Meet the Academics Behind Black Lives Matter
From the #ByeAnita actions in Chicago to the Fund Black Futures campaign, 2016 has already yielded significant gains for young Black organizers across the country. But the launch of Black Scholars for Black Lives (BS4BL), a collective made up of over 200 scholars and academics who have taken a pledge to use their platforms to support the Black Lives Matter Movement, just might be one of the most powerful tools the two-and-a-half year old movement has acquired as of yet.
For historians like Blair Kelley, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, joining Black Scholars for Black Lives enables her to delve deeper into the historicity of movements against racial injustice.
“History teaches us so much, so to think that you’re doing something for the first time can be dangerous”, Kelley claims.
To her, there is much to be gained from the “lessons, successes and failures” of prior social movements.
The creation of Black Scholars for Black Lives also enables the cohort to intensify their embodiment of the term “scholar activist”. This is especially the case for Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, who takes issue with the “false divide” that has been created between academic work and activism.
“This is an opportunity to be reminded that our activist traditions are actually rooted in deep intellectual thinking”, she remarks. And in a society where organizers are often assumed to be uneducated, unemployed trouble makers, this reminder comes at a much-needed time. But organizing work does come at a considerable financial obstacles. The creators of BS4BL (Barbara Ransby, Cathy J. Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelly, and Donna Murch) strongly encourage members to pay their dues in the form of donations to either Black Lives Matter, BYP100, Hands Up United, Million Hoodies for Justice, or the #SayHerName campaign.
But as students around the nation bring the Black Lives Matter movement to their individual campuses, like, for example, Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri, Cooper sees a real opportunity to use her platform to augment their work both inside and outside of the classroom.
“I sit on student’s panels when I can, and I try to help them think in a broad context about change and how to go about getting it”, Cooper says.
Camille Ann Brewer, director of Chicago’s Black Metropolis Research Consortium, also reveres the prospect of amplifying support for student activists.
“The establishment wants to dismiss youth as acting on emotion, and not a history of struggle…but young people have done their research”, Brewer proudly states.
And she is right.
While the average American might grow flustered if asked to name a 1960’s civil rights activists beyond Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the young organizers of today are invoking the unsung legacies of leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. But even as the transcripts and diaries of the elders remain a useful resource, one question remains: who will document, and most importantly archive, the work of today’s young leaders?
This question led Brewer to create the Archie Motley Archival internship Program as a way to combat the overwhelming lack of diversity in the field, and create opportunity for students of color to learn archiving principles.
“Archivists are caretakers of historical records. But you’ve gotta be critical of who is in that role”, Brewer remarks.
Legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose #SayHerName initiative is one of the groups supported by Black Scholars for Black Lives, emphasizes the importance of the academic’s role in formulating the rhetorical strategies used to draw attention to injustices. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality”, which is often used in activist spaces to address the intersecting nature of different oppressed identities.
The importance of the term stems from its ability to continue to force us search and advocate for
“interventions that are robust enough to respond to systemic oppression without keeping people out of the frame.”
According to Crenshaw, “incompleteness” in rhetoric can seep into the demands for justice and actually “reproduce harm” for those who are on the margins.
And while Crenshaw reveres the opportunity to foster a greater connection with young activists, she also remains critically aware of the fact that there are those who may want it to disappear.
But even as scholar activists seek to find more ways to amplify their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, many figures (including President Obama) still continue to see it as just a “social media movement.” Could support from Black Scholars For Black Lives give it the legitimacy needed for the public to recognize it as both an online and on-the-ground movement?
For Eddie Glaude, Jr., Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, the answer to that question is quite simple: bump legitimacy.
As an academic who supports this movement, Glaude believes his role is to “provide the theoretical language and historical context for the movement, and extend the work taking place in history.”
“To my mind, the organizers on the ground give the movement legitimacy. Black academics are just another front of that struggle”, he contends.
But one thing is clear: this relatively seamless marriage of scholarly work and activism has the potential to launch the Black Lives Matter Movement to game-changing heights.
Image by Black Youth Project