Reflections on #BlackLivesMatter, from Ferguson to Sproul

As #BlackLivesMatter protests erupted and spread across the country late last year — everywhere from Ferguson, Missouri, to Sproul Plaza — African American scholars at Berkeley asked themselves how they might contribute to the national conversation and support campus activists. Their answer, in part, is Insurgency: The Black Matter(s) Issue, a collection of short-form works recently published online, with a print version to follow soon.

Ianna Owen and Na'ilah Nasir

Ph.D. candidate Ianna Owen and Professor Na’ilah Suad Nasir (NewsCenter photo by Cathy Cockrell)

In the publication, a special edition of the Department of African American Studies periodical The Diaspora, campus scholars share their reflections — personal, poetic, analytical and historical by turns — “to help people think in different ways and more deeply about recent events,” says department chair Na’ilah Suad Nasir, who co-edited the issue with Ph.D. candidate Ianna Owen.

“The ‘ask’ was really open and porous,” Owen says of the call for short-form pieces on #BlackLivesMatter, which went out to graduate students and faculty on Dec. 13, in the midst of finals. By the deadline, a week later, many submissions had poured in; on Dec. 23 the issue launched online. “It’s exciting to see what people are capable of in the 11th hour,” says Owen.

“We were harnessing enthusiasm people had to be part of this,” adds Suad Nasir.

Close to home

In style and focus, responses ran the gamut. In “Ferguson Will Not Let Me Rest,” grad student Ameer Loggins reports on how the Twitterverse — which did not exist, for example, in 1992 when Rodney King’s beating by LA. police was caught on videotape — responded to events in Ferguson in 2014. Suad Nasir, a scholar of education, connects police killings of African Americans with “the way our educational system dampens the spirits and potential of Black kids…”

Owen critiques the often-heard retort that “all lives matter” — a “deceptive little revision” she writes, “…that beams with the false polish of inclusion.” Historian Ula Taylor traces the roots of #BlackLivesMatter to civil rights leader Ella Baker, who advocated for collective leadership and empowerment of the poor.

detail of art piece

“In Memoriam”: Cleveland resident Tanesha Anderson, killed by police in November 2014.

Several think out loud about protest actions on the Berkeley campus: black students’ Dec. 4 rally and occupation of The Golden Bear Café (in essays by graduate students Jarvis Givens and Charisse Burden), and a controversial art installation at Sather Gate that referenced the history of lynching (in associate professor Leigh Raiford’s “On Effigies and Elegies“).

“While talking about very specific local events,” says Owen, these “help us think about this broader #BlackLivesMatter movement.”

Historical lens

A number of the issue’s 20 essays offer historical context – harkening back to “400 years of insurgency in the kitchens, the prisons, the battlefields, the illegal spelling lessons” for black slaves, as the co-editors write in their introduction.

Professor emeritus Robert Allen shares memories of the murder, in Mississippi, of black teen Emmett Till in August 1955. Seeing grisly photos of Till’s unrecognizable body “marked the end of my innocence,” and served as “a wake-up call for black America,” he writes.

Doctoral student Essence Harden and collaborator Jihaari Terry contribute a large art piece, which superimposes, on words from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the names of 50 individuals murdered by white vigilantes or police officers in recent years. Details from “In Memoriam” structure the layout of the online issue.

An expanded print edition of Insurgency: The Black Matter(s) Issue — to include pieces by undergraduates and additional faculty, along with the content of the online version — is due out later this month. To request a free copy, email Ianna Owen (io at berkeley.edu).

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