of the Black Lives Matter Movement and how do you see it moving forward?

KYT: I think the movement is still sorting out what it is and what it wants to be. I do think that right now the movement is going through a process of maturation; meaning that two years ago when everything was erupting, it was tempting to believe that a seat at the table—especially if it were a table in the White House—might put us in closer proximity to political power which might in turn get us closer to our goal of ending police violence. Instead, it was a stalling mechanism from the political establishment, which has no real answers to ending police violence. Not everyone has learned that lesson, but enough people have learned the lesson that there is a greater emphasis on the political independence of the movement and advancing goals that will build the movement and worry less about appealing to those in power.
About the Writer: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), an examination of the history and politics of Black America and the development of the social movement Black Lives Matter in response to police violence in the United States. Interested in Dr. Taylor’s work? Follow her on Twitter: @keeangayamahtta.

About the Interviewer: Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. Her new anthology, RaceBrave, was published in March 2016.