Vol. XXIII, Issue 3 (Summer 2016): The Amistad and Civil Rights in the African Diaspora
Olayemi Akinwumi (South Africa)
For more information on AfricaUpdate
As we know, as many as half of the Africans brought to the Americas as captives landed in Brazil. Indeed, perhaps eight times as many Africans were brought to Brazil as to the British colonies of North America, and the early United States. Between about 1550 and 1856, perhaps 4.5 million Africans—from the Senegambia, from West Africa, from West Central Africa and Mozambique—landed in Brazil (as opposed to the number who left African shores). We know more and more about them because of the work of historians on four continents: North and South America, Africa and Europe. Historians of Africa Professor Emeritus Joseph Miller of the University of Virginia and Professor Emeritus Paul Lovejoy of York University’s Harriett Tubman Center, insisted to historians of the African Diaspora that they must conduct research in Africa rather than repeat ahistorical generalities. Out of these conversations grew UNESCO’s International Scientific Committee on the Slave Route and ASWAD, the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora. Collaborations among these and other historians of African History, the Atlantic Slave Trade and enslavement in the Americas have given us access to the lives of men, women and children caught up in the commerce in human flesh in a way never before possible.
Data is now more and more available. A group of scholars of the Middle Passage, led by Emeritus Professor of History at Emory University, David Eltis, gave us all a tremendous gift when they put the data from research careers spanning five decades on line in www.slavevoyages.org, a searchable database of every record of a ship bringing Africans to the Americas that they could find. Emerita Professor of History at Rutgers University Gwendolyn Midlo Hall gave an equally generous gift to the world with her website on Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy (1719-1820) built from decades of research in Louisiana documents (http://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/). At Vanderbilt, Professor Jane Landers, in collaboration with Professor Mariza Soares of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is building the
Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies Digital Archive (ESSS) (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/esss/index.php) that adds material every day and is also open to public use. At Michigan State, historian Walter Hawthorne is overseeing the development of a new research database that will allow for the development of biographies of Africans caught up in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
These collaborations also led to new approaches to the history of the African Diaspora. Research by Brazilian scholar João José Reis in court documents in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil revealed the complexities of the experiences of a group of Malês, West African Muslim men who worked on or near the docks of that port city in the 1830s. As he shows in Slave Rebellion in Brazil (Johns Hopkins, 1995), the definitive English language history of the topic, men who were enemies in their places of origin, could find common cause in common work rhythms and daily experiences that transcended captivity, freedom, religious and other differences. Reis had brought the methodology of E.P. Thompson to the study of a slave rebellion, with remarkable results.
This combination of new data and new approaches has produced marvelous new research. Scholars such as NYU’s Michael Gomez, Brown University’s Roquinaldo Ferreira, Notre Dame’s Mariana Candida and a host of others have taken these new approaches and new sources to study individuals and groups on both sides of the Atlantic. In a second Portuguese edition of Slave Rebellion in Brazil, Reis incorporated material from research in West Africa that showed clearly that the Bahian rebels had been enemies in Africa. He has followed up that research by working with colleagues to produce two new biographies of Africans caught up in the slave trade. Amistad Studies have also benefited from these developments. Using these new approaches and research methodologies, in 2013 Professor Marcus Reidiker of the University of Pittsburg published a new history of the Amistad Revolt from the perspective of the Africans. He followed up the book with a 2014 film (Ghosts of Amistad) that documents his oral history research in Sierra Leone, He showed that documentary and oral history research in the African regions from which captives originated can bring us to new understandings of how the specific experiences in their nations of birth, could inform the actions of captives in the Americas, and influence the behavior of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
All of this scholarship inspired Dr. Augusto, who spoke to us of linkages between and among Africans and their descendants who resisted oppression throughout the Atlantic World.See for example: Candido, Mariana. An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World. Benguela and its Hinterland .New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013; Curto, José C. and Lovejoy, Paul E. orgs. Enslaving Connections: Changing Cultures of Africa and Brazil during the Era of the Slave Trade. New York: Humanity Books, 2004; Ferreira, Roquinaldo. Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Atlantic World (Angola and Brazil during the Era of the Slave Trade). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012; Gomez, Michael. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998; Hawthorne, Walter. Being now, as it were, one Family: Shipmate bonding on the slave vessel Emilia, in Rio de Janeiro and throughout the Atlantic World. Luso-Brazilian Review, 45:1 (2008), pp. 53-77. Heywood, Linda (org). Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Linebaugh, Peter e Rediker, Martin. The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves and Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. Lovejoy, Paul C. The Children of Slavery - The Transatlantic Phase. Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 27, Nº 2, August 2006, p. 197–217. Miller, Joseph C. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Reis, João José. Rebelião escrava no Brasil: a história do Levante dos Malês em 1835. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003 (Revised and Expanded Edition of Slave Rebellion in Brazil, Johns Hopkins, 1995). Reis, João José, GOMES, Flávio dos Santos and CARVALHO, Marcus J. M. de. O Alufá Rufino: tráfico, escravidão e liberdade no Atlântico Negro (c 1822-c 1853). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010
Thank you Dr. Augusto for a thoughtful and inspiring talk.
