To Be Free: The Revolutionary Movement for Black Lives

This week we’re revisiting selections from our 2016 series ‘With Love and Respect: #ScholarsRespond to A Vision for Black Lives,’ edited by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi. Today we’re featuring an essay by Trimiko Melancon. 

Black Lives Matter march in Portland (Matthew Roth/Flickr)

Black folks have long fought and mobilized historically in struggles and resistance movements to demand that the U.S—“the land of the free and home of the brave”—fulfill in deed and action its professed commitment to one of its founding principles: the idea of “freedom and justice for all.” For centuries, blacks have debated the very notion of freedom and what it means to be free.

In 1967, legendary singer-activist Nina Simone recorded “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” This civil rights anthem at its very core operated as anti-racist protest and equal rights lyricism while simultaneously articulating various desires to be free, “break chains,” and eliminate “bars that keep us apart.” What it expresses is a desire for (black) liberation, equality, and freedom not as merely aspirational, discursive or abstract, but through a knowingness—“to know how it feels”—from experience and practice both real and actualized.

Since August 1, when the Movement for Black Lives released its “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,” it has been easy to recognize a similar sensibility and, in turn, an extensive, comprehensive delineation of what “to be free” looks like on a fundamental level and what it entails to dismantle structural racism, disparities, and systems of oppression. In this regard, Black Lives Matter’s platform emblematizes a contemporary movement advocating for and demanding that those inalienable rights and freedoms—the very notion of “how it feels to be free” in both the visceral and constitutional sense—should and, indeed, must extend to all people.

Comprised of a coalition of more than 60 organizations ranging from the Black Youth Project 100Project South, and Dream Defenders to Race ForwardMillion Hoodies Movement for Justice and the Center for Third World Organizing, among others, the Movement for Black Lives is impressive. Not only in its shear collaborative efforts as a fortified coalition, but also in the extensive nature of its platform geared strategically and methodically toward model legislation, policies, and collective vision and action vis-à-vis six fundamental, interconnected policy demands: (1) ending the war on black people, (2) reparations, (3) invest-divest, (4) economic justice, (5) community control, and (6) political power. Collectively, these challenge and attempt to dismantle the deeply entrenched structural, institutional, and environmental racism and systemic oppression to improve all black lives—queer, trans, and cis—as well as Americans and marginalized people around the world. These far-reaching demands have impact and implications domestically and globally.

While each is significant individually, together, they offer a model for the collective liberation, empowerment—political, economic, social—and transformation needed to remedy historical and contemporary effects and manifestations of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racial apartheid, colonialism, and other legally sanctioned crimes against black people and their humanity. And, perhaps far more revolutionary, it provides a blueprint for policy and demands to illuminate what freedom looks like beyond empty rhetoric. As such, it demands the end of the dehumanization, violence against, killing, criminalization, mass incarceration, and inadequate education of black folks (overrepresented in the prison industrial system and school-to-prison pipeline); reparations and investments, such as free education for blacks, fair and equitable housing, and access to quality health, universal healthcare, food, and natural resources; restructuring of the economy and taxes (in codes and laws), as well as trade, to ensure financial and economic justice and redistributive investments in black communities (and banks) while, in turn, simultaneously achieving self-determination and control over black and community schools, “local budgets, police departments, and…land.”

In essence, the demands call for the de-stigmatization and decriminalization of black youth (and black people generally), drugs, and sex work, the demilitarization of the police, “de-corporatization” of schools and education, among other dynamics. The demands advocate, instead, for community-based medical and mental health intervention and drug treatments, universal health care and living wages as well as educational, food, environmental, and restorative justice and equality. Equally important, it charts a path for political vitality and agency to challenge the current broken political system to ensure democratic and political power for blacks and all marginalized and vulnerable people, working class and impoverished; queer, trans, and gender non-conforming, the formerly incarcerated and those differently-abled as well as girls and women, among others.

Essentially, it impacts America at large.

What the demands do is not only expand the activist and political work of Black Lives Matter but also evidences with the utmost transparency that this is far more than a movement. “A social movement that only moves people is,” as Martin Luther King Jr. asserts, “merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” And, that is precisely what the Movement for Black Lives seeks to do in its demands to institutionalize freedom and democratize justice. That is revolutionary.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Trimiko Melancon

Trimiko Melancon is Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Rhodes College. She is the author of 'Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation,' and the co-editor of 'Black Female Sexualities' with Joanne Braxton with a foreword by Melissa Harris-Perry. She was an inaugural fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics at Tulane University. Follow her on Twitter @trimikomelancon,