Black Lives Matter.
I know there are people who will not read on after seeing these words. Black Lives Matter is a statement that has become political and polarizing even though it is not intended to be either. As far as I can tell, it is only political if you’ve never had to phrase these words as a question while looking in a mirror and is only polarizing if the concept of black life mattering is foreign to you. Black Lives Matter is a challenging concept if in fact black life has not mattered in your own life regardless of the color of your skin.
As more and more white people take up the mantle of Black Lives Matter, I will caution that these are words that must not fall into slogan. It cannot become “Black Lives Matter ™ Brand” justice. Over the last few years and recently again, I have seen groups of well meaning white folks with signs on street corners emblazoned with these words “Black Lives Matter”…and people as they pass by in their cars, honking their horns in affirmation. That’s nice. I guess it makes them feel good. But this feels a little bit too much like advertising for a political candidate or worse a local car wash.
Black Lives Matter is not a slogan or a catch phrase or a candidate or a church fundraiser. It is a statement of fact that has been historically and legally denied. It is a declaration of defiance against a system that legislates inequity. Most importantly, Black Lives Matter is a non-sectarian prayer for full humanity and it deserves reverence and a proper place in our consciousness.
Representative John Lewis understood this. His last public act was meeting Mayor Muriel Bowser at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. There, he was pictured by D.C. photographer and creative director Gary Williams, Jr. in a space of deep contemplation, a lone figure, one of the last survivors of the last great era of racial reckoning. The iconic pictures of that moment capture him ready to pass the flame, something we couldn’t have known yet, though likely, he did. He is reverent because he knows that the words at his feet contain the promise, the desire and the expectation for racial equality in the United States…something he lived his whole life working for.
And, most personally for him, those words carry blood. They carry his blood shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other places. They carry the blood of generations of children born of enslaved rape and the mothers who survived that nightmare. They carry the blood of men who went to war in segregated armies to defend a nation that would never defend their humanity. They carry the blood of the future activists, politicians, teachers and health workers that will live a promise and a dream that none of us can imagine today.
We must not ever forget that the story of blackness in the United States is one of embodiment. It is the black body that is incarcerated, sexualized, mis-gendered, beaten, starved, excluded from medical care, impeded, uneducated and unemployed. But it is a towering figure like John Lewis who taught us about the power, resilience and magic of our black bodies with his own black body and proved that the black body no matter how badly beaten, was born to survive. Blackness is black bodied-ness. And so, no matter how political or polarizing one wants to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” they will always come back to the basic fact that they are words which are inherently connected to flesh, tears, breath and blood.
Black Lives Matter is a living prayer for black bodies.
I know that as he stood there on that plaza seeing those bright yellow words, John Lewis held them in his heart and prayed. He prayed for peace. He prayed for justice. He prayed for the safety of those to whom he would hand the torch. And I know he prayed for all of the black bodies before and after him that are born into those words.