The language of liberation: Black Lives Matter symposium

Disaster is understandable for black lives—they are antagonists in a narrative of humanity written to serve white supremacy. To say "black lives matter" is to interrupt this story.

The Black Lives Matter movement that has unfolded in cities and on campuses across the nation is writing a new chapter in black people’s struggle for liberation. We asked writers to reflect on what the movement has accomplished, where its energies should be focused, and what implications it has for churches. (Read all responses.)

Coretta Scott King said, following the death of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” A look at the past 60 years proves the veracity of her words. Whether the phrase was “freedom now,” “black is beautiful,” “black power,” or “black lives matter,” historically they’ve referred to the same goal of liberation. The slogans are permutations of the enduring struggle against white supremacy. That struggle is not against the police, but it does address a racist, classist legal system.

The struggle is not against white people, yet it recognizes that the privileges afforded to whites began with the attribution of full humanity to white men only. The slogans that invoke the struggle for liberation are emblematic of an enduring problem: ongoing doubtfulness about black humanity. Are black people fully human? Black humanity has remained suspect in the imagination of “a world that looks on with amused contempt and pity” (to quote W. E. B. Du Bois). This “watching world” claims an authoritative voice, defining the dominant understanding of human life for black people as well as whites.