Arts BLM Book Club Muse

BLM Book Club: The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea

Pascale Hall looks at why education surrounding the BLM movement needs to start now.

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Image Credit: Oxford University Press, 2017

‘Black Lives Matter Book Club’ is a weekly series, designed  to complement the amazing work of the  UoY Black Lives Matter Book Club. The project was created and is run by UoY Amnesty International Society, Literature Society and Feminist Society. The focus of the project is on education and re-education. Each week, a member of the Book Club will be writing a review of that week’s content, allowing further analysis for anyone to engage with and to hopefully further promote the material and the book club too. Those wanting to join the book club can do so by following along on social media: @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram and Facebook.

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi following the tragic murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black boy, as he walked home from a convenience store in Florida. The acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman, a local neighbourhood watchman, sparked outrage both nationally and globally. Yet sadly, little has changed in the last seven years to reform the police institution. There is still a lack of sufficient legal accountability for police officers revealing, along with shocking racial bias in stop and search rates, that it is the criminal justice system itself that is inherently flawed and prejudiced.

The movement has gained momentum in the last few months following the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to name just a few of the many victims of recent police brutality. The attention, both on mainstream and social media, that these cases have garnered has caused many of us to question our government, society and institutions, and the racism that has been carried generationally within them. Systemic and systematic racism is of course not just an ‘American problem’ but something deeply ingrained in the UK as well. Beyond this, I know it has also led me to question the ways in which I have taken part in well-intended performative allyship which does little to effectively counter systemic problems.

That being said, I’m in no way implying that joining a book club is equivalent to counteracting systematic racism on the ground. Yet it is undeniable that in the fight for racial justice, education and re-education are an essential component, particularly through literature. This is especially true for those of us who have been scanning our minds, our bookshelves and our syllabuses only to come up with vague and whitewashed histories. This in itself is a systematic issue. Educating ourselves on Black history, on entrenched racism and its roots, and on intersectional issues whilst also putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes through fiction, are essential to giving us a more comprehensive view of the world, resulting hopefully in the change that is long overdue.

York Amnesty International Society, along with Literature Society and Feminist Society, have collaborated to create a community of re-education, the UoY BLM book club. It might not be a perfect reaction to the instances of anti-black racism globally but it can be a starting point in a process of understanding and demanding change. We are also keen to keep our ear on the ground to other campaigns and projects ongoing at the University, and would like to support them in any way we can.

We have planned out six weeks of initial material: a fortnight for each society delving into anti-racism, literature and intersectionality respectively. You can follow along on our social media platforms and join us for our weekly Zoom calls at 3 o’clock on Saturdays. You can also use our recommendations as your own starting point for resources on re-education. Almost all of these materials are available for free online or through Yorsearch (except for one Netflix documentary), and the library also has a great set of resources on Black Lives Matter available here: https://subjectguides.york.ac.uk/ld.php?content_id=33006069

The first book we read was The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History Of An Idea by Christopher J. Lebron (available through Yorsearch). Lebron’s message centres around the potency and intellectual history captured concisely in those three words: Black Lives Matter. He discusses the rhetoric and intellectual tradition that has constantly fought against the negation of those words in American society. Lebron begins each chapter with a modern story, an incident of violent anti-black sentiment, either systematic, systemic or individual, ranging from the degrading and cruel treatment of Sandra Bland, to John McGraw assaulting a protestor at a Trump rally.

Although these chapters begin with modern incidences of violent racism, the Black Lives Matter movement -  at least in its modern incarnation - is not the principal focus of the book. It goes beyond the inception of the movement itself to look at the ideological prehistory of the movement.  Delving into core thinkers on racial justice in America including Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, it pairs two figures together in each chapter and discusses their impact on the rhetoric of racial justice. It is by no means comprehensive but gives an insight into key intellectuals, artists, educators and activists that shaped the movement in the 20th century. From Douglass’ attempts to ignite the moral imagination of his audience and call to rectify the hypocrisy of America’s nascent institutions, to Audre Lorde’s focus on full self-possession of herself in all her identities. It discusses those who sought to counter the devaluation of black lives in America; the intellectual forefathers and mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Our non-reading accompaniment was Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th which looks into the corruption and racial bias of the American Justice system. This documentary is named after the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, except in the case of involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. It reiterates that black men and women are disproportionately represented in the prison population, and how this system in many ways perpetuates the legacy of slavery through prison labour. It discusses ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), and its role in allowing corporate interests to shape legislation and the massive expansion of the prison population in recent decades. It is an incredibly eye-opening documentary and a great introduction to understanding the systematic injustices inherent in the criminal justice system in the USA.

If you have any further questions you can email us at uoyblmbookclub@gmail.com

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