Professor Mary Ann Mahony
Keynote Address: 13th Annual Amistad Lecture
Thinking with Amistad: Civil Rights, Mass Incarceration and
Black Citizenship in the USA and Brazil
Nesta semana faz três meses que ocorreu a chacina de Costa Barros, na
qual cinco jovens foram brutalmente assassinados pela Polícia Militar
carioca. No total, 111 tiros foram disparados contra o carro onde
Wilton, Wesley, Cleiton, Carlos Eduardo e Roberto estavam. Os quatro PMs
acusados do assassinato estão presos, mas as famílias dos jovens seguem
desamparadas pelo governo do RJ que sequer arcou com as despesas do
enterro. Leia a matéria completa em: Vidas negras importam ou a comoção
é seletiva? - Geledés
I will use Amistad as a prism, rather than pretending that I am an academic historian, which I am not, or rehearsing in too much detail the history you already know - this being Connecticut. Instead, I want to use Amistad to think about the history of black freedom struggles, including those for civil and human rights, the history of state-sanctioned violence directed against black individuals and mass incarceration of people of color. But also to think about a radical organizing tradition whose roots may not be so apparent in some of the contemporary practices of young people today—but which I want to argue really are there, even if not as a template deliberately copied. I think of this not so much as history from below (though I applaud that concept), but also as history from the inside out. In such an exploration we look to some sites, movements and critical moments not as often placed at the center of the action, and we consider actors from their own, multiple locations, as thinkers and doers simultaneously-- and when possible, from their own publications, speech and creative expressions. I guess we might also call this thinking about the historiography of past and contemporary world historical events such as the Amistad Revolt, or movements combatting violence against black youth. But I don’t want to claim too much for this one rather short talk!
I will do this exploration in four moments—two “yesterday” (or historical), and two “today” (or contemporary), and then end by saying what I think the common taproot has been. I’m going to draw on some archival research, and some personal experience. Over the last year and a half, I wrote a chapter for a South African oral history project which has produced several volumes of internal history of the anti-apartheid struggle, but is also doing a few volumes on international solidarity. My chapter focuses on the Brazilian contribution to global solidarity against apartheid, but it quickly became apparent, in my interviews of activists and my exposure to their own archives, that Afro-Brazilians themselves linked fighting apartheid closely both to their own contemporary anti-racist struggle and to the historical anti-slavery struggles of that South American country.
At the same time, because of serving on the SNCC Legacy Project board, I've been working with others to retell that movement’s story of black self-assertion and freedom struggles from the inside out, including setting up a Digital Gateway over the next 3 years. This, in turn, has led some of us on the project to begin to participate in intergenerational dialogue with the youthful leaders of Black Lives Matter and associated movements. So these are the grounds on which I will base this brief exercise in thinking, together with you, using the prism of the Amistad Revolt.
First yesterday moment…
Let us start with the Amistad Revolt, as we most definitely should. This has often been recounted, from the mutiny forward, and newer accounts have begun to focus more rigorously as well on the events which transpired upon the freed captives’ return to Sierra Leone. But what I want to gesture towards tonight are some newer ways of thinking about the African roots of the Amistad, and also to highlight what we would today call a kind of public humanities which emerged around the Amistad, in which the Africans themselves played a critical role.
