RELENTLESS READING MATTERS
Lebron, Christopher J. The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Lebron's book is eloquent, refreshingly readable, philosophically nuanced, and profoundly troubling. It is "radical" in a judicious sense of that word, because it exposes roots. We commend his turning back to the rootedness in the writings of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde. His argument is superbly constructed and provocative, an excellent invitation for a reader to confess her or his prejudices in concert with Lebron's confession of his own preferences.
Lebron uses James Baldwin's moral compass with greater precision than Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it in Between the World and Me, and that fact magnifies both the necessity and the horror of a reader's making cultural and political choices. Coates allows us to eavesdrop as he saturates his son with advice, straight out of his private agon with black masculinity. Lebron addresses his readers directly, straight out of his need to articulate his investment in moral philosophy. He forces them to dwell on the vaporous efficacy of Baldwin's compass and to question why , in the last decade or so, Baldwin is so frequently referenced in discourses on race and moral correctness and so seldom mentioned in robust, unromantic discussion of Realpolitik. If a reader is honest and admits that she or he is guided more by the political wisdom or pragmatism of Machiavelli and by the logic of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals than by always delayed Biblical platitudes and promises, he or she will live with bracing discontent during and after reading Lebron.
Lebron's accounting for the history of an idea is scholarly. It is responsible, but it's a little short of being the corkscrew of specificity that non-academic participants might need to shape a constellation of emotive responses (i.e., #BlackLivesMatter ) into the black hole of a viable movement. We might suspect academic readers will be happy with how the book puts them in conversation (to use threadbare jargon), puts them in a safe, evasive conversation with people they would never invite to dinner. Only an inattentive reader would miss the class biases in Lebron's rhetorical gestures. Thus, The Making of Black Lives Matter stands as an example of our need to transform language into actions which reduce the death-inviting risk of being respectable, magnanimous, and morally correct all the time. Failure to channel resentment sufficiently is the book's venial flaw.
Lebron is forthright in his introduction about his motives for writing. He desires "to provide the philosophical moorings of #BlackLivesMatter," and he tries "to contribute to our moment by bringing to bear the forefathers and foremothers of black American social and political thought on an urgent claim: that black Americans are humans, too" (xiii). His aim is to provide just that analytic narrative "we need to fully appreciate the depth of 'black lives matter' " (xv). STOP. In confronting the unavoidable messiness of inter-racial and intra-ethnic features of intellectual histories, readers must ask to whom "we" actually refers in the unfolding of the book. RESTART.
The structure of Lebron's unfolding is fascinating. He begins Chapter 1 (American Shame and Real Freedom) with timely remarks on the writings of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. He moves in Chapter 2 (Cultural Control against Social Control: The Radical Possibilities of the Harlem Renaissance) to refreshingly intelligent albeit debatable commentary on Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston and the characteristics of the era of the New Negro. He focuses on "the present uses of black urban performance to make a stand for social progress and then goes back to a foundationalist moment in black arts and letters ---the Harlem Renaissance" (xvi). It is not original for Lebron to contend that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is an act of rebellion, an act that may have forecast the making of revolutionary lemonade. It is original for him to not consider that Lamar's performance may not be quite so free as it seems, particularly in light of how an overwhelmingly non-black entertainment industry manipulates consumers, and it is likewise original that he directs no attention to the lessons Harold Cruse taught in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967)about how myopic the Harlem Renaissance was with regard to social control or to the lessons Houston A. Baker, Jr. taught two decades later in his extended essay Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) regarding cultural control. The idea of "renaissance" or "rebirth" is far too central an issue in what matters about black life to avoid swiping cognitive fingers over its jagged grains.
Lebron does a better job of according due diligence to gender and sexuality in Chapter 3 (For Our Sons, Daughters, and All Concerned Souls) by way of examining the arguments and struggles of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, dwelling appropriately on their groundbreaking work. He set the stage for more sustained inquiry about what is groundbreaking and exceptionally relevant for #BlackLivesMatter in the writings of Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, Mari Evans, Angela Y. Davis, and numerous other writer/activists for whom lives mattered/matters tremendously.
Chapter 4 (Where Is the Love? The Hope for America's Redemption) deals fairly with the ideas of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the painful moral assessment that begs to be made of what Dylann Storm Roof did on June 17, 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Even if one concedes that Lebron is fair in dealing with the ideas of agape and philia, the chapter leaves a most agonizing question without an answer: Does Malcolm X matter so little in philosophical mooring and concern for love and redemption that he receives only scant mention on pages 119-120, 122? The absence speaks volumes about our needs and the contours of Lebron's thinking.
Chapter 5 (The Radical Lessons We Have Not Yet Learned) directs us to black conservative arguments (Thomas Sowell, Randall Kennedy and black respectability politics, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter) in order to alert us "to the need for a refreshed black radical politics" (129). Lebron rings the alarm bell gingerly, however, because he writes nary a word about a premature forgetting of lessons in radical politics created by Cornel West! He does give us an indirect clue about why there may be no space for West in the kind of intellectual history he wants to write. He uses what he calls the mechanics of Nietzsche's accusations about ressentiment to critique errors in conservative discussions of #BlackLivesMatter. It might be argued that Nietzsche was a quintessential pragmatist, and mentioning West would make it necessary to comment on The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989) and West's conviction that a deep investment in pragmatism is essential for a revolution in American society and culture. Such notice would deconstruct what Lebron seems to want us to remember about reform, reforming, and what matters.
In the coda (Afterword: Nobody's Protest Essay) , Lebron most accurately predicts how many of us will misread his unfolding of intellectual history.
The most likely misreading of this essay --- and likely due to some fault in my presentation --- is that I am ultimately calling for black Americans to turn the other cheek, but really, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, it is me trying to make my anger more intelligent and precise, and nothing has ever been more destabilizing to the status quo than that ---the discipline to smile to keep a conversation going just so you may ultimately win the argument rather than storm off without the goods you came for in the first place….
If the discipline is well-honed then we also come to realize when it's really revolution time, which is something quite opposite from turning the other cheek. (164)
Lebron gives us one frame of reference for critical thinking about what Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi set flowing in 2013 under the sign of #BlackLives Matter, but it may be necessary to misread the frame in order to take appropriate action. Like Baldwin, Lebron insists on believing "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice" (159). Lebron does not incorporate Amiri Baraka's 2001 poem "Somebody Blew Up America" in his discussion of what it is essential for us to know, but that evidence of what is not seen in his text doesn't provide reason to believe the status quo he would destabilize is still standing. When we read The Making of Black Lives Matter relentlessly, we recognize the arc of the moral universe bends toward chaos and the status quo in the United States of America is a dystopian wasteland, the civility of philosophy notwithstanding.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 23, 2017