In the wake of the devastating Trayvon Martin decision back in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement was born and gained traction in national media as a new and exciting black liberation movement. Unlike past movements that focused on a broadly brushed black narrative – one that often excluded women, trans, queer, and disabled folk – the Black Lives Matter movement boasts high inclusivity. The mission says they go “beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within black communities, which merely call on black people to love black, live black, and buy black, keeping straight cis black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.” With this fresh take on civil rights, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn a strong following and made activists out of people who may have never considered themselves the activist type.
Identified by its social media hashtag #blacklivesmatter, the movement is a unified call to action, a declaration of injustice, and the exclamation point that follows the important question: When are black lives going to be valued in the same way as other American citizens?
Using social media as a catalyst, Black Lives Matter has garnered national attention in the wake of these events in part due to its ability to amass a following, streamline its message, quickly respond to injustice, and organize its protests.
As a concerned woman of color, I eagerly follow news about the Black Lives Matter movement. Following these national injustices, story after story, is emotionally charged. Especially when I see the poor reporting, sensationalism, and holes in the narrative.
It’s overwhelmingly apparent that women of color, though deeply embedded in the movement itself, are largely ignored in the national coverage.
The national media fails to recognize that women are a large part of the movement — both as advocates and as those being advocated for.
Currently, the image of the Black Lives Matter woman in the national media is one-noted. There was the Baltimore black mother, Toya Graham, who pulled her son from the throngs of protesters, saying she didn’t want her son to be killed or arrested. Next was Michael Brown’s grief-stricken mother shown leaning on her husband for support over the death of her son. There’s the image of Eric Garner’s wife holding her children in the wake of her husband’s death.
This is how the national media has shown black women in relation to this movement: as strong supporters of black men, as the victims of the deaths.
I believe these women are vital in the national dialogue, but the discussion has failed to recognize the role of women outside of this regard. Black women are not only the grieving wives and mothers, but are far too often the victims of police brutality themselves.
Little does the public know the names Rekia Boyd, Shelly Frey, and Kayla Moore. The lack of attention for their deaths is unsurprising and overwhelmingly disappointing. Rarely do the media present complex and varied takes on people of color, women, queer, and trans and disabled people.
Just as national media has deemed black men ‘thugs’ and ‘violent hardened criminals,’ black women’s voices have been erased or restricted to typical gender-specific roles.
Moreover, hardly do we hear about the three black queer women who created the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
We do hear about Marissa Johnson, more recently, as an interrupter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Johnson has made headlines only because she interrupted the rally of a presidential candidate – a candidate who is seen as sympathetic to her cause.
When singer-songwriter Janelle Monae began to talk about Black Lives Matter and police brutality performance on NBC’s The Today Show, the producers cut her off. NBC still hasn’t posted the song “Hell You Talmbout,” which listed many of the victims of police brutality, on its website.
Women like Johnson and Monae, and others, innovatively created and participated in a movement that is both inclusive and very specific in mission. This is some serious black girl magic. Why don’t we hear about them more often?
Social media plays a huge role in the way that this movement has delivered its message and gathered a following. The movement has spread its message primarily through what is referred to as “Black Twitter,” a forum of black people on social media weighing in on social to political issues. Black Twitter has brought a great deal of attention to the female victims and combats the one-noted narrative that is often portrayed, if portrayed at all. One particular campaign that has gained steam has been #SayHerName — a push to combat the silencing of female activists and victims. Through the SayHerName hashtag, people post articles on female victims such as Rekia Boyd and bring attention to the activism surrounding her death. Where national media has failed these victims, social media, in particular Black Twitter, has taken up the narratives and proved to be a place where their stories can be filled in and released from the box.
As feminism plays a key role in the advocacy component of #blacklivesmatter, one might wonder where mainstream feminism fits in. There is an abundance of participation in Black Lives Matter from different communities of color, but rarely have I heard or read anything from the white feminist lot. Where are their voices of support? Don’t they also value black (women’s) lives?
The other day I saw two white women wearing black lives matter shirts and found myself taken aback. I realized it was the first time I had seen a white woman advocate in this manner. While it was great, it reminded me of how often white feminists leave their sisters in the dust when racial issues come into play. Even from a quick scroll through the hashtags on social media, it’s apparent that white feminists are not speaking out as much as they should about female victims of police brutality.
That said, it is important that everyone, men and women, come together on the issue of police brutality. Unfortunately, there has been some pushback from the campaign nationally. Critics have called for #alllivesmatter. However, others argue that this detracts from the black identity in this movement. Hashtags associated with #blacklivesmatter include #BlackTransLivesMatter and #BlackDifferentlyAbledLivesMatter in awareness of the intersectionality and diversity within black identity. While diverse, the black identity is never dropped from the conversation. It takes away from the very point of the discourse: that it is black lives that are being devalued. Addressing the point an interview with Feminist Wire, Garza states:
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement black poverty and genocide is state violence…And the fact is that the lives of black people — not ALL people — exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.
As people continue to push against the Black Lives Matter movement with the All Lives Matter ideology, others will continue to counter their ridiculous arguments. One of these people is outspoken activist and actor Jesse Williams (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) who posted on his Instagram a meme that depicted a burning house next to a house that was perfectly fine.
The meme takes a jab at the movement and makes the point that yes, all lives do matter … but to talk about the black lives that are being threatened under dire conditions doesn’t undermine the lives of others.
Ironically, it seems the only time that All Lives Matter comes into play is when it is countering the Black Lives Matter movement. I have yet to see the All Lives Matter movement actually advocate for any victims of police brutality. The All Lives Matter argument is a distraction — an annoying, divisive distraction at that.
I hope, as the Black Lives Matter movement moves forward, there is a continual drive to see, in the national media outlets, a more varied portrayal of the women involved in this movement.
I hope that justice for the countless female victims stays vital.
I hope that a light can shine on some of the black girl magic that I see every day.
I hope for a quite a lot of things and I love to see the innovative social media work being done on Twitter, Instagram, and countless websites like Blavity, Colorlines, Tea & Breakfast, and Madison365.
Despite my sometimes pessimistic nature, I stay optimistic as people continue to fight the good fight.