More recent historical scholarship has brought to the fore convincing arguments for how and why such an unthinkable shipboard mutiny could not just occur - many hundreds did, it turns out - but succeed. Starting from the supposition that the captives, stripped of possessions and freedom, were not shorn of knowledge and traditions, historians such as Marcus Rediker (2012, 2014), Iyunolu Folayan Osagie (2003), and Patricia Searles (1995) argue that one key to the Amistad mutineers’ success lay in the organizing traditions of the Mende secret societies called Poros. Many Mende men of the 19th century spent several years being trained and developed in Poro schools. Among the Poro principles that men like Sengbe Pieh and his shipmates would have learned were these: elect a leader, choosing the most experienced, and one capable of accepting risk. Once a decision to act was collectively taken, it was not to be reversed. Deploy secrecy and oaths of loyalty--in other words, a strong commitment and an unbreakable network of mutual support. Have a talisman on your body—or better, have a notion of the human and the “supernatural” or divine, a spiritual and symbolic notion, represented in a consecrated object, on your body. While received accounts of the Amistad trial emphasize the successful arguing of the case by the captives’ abolitionist lawyer and later by John Quincy Adams, surprise is sometimes expressed at how convincing the defendants were, even speaking briefly and through interpreters in court, and before abolitionists gatherings. But according to one scholar, “all Mende [would have been] familiar with the concept and operations of a court of law” (Searles). A highly litigious people, the Mende had a tradition of broadly participative, open air trials in which men and women took part, and even children witnessed.
This makes less surprising but ever admirable one poignant and important archival trace brought to light over a century ago by the black historian George Washington Williams (1883/2007). It was a letter from Kali, the eleven year old child among the Mende captives from the Amistad, to John Quincy Adams, which said:
Dear Friend, we want you to know how we feel. Mendi people think, think, think. Nobody know what we think, the teacher he know, we tell him some. Mendi people have got souls....All we want is make us free…”
Language also played a role in the success of the mutiny itself. As many as nine or ten ethnicities may have been represented in the hold of a ship like the Amistad. But all of them most probably spoke the Mende language. This is a different understanding of African languages, emphasizing not so much their multiplicity, as their often translocal nature, and the crucial role of a finely-developed orality.
On a recent trip to Sierra Leone to make an oral history - based documentary after publication of his massive volume on the Amistad, historian Marcus Rediker had a remarkable series of conversations with local elder - historians and villagers, especially fishermen living and working in the mangrove areas of coastal Sierra Leone. They took him, at length, to the secluded slave-holding pen island of Lomboko, and revealed the fact that Sengbe Pieh had most surely taken part in an unsuccessful slave revolt right there, before being dragooned ont o the Amistad.
In thinking about the long campaign outside the U.S. courts that was raged around the Amistad case, we might think more deeply not just about the role of black Connecticut abolitionists, but also about the many public appearances up and down New England which the Mende captives themselves, and especially Sengbe Pieh, made. What might they have written that has entirely escaped the known archive? What of the “handicrafts” they reportedly made while staying in Farmington? Were some of those objects of both beauty and value, in the Mende tradition? And what about the 15-acre garden they cultivated once they were out of prison — did it have plants for medicinal and nutritional use, and what did they think as they worked the soil? In today’s terms of public history, those acts, just as much as the theatrical plays, pamphlets, paintings and drawings - these media for expression of ideas and emotions - which began to emerge and continued right into the early 20th century, are part of how this episode of violently retaking their own freedom might be reinterpreted - as more than just memory.
Second yesterday moment - Another seaside story of slave ships, court cases and fighting for one’s own humanity.
Let us stay by the sea, but travel south, to Brazil. There also were moments of collision between racial chattel slavery, and the fight to be considered human in the 19th century. I want to talk about just two, recalling a few essential facts first: that Brazil, along with Cuba, was one of the last in the Americas to end slavery officially, in 1888. That more enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil than to all of the Caribbean and the USA combined—indeed today more than half the national population self-identifies as African-descended. But also that, as scholarship is asserting up and down the Americas, many bondsmen and women in Brazil had already crafted a difficult, partial freedom for themselves well before the various official abolitions—and many founded maroon communities where they were as free as could be.
