July 8, 2016
Fred Moten and Robin Kelley ask: Do black lives matter?
by Melville House
What Robin Kelley says in “Why We Won’t Wait” seems to me to be absolutely true, and so true—and sometimes so obscure—that it needs to be repeated again and again. Which is that we’re in a state of war. George W. Bush declared a War on Terror, and that War on Terror quickly came to be understood as a permanent war. But the War on Terror that’s a permanent war was just an extension of the war that we’ve always been in. And I think that in fact insurgent social life, black social life, has always been as terrible to the likes of George W. Bush as anything that Osama bin Laden ever did or thought about doing.
It’s important to understand that the drones that are sent into our communities—that go by the name of Darren Wilson, or Daniel Pantaleo, or Justin Volpe, or Stacy Koon—they represent a long-standing tradition of brutal and violent technological innovation visited upon us in the most horrific ways. And I think it’s important to understand that this state of war has existed, and that in a weird way the drones that are sent into our community imagine themselves to be self-defensive. Settlers always think they’re defending themselves. That’s why they build forts on other people’s land. And then they freak out over the fact that they are surrounded. And they’re still surrounded.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t constitute justification for the violence that they commit, but it’s an important thing for us to remember, because it gives us some indication of the forces that we actually represent. And we need to know something about who we are and what we are. And with that in mind I think it’s really important to understand not only these sort of intense continuities — that what it is that we’ve seen over the last few weeks and months is an extension of what Ida B Wells called “Lynch Law.”
When I was in college I had these friends, and we were naïve enough to think that… some historical force had sent us to Harvard to plot revolution. And we would walk around with that in mind. I remember we used to talk about the fact that during what Rayford Logan called the “Nadir,” the period immediately after Reconstruction, between 1880 & 1920, that someone black was lynched at the rate of roughly one every forty-one hours for that forty-year period. We used to recite that statistic all the time. And I think what was naïve about what we were doing was that we had somehow thought that that statistic had waned or that it had been somehow eclipsed after 1920. And I actually think that the rate probably has increased since then. Which is again indicative of the fact that we’re in a state of war. But it’s not enough to say that or to understand that, it seems to me. Because we need to understand what it actually is that the state is defending itself from…. What the drone Darren Wilson shot into that day was insurgent black life walking down the street.
That’s poet and scholar Fred Moten kicking off a public discussion with historian and author Robin D.G. Kelley last year. The event was called “Do Black Lives Matter?” Especially given what’s happened this week, it is highly worth watching.
Fred Moten is the author of several books of poetry, including Arkansas and the National Book Award-nominated The Feel Trio, and works of scholarship including In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and, with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. He’s a Guggenheim fellow, and he lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of California, Riverside.
Robin D.G. Kelley is the author of several books, including Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, and Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times. He has taught at Columbia, NYU, and Oxford, among other universities, and was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow.