A Hashtag, A Movement, A State of Mind

Black Artists On #BlackLivesMatter

“We ain’t big enough to do it by ourselves.”
– Mrs. Chinn, Coming of Age in Mississippi

“When we all become Black Lives Matter, this movement will be impossible to stop.”
– Jacinda Townsend, author

Slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers said that “you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” As NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others take knees during the national anthem, we turn to MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — a rebuttal against critiques of Movement methods — to rebut those critiquing protest today. Millions of school children and adults have read and listened to MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. The rhetoric makes people think, feel. This is the power our resistance writers have to extend the reach of activists, to create internal shifts.

But I can’t forget Movement activist Anne Moody’s review of Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington speech in her 1968 autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi. She was fresh out of the trenches. Her face was on a KKK handbill. Other faces, such as that of Mr. Evans, had been crossed out. This is what Moody recounted:

I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover that we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton, we never had time to sleep, much less dream.

The soldier wanted tactics and strategy. But eventually, Moody, too, would write. And the results live on until this day.

I recently re-read Anne Moody’s bravura Coming of Age in Mississippi. Published with an excerpt of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s New York Times Book Review praise as back cover blurb, Moody wrote in brutally candid terms of her childhood, of school days, of household service to whites, and of putting her life on the line, every day, for the Movement.

I can’t overstate the effect Moody’s book had on my understanding of American history. Not until I read her memoirs of Jim Crow Mississippi did I understand that separate bathrooms and water fountains were the tip of the iceberg. Black people, especially Black young people, rose up against a system of economic strangulation that used murder and violence to suppress dissent. Not until I read Moody’s book did I apprehend to what degree white terrorism choked Black lives.

Blacks in Anne Moody’s Centreville would be killed, hurt, or run out of town if they resisted the status quo. Black youth resisted in counties where mere mention of the NAACP could get Blacks fired or worse. Moody wrote in detail about her Jackson sit-ins and her work for CORE. She’d nearly go hungry when working a voter registration drive in ultra-dangerous Canton, where organizers survived on donations and Black residents were scared to support their efforts. She did this as her mother begged her in tear-stained letters for her to leave the state, that everyone in her family risked mob assault and death because of her activism.

Near the end of the book, Moody returned to Canton to find a woman who was once a powerful supporter of the young activists in terrible despair. Her name was Mrs. Chinn, and she said these words:

If I were you and didn’t have no ties to Canton, I wouldn’t waste no time here. Looka here, alla that work we put into that march and McKinley almost beaten to death and things are worse than they were before. These niggers done went into hiding again, scared to stick their heads outta the door. [Her husband] C.O.’s in jail [after getting his business shut down due to his support of the activists], them goddamn cops coming by my house every night, just about to drive me crazy. This ain’t the way, Anne. This just ain’t the way. We ain’t big enough to do it by ourselves.

The autobiography ended with a weary Anne Moody catching a bus full of activists en route to Washington DC to testify at a hearing. They would tell the world what was really happening on the front lines. Public appeals to government officials remain a powerful way to build support and make allies. Another powerful way, maybe more so, is to write. Write the story. Write the arguments. Because Moody wrote her story, I grew as an activist. I aligned closer with our struggle. When I first heard the words “Black Lives Matter” I said, of course, yes. I added the hashtag to my tweets. And when I saw young BLM activists in the streets, I cheered them, and vowed to be of support as best as I could.

The first time I understood my place in this movement was years before it had a name, in the summer of 2007, while I was living in New Albany, Mississippi. One weekend, I drove to Memphis to attend a service at Rev. Al Green’s church. I got the time wrong and came too late. I headed to the National Civil Rights Museum instead.

Three museum memories stick with me. The Lorraine Motel suddenly no longer a black and white photo, with room 306 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left it on April 4, 1968. The Greyhound bus replica with its roof blown open, the result of being firebombed while transporting Freedom Riders. And the replica of the Birmingham jail cell from where Dr. King wrote his famous letter.

I remember standing there, looking at Dr. King’s cell. I feared going to jail. I feared jailors who became torturers and killers. Then I read MLK’s letter posted on the wall and I was ashamed. I shifted inside. I didn’t want to be arrested, ever, but I accepted there were justified reasons and I mustn’t run if my turn came.

Now it’s 2016. #BlackLivesMatter are three words in a hashtag. Black Lives Matter is a decentralized coalition of chapters and organizations peopled by anyone willing to participate. Wherever you see the name of the movement co-founded by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, you see a declaration of fact that for centuries was denied by US law. Some Americans see “Black lives matter” in any context and see threat—the way so many of us are dangerous just by existing in our skins, swathed by myth and meaning not of our own making.

Three Words: Black Lives Matter

 In 2014, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not-guilty of second degree murder. Americans grieved for the deceased Trayvon Martin and justice denied—or, they cheered the outcome and justified Zimmerman’s actions. In her grief, Alicia Garza wrote a Facebook post on justified Black anger. She ended the note with the words “Black Lives Matter.” Her friend Patrisse Cullors added a “#”, creating a hashtag.

Soon #BlackLivesMattter flashed across our social media feeds nationwide. As Americans protested in the streets, and more people added those words to placards and tweets, the phrase mainlined itself into our consciousness. So much so that in 2016, presidential candidates have been judged on their willingness to say those words, and it is newsworthy when an NFL football player or baseball choral group gives the retort of “All Lives Matter.”

But what meanings do the words conjure? And how is the phrase, and movement, affecting our body politic?

American Black poets and writers have always played critical roles in the Black liberation struggle. Yet there has always been a push-pull between writers, activists, and the best way forward. Our writings preserve history, illuminate the present, and imagine the future. Writers have led the resistance since our first poems and narratives on these shores. But does this mean Black writers need to be activists?

I asked writers Claudia Rankine, Kiese Laymon, Jericho Brown, Jacinda Townsend, Mahogany L. Browne, Ashaki Jackson, Khadijah Queen, and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs about the impact of Black Lives Matter on their lives. We spoke about pushback, about what winning would look like. We also spoke about the responsibility writers have – and don’t have – in this struggle.

When poet Claudia Rankine sees any reference to #BlackLivesMatter, she immediately thinks of the faces of unarmed Black men, women and children killed in our streets, or whose lives were lost while in police custody. “I find it hard to separate #BlackLivesMatter from Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Philandro Castile,” said Rankine, author of Citizen. “All their deaths exist together.  Whenever I see the hashtag I immediately see those faces. They come forward in one instantaneous gesture.”

Rankine, who wrote extensively on the Black Lives Matter movement in her essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” did not remember the first times she heard or read the phrase Black Lives Matter. “That is indicative of how important and ubiquitous the movement has become in the culture. It has fallen into my imagination as something that has always existed because it accounts for all time.”

Important and ubiquitous indeed. “I’ve been talking to people of my age group, who grew up in the 80s and the fucked-up 90s,” said Kiese Laymon, author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. “It’s the first large-scale liberation movement of our lifetime. We haven’t seen a Black freedom/liberation movement that has progressive dynamics at its core. Black Lives Matter is such a dope sentence because it says Black Queer Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, too. It hits home.”

“Black Lives Matter is such a bold proclamation into the face of what is,” said Laymon. “That affirmative thrust. Could have been Black Lives Don’t Matter. You knew it was going to catch on, not just because of extra-judicial killing of people, but because of substandard housing, health care. Because Black lives don’t matter.”

“#BlackLivesMatter is stating a fact that’s often dismissed or ignored in practice,” said poet Khadijah Queen, author of Fearful Beloved. “I think it’s poetic. It’s a soundbite. Without it, I think it would be hard to focus attention on police brutality.”

Queen first heard about #BlackLivesMatter when she was with her mother and teenaged son in New Jersey in 2014. The St. Louis County grand jury refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. “The non-indictment was hard to take,” said Queen. “My brother was killed by cops in the 1970s.” But Queen was heartened by the phrase and the movement: “I thought it was something we could all get behind.”

Poet Mahogany L. Browne, who with Amanda Johnston, Jonterri Gadson, Jericho Brown, and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe co-founded #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, a Tumblr site featuring poets reading work that speaks to the struggle, was also inspired. “Black Lives Matter, a discussion begat by Black women, felt like a chant to my blood,” said Browne. “It’s powerful because it allows an older generation of protest to gather, support and witness the younger generation’s verbiage fortify and continue upon the foundation they assembled.”

Browne spoke of #BLM’s connection to the broader community of resistance: “It serves as a movement for many discussions and actions from different organizations in our communities. Dream Defenders, Baltimore Uprising, BlackOut Collective, NYJustice League, NY Hoods for Justice & BYP100: All necessary organizations, each with a focus on equality and justice for Black lives in our nation.”

Jacinda Townsend was not initially impressed with #BlackLivesMatter. “When the phrase first came out, I thought it was so milquetoast. Couldn’t we pick a better phrase?” said Townsend, author of Saint Monkey. “But it made people so angry. Then I knew.”

Townsend was an active protester against police brutality in the 1990s and credits video as a major reason the movement now is gaining traction. But she also credits the movement’s structure. “Black Lives Matter is amorphous and that’s better than a top-down movement. There’s little hierarchy, and only recently is there a platform. I don’t think of Black Lives Matter as a great entity. More of a state of mind.”

“When we all become Black Lives Matter,” said Townsend, “this movement will be impossible to stop.”

Pushback, Misreadings, and the “Terrorist” Label

 Call it a sign of how far we’ve come: Beyonce sang “Formation” at the 2015 Superbowl, a performance brimming with Black pride and militancy imagery and she was not blackballed from every American stage. Then note how far we have not come: police unions, agitated by the Black Panther-presenting dancers and the Formation video’s image of Beyonce on the sunken NOPD cruiser, are boycotting paid off-duty jobs at Beyonce events.

In America, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that all acts of Black resistance meet pushback and misunderstanding. Throughout history Blacks who’ve organized or even hinted at resistance have been lynched, run out of town, or blackballed out of employment. Today, Black Lives Matter activists face police aggression and demonization as they’re called terrorists and cop-killers. In the immediate aftermath of police killings in New York, Dallas and Baton Rouge, the Black Lives Matter movement was singled out for blame. If they weren’t directly responsible, the thinking went, they created the atmosphere that inspired bloodshed.

Some critics claim that Black Lives Matter is a hate group, but this claim couldn’t be further from the truth. If you spend time with their mission statement, you’ll find all Black lives affirmed. You’ll find the word “conversation.” You’ll find critiques of state-sanctioned violence. What you will not find are calls to violence. Now flip through the imagery you have of protests across the nation — roads and bridges closed, confrontations with law enforcement. How you interpret what you see has much to do with how you personally define aggression. I will see police officers in full riot gear as overtly militarized and aggressive. But others will see the women and men who stop traffic as the aggressors, even if it’s their strategic way to non-violently call attention to grievance.

In July 2016, a person identified as Y.S. submitted a call to “formally recognize Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization” to the White House “We the People” petition system. The petition exceeded its signature goal of 100,000, attracting 141,444. The White House dismissed the request, calling for understanding. Yet the White House response triggered a round of news stories that put “Black Lives Matter” in the same sentence as “terrorism.”

To be labeled a “terrorist” is not insignificant. We are the country that still holds men accused of terrorism at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a site of indefinite imprisonment without trial. Electeds push for stripping citizenship from American born suspects accused of terrorism. No punishment seems too extreme for someone pushed to this category of threat to be eliminated.

Unfortunately, calling Black freedom fighters “terrorists” is as old as the first rebellion of enslaved people against slaveholders in America. “I think it’s an attempt to discredit and distract a conversation about genocide,” said Mahogany L. Browne. “And because of its divisiveness it attempts to erase the accountability of our government.”

“‘Terrorist’ is one of those terms that evokes fear and makes one feel under siege,” said Ashaki Jackson, author of the chapbook Surveillance, whose subject is police brutality videos. “We all need the sensibility of writers and their attention to semantics. I think the public haphazardly uses terms without considering their appropriateness. There’s a difference between a white male committing mass murder in a public space, which evokes terror; a suicide bomber following through with some grave misinterpretation of religious doctrine, which is equally terrifying; and a group of people protesting to eliminate an often-fatal disparity in policing.”

“They want to call people standing around, singing songs, stopping traffic, terrorists?” asked Jericho Brown. “The fact that there’s room for misconstruing the movement at all? I think that’s dumb.” When Kiese Laymon named the smears that Black Lives Matter activists must push back against, “cop-killing” immediately came up, given how quickly Black Lives Matter was blamed after police officers were killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge. “Black Lives Matter has never talked about cop-killing,” said Laymon. “The idea that Black Lives Matter encourages police murder is anti-Black and fucked up, and shows the way that we devalue the work of radical Black women.”

“All Lives Matter”

But #BLM critics don’t need to go so far as to call activists terrorists. They can use what has become the all-purpose retort: “All Lives Matter,” the phrase that allows the speaker to profess concern for all humanity and shut down discussions of injustice specific to Black people.

Both poet Jericho Brown and author Jacinda Townsend recalled times that a white person took advantage of a public interaction to tell them “All Lives Matter.”  While shopping, his “Black Lives Matter” wristband visible, Brown was offered a discount at a store. “As the salesperson rang up my purchase, she discreetly said ‘All Lives Matter.’ She gave me that discount just to say that?” Townsend’s experience was in a hair salon. “I was going to a white salon [in Indiana] to get my hair dyed and suddenly the colorist felt compelled to tell me — with the dye in my hair — ‘All Lives Matter.’ Now, what are you going to do when you’re in the chair like that?”

“I hear ‘All Lives Matter’ as an aggressive lack of understanding,” said Claudia Rankine. “This tendency, especially for whites, to say things like ‘why are we focusing on blackness when all humans are impacted’ is a sign of the white imagination’s insistence on the normality of a culture that has targeted Black lives from the beginning.”

Still, pushback can come from surprising places. “The most intellectual people can get really dumb when it comes to this movement,” said LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, author of Twerk. “They see it as excluding people. You began to hear Native Lives Matter, All Lives Matter or even White Lives Matter — a number of folks within these communities just did not get it or even wanted to. I began to hear folks publicly devalue this movement. And yet Black Lives Matter is inclusive of all people who’ve suffered atrocity at the hands of a white, racist system. Why are we comparing our suffering? These are not conversations I was having with white people but with other brown and Black people. People who I consider intellectual thinkers. All I could say was Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Have you read Pedagogy of the Oppressed? I’d repeat: Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is what the system does. It pits us against each other. By your very actions, the system works.”

Ashaki Jackson also spoke to belief that non-Blacks don’t come out for Black Lives Matter. “There is an assumption that BLM is solely supported by Black people, which is untrue. This is a lynchpin movement that will ultimately yield stronger policies that, in part, eliminate profiling, police brutality and the use of communities as banks for local law enforcement. Many people want to feel safe in public and private spaces but aren’t willing, or are unable to, devote the time to this change. These activists, who are from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, are doing the heavy lifting for all of us.”

A Writer’s Power, A Writer’s Responsibility

What responsibility do Black writers have to the rest of us, if any? Kiese Laymon had a few words for Black writers who remained mute: “I don’t think art is benign,” said Laymon. “I think art encourages, or discourages, abuses of power. I feel like I should be nuanced and shit, there’s so many ways to fight, but I’m not there as a person. I have so much judgment, so much shade, this gets me so angry.”

“There’s a lot of ways to bear witness,” continued Laymon. “But there’s people who are contemplating all of these ways and putting their bodies and art out there. We need to take turns. But literary writers? We fool ourselves that our little story is taking our turn.  I risk being prescriptive, but I know some of these writers look down on protest art. A lot of people eat well doing that. There’s a market for doing something with no bite to it.”

Laymon challenged black writers to be as brave and proactive as the street protestors: “I’m connected to a lot of people in Ferguson. Many don’t have college educations. They’re working at the cable company, or department stores. They were out there strategizing. And you’re telling me you have a pen, a computer, and you can’t do that? And you tell me protest art is bad art, that you don’t know what it’s like to be me? And cis-gender straight men who do milquetoast novels? I don’t have respect for that. That’s a waste of time and talent.”

“Your silence will not protect you,” said Mahogany L. Browne. “Listen to Sister Audre Lorde, instead of your fear.”

Jacinda Townsend also expressed frustration with writers she knew played safe for the sake of their careers: “I know some Black writers who have explicitly told me they won’t get involved publicly,” said Townsend. “They’re afraid to be attacked or defend themselves if attacked. They’re just trying to sell books. But who are they writing for?  I’m very disappointed by some people’s silence. No matter who you think your audience is, the people who are going to support you are understanding that you have to write this.”

Claudia Rankine, highly renown for speaking out about racial bias in academia and the rest of America, took exception to the idea that writers should be pushed to be political. “I think that creative writers should write what they want to write about,” said Rankine. “The culture will permeate what they write as it will. We can’t legislate the creative process anymore than we can morality. I don’t like thinking about responsibility when it comes to any creative endeavor. If we’re over here saying ‘we must be doing this’ or ‘we must address x’ we don’t know what we might have stumbled onto in our wanderings.”

Rankine used a documentary on AIDS-era activism as an example: “In United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, the 2012 film directed by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, the filmmakers did an incredible job of documenting the role of everyone involved. No type of involvement was privileged—some people were in the streets, some in offices of insurance companies, some doing research, some writing, and some directly caring for the dying. There are many ways people can be activists and probably the most proximate the approach is to one’s strengths the most effective the work will be.”

“I do feel, however, writers should want to know what is being repressed in their imagination,” said Rankine. “We want to get a point across and in doing this we allow certain narratives to survive at the cost of others. As a writer, I try to be sensitive to what I am pushing away or silencing in order to keep a line of inquiry central. How am I investing in and privileging the dominant narratives of white spaces within my own work? That is a question I try to ask myself.”

Khadijah Queen agreed that while no one could be forced to speak out, sitting on the sidelines was not for her. “I can’t tell people what to do,” said Queen. “You should do what you feel. But as Nina Simone said: how can you not reflect the times that you live in? It would feel wrong and irresponsible not to speak out against something that directly affects me and my family. Everybody should be able to pitch in. I come from a big family. If everyone’s cleaning and you’re sitting on the couch watching Soul Train, we’re going to say something to you.”

The “Black Lives Matter” Test

“If you can’t say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you don’t think Black lives matter,” said Jacinda Townsend. I can’t help but think of Townsend’s words as bedrock truth, and to be suspicious of those who want to add “but” or “if” or anything that might qualify those three words. But how much should we ask of our leaders, be them elected representatives or heads of professional societies? Is saying “Black Lives Matter” out loud an important and useful test? Or is this a way to give people cheap points without having much to show for it?

Claudia Rankine spoke to the issue of “Black Lives Matter” as political speech. “BLM has become shorthand for a form of recognition,” said Rankine. “Whether or not a person really believes in Black living, they understand they are getting credit for recognizing the importance of it when they say the phrase.”

Ashaki Jackson and Kiese Laymon argued that we can’t lose sight of the endgame. “The political arena has a vernacular that doesn’t always need to be true,” says Jackson. “It only needs to be convincing to the greater public. Black Lives Matter was not on Secretary Clinton’s mind when she began this election, and her history of support for policies that had adverse long-term outcomes on communities of color suggest that we haven’t been on her mind for quite awhile. BLM may be more of a non-factor to Donald Trump, but Senator Clinton’s insidious voting behaviors are much clearer indicators of non-support for the movement than her struggle to say the words. Don’t ask [candidates] to say things that are foreign to their practice. Time is much better spent correcting those policies that are set to damage communities.”

Kiese Laymon focused less on the words, more on the pressure, especially when it came to the presidential race. He spoke to his power as an oft-published opinion writer, and how to maximize it: “If I really support Hillary Clinton, I can’t write in the New York Times why I support her,” said Laymon. “It’s not important movement work. I’m going to use my speech to push her. When I get these spaces I have to push back against the dominant narrative.”

What Does Winning Look Like?

Inclusivity is a key structural feature of the Black Lives Matter movement. Several writers I interviewed, including Rankine, Laymon, and Townsend, took care to note how meaningful it was that this movement was started by three Black queer women and was purposely decentralized and, as Laymon pointed out, “Leader-full.”

To me this seems like an indicator of the beautiful possibilities for the future in Black Lives Matter. There is no winning in reproducing the same or worse circumstances for those who’ve been kept at the margins. There is nothing revolutionary about the perpetuation of heteronormative patriarchy, where Black women are expected to march behind Black men and queer Black men are asked to stay in the shadows.

I don’t want to live in terror. I don’t want any part of my society kept in an economic chokehold. Yet I know I do precious little visualizing of the world I think I’m fighting for. So I asked all of the writers: what does winning look like?

“I don’t think there is any winning,” said Claudia Rankine. “I think we’ll always be negotiating and failing each other for as long as individuals exist.”

“I’m unsure there is a ‘win,’” said Ashaki Jackson. “There is freedom, and there is motivation to maintain the freedom. It is not a zero sum game. I am fighting my parents’ fight. My parents fought their parents’ fight. To challenge systems of oppression is inheritance in this nation. That we have kept this momentum and effected change, is perhaps, the win.”

Jericho Brown and Khadijah Queen imagined winning as living without fear of state-sanctioned violence. “If I’m walking somewhere, I shouldn’t have to worry about cops shooting me, cops whose excuse will be ‘I got the call’ and we must protect [non-Black] people and property,” said Brown, author of The New Testament. “This is domestic terrorism,” said Queen. “Winning looks like people saying something when they see something.”

We could get closer to “winning,” Jericho Brown argued, if we could achieve a shared understanding of what is hurting Black people. “The real problem is that we don’t have a common definition of racism. We’re working on maybe two, maybe three, maybe sixteen definitions of racism.  For me, it’s working on a single definition. Racism is any system in which people are oppressed based on their race. Racism is any system that keeps white people from knowing about black people’s lives. We will keep going in circles until we come up with a common definition.”

“I’m a writer, so I just believe in articulating things that may not be possible,” said Kiese Laymon. “I don’t think there should be any black children in this country that don’t have an abundance of the best, healthy food; health care; and education with social justice.  Parents need the same access to food, health care, and loving radical education. I think second chances are crucial. How to undo the damage that’s been done to communities that didn’t get second chances and to compensate for lost time?”

Laymon suggested a powerful challenge for leaders, in government, and at home: “For a month, politicians should be asked to talk about what they have done that has hurt people. And then we do it on our own houses. I know I need this where I live, in my grandmama’s house, my mama’s house, and the White House. The question has to be: what have you done to contribute to the least having less? We can do better.”

In the meantime, Khadijah Queen offered this encouragement: “Writers are part of culture-making. When we publish and other people read it, we shape the culture. Even if you can’t go out and protest, if you can write something that makes them think in a way they wouldn’t before, your gift is in the culture-making, changing thinking on race, gender, and outdated beliefs.”

Evoking Victory

Maybe perpetual victory is impossible for humans to achieve. But as Khadijah Queen highlighted, there are moments of artistic victory, when creative people succeed in focusing their eyes, minds, and maybe hearts on the work that creates opening. We see evidence for this everywhere. Claudia Rankine’s critically-acclaimed bestseller Citizen is now in its fifteenth printing and was cited as one reason the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a “genius” Fellowship this year. There is also Ashaki Jackson’s Surveillance — with its proceeds going to Black Lives Matter — and the new anthology The Fire This Time, to which Kiese Laymon and Claudia Rankine contributed. We find victory in the tender storytelling in Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend, while #BlackPoetsSpeakOut contributors Mahogany L. Browne, Jericho Brown, and Khadijah Queen are regularly recording and resharing moments of victory for audiences around the world.

A notable live example was the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event at the New Museum in New York on September 1. Artist Simone Leigh sent out a call to women artists after the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “The response was overwhelming,” said LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, who participated. “Women went into action. They came from all different forms: poets, playwrights, choreographers, quilters, spiritualists, photographers, graphic designers, sculptors, etc. It was an emotional release. I hope I can speak for everyone when I say that we needed it.”

Diggs described how for one night, over one hundred Black women artists were centered at the New Museum, with performances and artwork outdoors, in the lobby, and the sky room. When I asked her about a lasting image of the night, she said: “Red. We were all in red. Red being love. Red being power. Red being energy. Red being rage. Red being resistance. Red being Rebellion. Red being Revolution. Red being our blood.”


What is the name of the violence they have learned?
What kind of love have they learned?
Why is it so terrifying when we love ourselves?

Silence Will Not Protect Us

“For many of us at The Offing, #BlackLivesMatter isn’t just a matter of principle. It is a matter of life and death...”

To Black Girls Everywhere

“There are letters to us about finding things and people, about how to lose other things and other people. There are books to us, prayers to us, for us.”