Throughout the 19th century, as Brazilian states struggled to become independent of the Portuguese empire, enslaved and free blacks were part of that decades-long campaign. As elsewhere, the promise of ending slavery for all, and becoming fully free to shape their own lives as humans in the New World, were the chief animating factors of black participation in wars, uprisings and just plain plots for independence from a European colonizing power. And as elsewhere, there was much bitter disappointment in this quest. Often former slaves and black people who had managed to free themselves were critical to the more successful of these conflicts—whether in Latin America or the Spanish Caribbean or in the USA. That was the case in Brazil’s Bahia state, where black fishermen and fisherwomen on the coast and on the large island of Itaparica, in the Bay of All Saints (Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos) are only now being recognized as crucial in the years 1821-23, with their flotilla of fishing vessels. They became partisans of what was essentially “guerilla warfare of the sea”. The struggle for Bahian independence from the Portuguese crown was won. But, as one historian put it: “for the popular classes, political independence meant, in all the regions of Brazil, the reinforcement of a whole prior domination implemented by the dominant slaveholding and landowning classes” (p. 153). More insurrections followed, in the 1830s and 1840s, in which a range of Brazilians from the working strata of society, enslaved and free, participated. But the enslaved gained little or nothing.
However, Black Brazilians did have some achievements from their participation in the broader independence struggles in Bahia, and in at least two other Brazilian states: Pará and Ceará. Those achievements might be summed up as: raising the question of ending slavery, opposing state and slave-owners’ economic oppression of people who lived by and from the seas and rivers, and raising the issue of land ownership and its concentration in the hands of a few. In other words, they put things on the 19th century regional and national public agendas which had not been there before, and raised fundamental questions about rights, including economic rights. In doing so, they were fully asserting their own humanity against tremendous odds, and enlarged at least the possibility, in some minds, of rights that might be enjoyed not just by the enslaved, but by all citizens.
Before we recount in a bit of detail the examples of Pará and Ceará, it is important to introduce a different kind of racial slavery from what comes most often to mind. One segment of the African and African-descendant populations of Brazil’s coastal states were not plantation slaves at all, but rather fisher-slaves. They worked in “currais de peixe” (fish corrals or ranches—demarcated blocks of the sea or rivers) owned by the Royal Crown, or they fished for their masters, not autonomously. In the mid-19th century, in the Northern and Northeastern provinces of Brazil, except in Pará where half the population was still indigenous Amerindians, the majority of Brazilian fishermen were either ex-slaves, or children of freed or free slaves. They labored under a system of tithing 10% of the catch, a salt monopoly, and prohibitions on when and where they could fish. Many also had a kind of “sharecropping” arrangement with large land-and-waterway owners.
In Pará state, one historical episode of insurrection for independence, known as the Cabanagem, was occurring at roughly the same time as the Amistad case. Ships and boats, coastal economics, enslaved and freed Africans all figure in the Cabanagem. The people who participated in 16 months of successful insurrection and popular government in Pará came to be known by the name given to small agricultural holdings along the rivers of the vast Amazon region—cabanos. Who were these cabanas? Amerindians living in forced villages; enslaved blacks and people of mixed heritage, who worked on the rivers and lived on Amazonian islands; exploited forestry workers—and enslaved fishermen from the royal fishing grounds. During the brief insurrection, black and indigenous rebels destroyed plantations and freed the enslaved, in a revolt which, unlike many others throughout Brazil at the time, and in consonance with the less successful 1835 Revolt of the Malês in Bahia, put at risk the dominant classes’ interests.1 The Cabanagem is now known as the first popular government in Brazilian history.
Brazil’s Ceará state was known for its production of sugar, but it also benefitted in the 1860s from the huge reduction in cotton production and trade in the USA occasioned by the Civil War. After the Civil War ended, cotton went back to being sugar’s “poor cousin” (primo pobre, p. 178) in Ceará. The province then became an epicenter for Brazil’s growing inter-provincial (or inter-state) slave trade—the selling of captives from the original plantation areas in the North to the South--as traffic on the high seas became more dangerous due to British Naval patrols. It was black fishermen, once again, who played a main part in an African and African-descendant assertion of the right of the enslaved to become free in Brazil.
