FROM ROMANCE TO REALITY
There may be a few places in the world where people have not heard the sentence "Black Lives Matter" in any language. The sentence is a prototype for many variations on the theme of "mattering," for riffs that have appeal and utility in discordant contexts. The sentence is poignant. It reverberates with urgency and necessity. In the United States of America, it reminds us that many versions of our history encourage us to minimize, to never know, or to conveniently forget what matters. Our instinctive responses to life ( how we might behave in a state of nature) can be compromised by social constructions of reality. That fact is inevitable.
"Black Lives Matter" is an unavoidable accusation. The fact that American citizens need to hear it is a mark of shame, a signal that economic violence and moral turpitude are innate in our experiments with democracy. The more it is repeated, the more it becomes, like the familiar phrase "the pause that refreshes," a tiresome slogan. Can it be made more appealing by rewriting the sentence as "Black Lives Have Always Mattered"? No. The greater specificity makes matters worse.
The gravity of the situation is highlighted by the publication of
Oyewole, Abiodun, ed. Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives. New York: 2Leaf Press, 2017.
Like Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (Durham, NC: Jacar Press, 2016), edited by Tony Medina and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race ( New York: Scribner, 2016 ), edited by Jesmyn Ward, this anthology expands the body of literature which pertains to race and institutionalized death (militant, selective police brutality and criminalization) in our nation. The classic guidebook for reading the formation of American subjectivities dealt with in these anthologies is Abdul R. JanMohamed's The Death-Bound-Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). The importance of Oyewole's anthology, it might be argued, should be more seriously accounted for in the history of black writing than in the history of black literature. The nuanced difference overshadows theory and semantics. One history exists in the panopticon of academic praxis; the other, in the totality where life has always mattered most painfully. This juxtaposition draws our attention to the simultaneous motions of "history" and what matters as process and recording, to the profound difficulties of cognition and consciousness of being American.
Consider the consequences of reading Black Lives Have Always Mattered against a narrative "stereotyped" in 1859 by John F. Weishampel, Jr., bookseller and publisher in Baltimore, namely the work of Rev. Noah Davis, who committed himself to
"RAISE SUFFICIENT MEANS TO FREE HIS LAST TWO CHILDREN FROM SLAVERY./ Having already, within twelve years past, purchased himself, his wife, and five of his children, at a cost, altogether of over four thousand dollars"
"he now earnestly desires a humane and christian public to AID HIM IN THE SALE OF THIS BOOK, for the purpose of finishing the task in which he has so long and anxiously labored."
One valuable consequence of such an act of reading is transformative recognition of why one hundred and fifty-eight years after the publication of Davis's narrative, all Americans are still purchasing their lives from something and somebody. History is eternally cruel. As Abiodun Oyewole suggests in his introduction, Black Lives Have Always Mattered "offers a thorough insight into the lives, dreams, aspirations, victories and defeats of black people in America. Considering the times we're living in these days, this anthology should serve as a mental compass for how we value ourselves and each other, and ways in how we manifest our destiny" (3). If the anthology succeeds in convincing a number of readers that a humane and Christian public in the United States of America neither exists nor intends to help them, it shall have produced reasonable rather than thorough insight about what matters.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. May 25, 2017