Melissa Murray is a professor of law at New York University School of Law.
For more than a century, Silent Sam stood vigil over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A memorial to UNC students and alumni who served in the Civil War, the statue had long been a fixture of campus life. For some, Sam was a nod to the university’s history and traditions of Southern gentility. For others, including many minorities, Silent Sam was an ever-present reminder of the school’s painful associations with slavery and the Confederacy. This summer, UNC students and protesters forcibly toppled Sam from his pedestal. As they did so, many of them chanted “Black lives matter!,” a vocal attempt to connect the history of slavery and segregation with the current effort to eradicate state violence against people of color.
As some critics have observed, the controversy of Confederate memorials seems far afield of the issue of police violence that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, the question of whether to preserve Confederate memorials seems divorced from the question of how to curb the police violence that has plagued the black community. But in her recent book, “Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century,” Barbara Ransby makes the case that these disparate events are woven together in a tableau of systemic and institutionalized racism. More important, she compellingly argues that the effort to connect these events is no fool’s errand but rather a necessary aspect of understanding Black Lives Matter , a social movement that has unfolded — and continues to take shape — in our present political and social milieu.
Although Black Lives Matter has garnered considerable attention since it emerged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner protests, only a handful of scholars and writers have sought to document and analyze its rise. This is perhaps understandable, as the movement is still in its early stages and is continually evolving and assuming new contours. But while this kind of dynamism might deter other scholars, who would prefer more settled subjects, Ransby confidently steps forward to offer a powerful — and personal — account of the movement and its players.
The book’s title operates on two levels. First, Ransby aims to tell the story of how Black Lives Matter was made — that is, how a movement evolved from a grass-roots response to the violent deaths of young African American men and women into a nationwide movement for racial justice. Here, Ransby is at her best, bringing to bear both her training as a historian and her decades of social justice activism. As she explains, hers is an insider’s account. She spent several years working with and observing Black Lives Matter as it evolved from a social media hashtag into a full-fledged social movement. She lovingly recounts stories of the midwives who birthed the movement, as well as those who helped shepherd it from infancy into a nationwide phenomenon. Not surprisingly, her work within the movement makes her an ideal narrator for these events.
But the title also operates on another level. Ransby is not content to simply document how the movement was made. She also asks how the movement might bring to the fore the concerns of those African Americans — namely women and queer people — who historically were neglected by the civil rights movement’s male-centered leadership model and its preoccupation with respectability politics.
To do so, Ransby goes beyond providing a historical account of Black Lives Matter ’s rise to also offer its intellectual genealogy, tracing its roots in and connections to other social movements. In this regard, Ransby credits black feminism as “the ideological bedrock” of Black Lives Matter . She argues that its roots in black feminism are what make Black Lives Matter distinctive and connect it to other social movements, including the reproductive-justice movement, the gay rights movement, and the police and prison abolition movements.
Likewise, Ransby writes, Black Lives Matter’s black feminist provenance helps explain its distinctive leadership model — and its potential to be more responsive to the concerns of women of color and queer women than the movements that preceded it. Unlike the iconic groups of the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter rejects the top-down, male-centered, charismatic model of leadership, in favor of a more collective and consensus-driven model. Moreover, rather than focusing on the marginalization and victimization of black men, Black Lives Matter emphasizes the way multiple systems of oppression may intersect with and reinforce one another to further marginalize vulnerable groups, including women of color, the disabled and queer women.
But even as Ransby highlights the aspects of black feminist thought that mark Black Lives Matter as distinct from earlier movements, she is hard-pressed to explain the challenges to these ideological underpinnings that have arisen within the movement. The traditional model of hierarchical male leadership has proved stubbornly durable, even within Black Lives Matter . Male leaders in the movement, Ransby recounts, have been dismissive, if not deeply misogynist and homophobic, in their treatment of black women and lesbians in the leadership structure. It is in assessing these episodes that Ransby’s insider perch does her a disservice. So closely connected to the movement, and so deeply invested in its success, Ransby seems loath to air this dirty linen by offering a forceful critique or sharp analysis of this discord. Yet, further discussion of this aspect of movement-building would have provided an important lens for understanding the limits and challenges of a black feminist leadership model and its intersectional commitments.
But this is a small price to pay for a book that is as accessible as it is urgent and necessary. Ransby’s eyewitness account of the players and the events that built the Black Lives Matter movement spring to life with an immediacy and familiarity that provides rich color and feeling to what might have been, in other hands, a bloodless march through recent history.
By Barbara Ransby
Univ. of California. 221 pp. $18.95 paper