As the story goes, free black Ceará fishermen participated in a vigorous campaign to end the internal slave trade, joining alongside enslaved and middle-class abolitionists. It was they and their families who witnessed the daily horror of enslaved Africans embarking and disembarking on remote Ceará beaches, in an evasion of international law on the seas. Most of these fishermen were themselves formerly enslaved. When they joined Ceará’s white abolitionists in what was to the latter in part as much an “intellectual adventure” as personal conviction, as one historian argues, these black boatsmen and fishermen—popularly known as jangadeiros after the small boats or jangadas that they used-- brought a different urgency and clarity to the abolition fight. Most remarkably and courageously, the jangadeiros refused to offload captives from their small boats onto big slave ships. They also conducted many dramatic rescues of enslaved persons who had been off-loaded. The black fisherman António Napoleão, for example, led a group which threw down its own embargo—“No boat should transport slaves, even if threatened by bayonets” (p. 180-181). In one case, jangadeiros enforcing the embargo prevented the slave Luisa from being compelled onto the ship Espirito Santo (Holy Ghost), thereby creating a delay which gave time for a judicial decision to be made in her favor, in the capital city of Fortaleza. She was, it seems, a free black woman, kidnapped and sold southwards, like so many others had been.
Later, in 1881, Brazil’s First Brazilian Abolitionist Congress was held in Ceará. Doing so made sense, due to events on the ground, for increasing numbers of captives from other parts of Brazil fled to Ceará as they got the news: “No Porto do Ceará não se embarcam mais escravos!” (p. 181). Many of them founded maroon communities, or quilombos, deeper inside the state. The Ceará fishermen were offered big bribes to cease their freedom actions. None accepted. Instead, time and again they formed a wall on the beach to block any slaves from being carried out to a slave ship, and there are numerous accounts of several daring and successful plots by the fishermen to free enslaved persons such as Luisa, and keep them safe while court cases for their freedom were mounted. It is surprising to realize, from the historical archives, that when the decision was being taken by free black abolitionist-fishermen to impede enslavement or re-enslavement, all of Ceará’s federal deputies (members of the legislature) at the time were big slave-holders who had helped blocked bills for national abolition of slavery in Brazil.
It was also in Ceará that the first radical abolition of slavery, and the freeing of all those still enslaved, in Brazil took place, in 1884. The movement was greatly aided by an activist state abolitionist press, including The Constituicao, the Jornal do Comercio, The Cearense, etc. Many of their reports recounted not just the horrors of slavery, and tales of escape, but also the remarkable contributions of the black jangadeiros, the fishermen and boatsmen and their families living by the sea, who faced down slave ship crews and slaveholders’ overseers alike, creating time for freedom arguments to be made in the courts. They knew how to mount a public spectacle, too—like the time that jangadas mounted on floats paraded through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, in a colorful public display of street-level abolitionism.
First today moment: Dream Defenders and Black Lives Matter rework the traditions
I mentioned in the beginning the call for intergenerational groundings coming from both older civil rights movement “veterans” and many of the activist-organizers of the new radical hashtags-cum-social movements. I want to use documents from the movement’s own present archive—why not?—to suggest how the very newest of black radical movements might be thought of through that prism of the Amistad I said I would try to use. Last fall there was precisely such an intergenerational conversation. It happened at a voting rights conference in Durham, North Carolina, entitled “One Person, One Vote: Learning from the Past, Organizing for the Future. We need not go into detail about the background, except to say that the gathering occurred in the midst of several critical struggles in states that have recently passed restrictive voting laws and executive orders (Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Kansas, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina and others), and a call to “Stop the War on Voting,” which included organizing nationally to get support for The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.
The gathering itself is best encapsulated in a remarkable panel moderated by Charlie Cobb, SNCC field secretary in Mississippi, journalist and a historian of the movement, from within the Movement. It included William Barber II, of the North Carolina NAACP, Alicia Garza, co-creator of #Black Lives Matter but also the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Cristina Jimenez, co-founder of United We Dream Network, Derrick Johnson, Mississippi NAACP, Umi Selah, Executive Director of the Dream Defenders, and Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, professor of religious and women’s studies at University of Florida, and also a SNCC veteran activist-organizer.
One basis for the discussion was the document What Would It Profit A Man?, a SNCC 1962 report from Alabama on the discussions and organizing by SNCC staff members working there, representing “the main current of thought of hundreds of people now living—and suffering—in the Black Belt of the South”. Let me quote from the document:
What would it mean for a poor Negro in the black belt to say, “I have the vote and now I can vote Democrat or Republican. How can my vote be used to get the things I risked life and limb to gain.” The question which faces those of us who live and who work in the South is: can the pointed exclusion and fruitless striking out be avoided? Are there any new forms that can be developed to give the poor black a chance to make decisions and control his own political life?...Since the right of people to make decision about their own lives is the most fundamental right of members of a democratic society, this is the perspective from which the concept of freedom organizations evolved. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, alias the Black Panther Party, attempts to be such a group.
There ensued what for many of us present was a most remarkable discussion. For some, it was the first time older struggle veterans realized that the movements they thought of as “just hashtags”—online social media presences only—were anything but just that. For others, it was a chance to see that the earlier struggles were not done by mythical heroes, but fallible young people thinking and acting their way through structures of oppression and racism—just as movements such as Black Lives Matter are attempting to do, today. In doing so, both have drawn on a taproot that is long and deep, and battling with injustices whose obliteration has not yet come.
The hashtag/social movements are taking on emblematic cases of imprisonment and of police violence against black and Latino men and women, where struggle must be waged by public acts in the streets, by establishing a political agenda through working with communities, through pursuit of court cases…and by use of the most effective media of the day. Let us have recourse, again, to the movement’s own documents, to understand what is being sought, and some of the dilemmas entailed.
In the Dream Defenders’ vision, articulated online, we find, among other points:
* We believe in People over profits.
* We want an immediate end to the police state and murder of Black people, other people of color, and other oppressed peoples in the United States, the immediate release of the 2.5 million prisoners of the United States’ War on the Poor, and trials by juries of our peers.
* We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression (domestic & abroad).
* We want a democracy that is fair and protects the right to vote for all.
* We want community control of land, bread, housing, education, justice, peace and technology.
* We want more. We deserve more. We will organize, train, act and win.
Last year, the organization decided to take a 10-week blackout (September 21 to December 1, 2015), abstinence from social media. As the blog explanation avers:
As we entered The Blackout, we wondered, “Is everyone talking about Black lives matter or is everyone on our timelines talking about black lives matter?...or about the genocide in Palestine, or about kids getting kicked out of classrooms or about all of our family, friends and community members who are stuck behind bars? ”We wanted to know where our communities and society at large are, separate from the curated timeline of information we each encounter online. We hoped to recreate the way that we understand ourselves and our relationship with our community, both online and in the streets…. We don’t think enough about the consequences of connecting online through a corporate-controlled platform. We provide the whole of our strategies, thoughts, and whereabouts real time. And, what is the impact of being inundated with a constant barrage of information about other people’s lives, experiences and thoughts? How does this impact who we are, how we think and the way we engage with the real world?
And when the self-imposed blackout was over, the Dream Defenders concluded: “It is our assessment that a movement can be educated and invigorated online, but never built there. A true movement is one based on deep relationships that can withstand the winds of trend. We have seen how they drown in the shallow waters of online connections. Building relationships with people requires being present.” (The Dream Defenders, posted online, on December 01, 2015.)
Black Lives Matter asserts that it is “Not a Moment, but a Movement.” Its own documents, on the web for all to see, emphasize that it is a chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life, one which is “Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization.”
Alicia Garza, one of three co-founders writes on the movement’s blog, under “Herstory”:
I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We were humbled when cultural workers, artists, designers and techies offered their labor and love to expand #BlackLivesMatter beyond a social media hashtag. Opal, Patrisse, and I created the infrastructure for this movement project—moving the hashtag from social media to the streets [emphasis added] …We’ve hosted national conference calls focused on issues of critical importance to Black people working hard for the liberation of our people. We’ve connected people across the country working to end the various forms of injustice impacting our people. We’ve created space for the celebration and humanization of Black lives.
In the same essay, Garza continues by affirming that “When Black people get free, everybody gets free,” and painstakingly explains that:
#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.
At the conference where SNCC and other movement vets dialogued with younger movement activist-leaders, it became clear that the newer movements by democratizing “social listening” were attempting to push politics beyond elections and electoral cycles, “challenging existing institutions and each other, figuring out “how to grow within a democratic process.” As Alicia Garza put it: “All our chapters are involved in local organizing work.” Doing so for many of them required a queer feminist lens, “an approach from the margins to the center,” as Charlene Carruthers, one of the organizers of BYP100, explained. But Carruthers was quite explicit:
We draw from our traditions—the Cumbahee River Collective, SNCC, the Black Panther Party…we work against anti-blackness and for prison abolition, in a global context, too…Young people are making these connections, and that is both a struggle and a process.
In emblematic cases taken to court, from that of Trayvon Martin’s murder to that of Sandra Bland —sadly not often with the successful outcomes of the historic Amistad case—Black Lives Matter and kindred social media-initiated movements not only assert their presence as new abolitionists, active on media but and on the ground…but are also producing digital history. In doing so, they question, as one chapter member put it, “state violence against Black bodies, the grand jury system itself, and connect it to similar grand jury decisions in recent cases of police brutality against people of color.”2
Final “today” moment: Afro-Brazilians and the struggle against genocide of black youth
And what of contemporary Brazil, where black movements struggle against a powerful restraint: a national imaginary of “racial democracy” in a country steeped in an institutional racism? That idea of a country without racism, but where black people are at the bottom of every social indicator, is so pernicious that black movement veteran activists who were also the backbone of anti-apartheid solidarity called the homegrown system “soft apartheid.” The question of voting rights does not arise, because the Brazilian electoral system makes voting compulsory for all citizens. But there, too, the taproot of anti-slavery resistance, of using multiple strategems to denounce police violence against black youth, mass incarceration of Afro-descendent Brazilians, and a spatialized racism on urban landscapes which gives poverty a color, can be discerned. We have less time here to explore this final moment, but a few points will suffice for us to conclude.
In contemporary Brazil, the public uses of history by African-descended activists militating in a variety of organizations, take, among other forms, the creation of political-cultural expressions such as the carnival sambas of blocos-afro, black feminist poetry and conscious rap, as well as use of social media and street protests - especially popular marches marking historical signposts, recent and long past. Public history in the Brazilian streets is as likely to exalt historical maroon leaders such as Zumbi of Palmares, or the heroes and heroines of the numerous slave revolts, as to call attention to the murder last month of 12 youths in a Salvador favela by military police. And when they can, these activists lend their voices to creating an atmosphere for court cases, to force accountability for what black movements in Brazil call “genocide against black youth.”3
Activist Ana Luiza Monteiro was one of the principle organizers of the Protest Against the Massacre of Black Youth last December, in Rio de Janeiro. She has affirmed the inspiration of the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that
People here in Brazil were impressed with the frequency of protests that occurred [in the United States]. With such alarming statistics in Brazil, there are still fewer protests that are less frequent compared to the U.S….The role of the activists is to give visibility to the situation and pushing for the police to be tried fairly and pressing the state to have another public security policy.4
The decade-old, Bahian-based Reaja ou Será Morto — "React or Die" — is another Brazilian social movement whose central concern is police violence, and that of so-called “death squads” whose members are often police, too, against black people. Reaja has now taken to the streets to speak out about police violence. And so has a women’s march which is both hashtag, new annual march, and emerging movement: #MarchaDasMulheresNegras.
How can we sum up what thinking with Amistad suggests to us about the taproots of black radical struggle in the Americas– one that runs long and deep, even when it is not explicitly articulated in contemporary movements? First, I would suggest, black radical struggles of early Africans and then African-descended peoples in the Americas have always been insisting on the right to be human, not property or some inferior type of human. In doing so, the arguments radical actors have thought up and acted upon, the concepts and practices they have created, have operated upon the broader society in ways that, whether openly acknowledged or not, have extended the horizon of freedom and pried open for fellow citizens human rights previously extensive to the few, rather than the many. Those inheritors of the Amistad tradition--and that of jangadeiros, too-- who have acted openly and at-risk to claim freedom have always done it in a triple move: fighting in the courts, but also protesting in the streets or on the shores, and using the available media of communication - the spoken and written word, creativity expressed publicly. They have drawn on ideas about how to lead and to organize which date back to the slave ship, and even to the hidden barracoons where slaves were concentrated before embarkation, and have been reconfigured and translated over and over, down through decades of black-led thought-in-action. And black rebellious (or as the academics like to say, “oppositional”) action has always, as one writer recently put it, “demanded an acknowledgement of profound, principled grievance,” and “insisted that a reckoning was yet to come.” It has not come yet, but some of us believe it will. Thank you.