Why Black Lives Matter (Too) – A Book Review #BlackLivesMatter

The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to the violent deaths of three unarmed Black men: teenager Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Suddenly, it seemed, the media silence around such deaths at the hands of police or other authorities had broken. The names of unarmed Black adults, teens, and children assaulted or killed by police came blazing across our news feeds, seemingly a new name every week.

For many of us in the Pagan movement who do justice work, it felt like scales had fallen from our eyes. We may have been aware that our society is racist, that Black people are still suffering from the aftermath of American slavery. But we were living under the illusion that since the gains of the Civil Rights era, we were still slowly moving toward true equality.

The well-publicized deaths in 2013 and 2014 showed how wrong we were. In the US, unarmed Black children and adults can be killed by police (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman) with no repercussions—and such assaults happen frequently. This is not a society moving toward equality for Black people. Rather, it’s a society whose systemic racism has simply become more subtle and well-disguised. “Black Lives Matter” is a powerful slogan because in so many arenas, our society still treats Black lives as though they do NOT matter.

why-black-lives-matter-too-revolutionary-call-to-action-by-mary-canty-merrill-phdThe anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too) emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group established by Mary Canty Merrill in August 2015. Merrill describes the group as “a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality.” After Voices for Equality agreed that the proceeds of the book should support challenging the effects of racism in the justice system, they chose The Sentencing Project as the beneficiary. To quote from its website:

Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Our work includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications, and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration; that racial disparities pervade the criminal justice system; that nearly six million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions; and that thousands of women and children have lost food stamps and cash assistance as the result of convictions for drug offenses.

The opportunity to support The Sentencing Project is, by itself, a good reason to pick up a copy of the anthology. However, the anthology has a broader mission than either The Sentencing Project or the Black Lives Matter movement as it was originally conceived. Black Lives Matter (Too) critiques racial injustice in the United States in a huge variety of contexts, and it does so with equal servings of research and personal narrative.

As a writer and editor, I can tell you that anthologies are never of completely consistent quality. Some pieces will always be stronger than others, and this is true of Black Lives Matter (Too). A good anthology, however, should have “something for everyone”—a variety of pieces so that almost any reader should be able to find something to connect with—and the anthology does fulfill that mission.

For example, there are a number of strong pieces from white activists who tell personal stories of discovering and confronting both their own racism and our society’s. Patheos Pagan’s own Cat Chapin-Bishop, for example, has an engaging essay that does this admirably. I also particularly recommend the piece by Rebecca Wiggins, which lays out the issue of systemic racism briefly and clearly and then provides a list of concrete strategies for response. Either would make an excellent introductory essay for a person or group just beginning to learn about racial injustice. Frustratingly, however, the anthology is organized alphabetically by author’s last name, not topically or by placing complementary essays in groups. This arrangement results in the middle of the book being dominated by essays by white activists, most of whom seem to be responding to the same writing prompt, “Why Black Lives Matter to Me.”

If the reader presses on through the repetition, however, some of the strongest essays are buried near the back. I was particularly struck by Rhonda Lee Richoux’s piece, which addresses how one can be a person of color (in her case, Filipino) and still be thoroughly indoctrinated in racism. This essay is immediately followed by my favorite in the collection, a piece from Native activist Bee Schrull that celebrates the accomplishments of Black scientists, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs while mourning the creative Black lives that have been lost to injustice. Some of the strongest Black writers are also included near the back of the volume: a piece by Muthu (Jordan) Weerasinghe protesting the inattention that Black Lives Matter has given to Black women and gender-nonconforming Black people, and an essay by Anthony M. Wiley about being Black and in a position of authority in the military.

These and many of the other pieces in the book would make excellent reading for a discussion group that wants to educate itself about systemic racism. I am disappointed, however, to say that I cannot recommend assigning the book as a whole to a “newbie” group. Sadly, Black Lives Matter (Too) suffers from poor editing. In addition to the ineffective system of organizing the essays, the anthology is riddled with grammatical errors that can interfere with comprehension. In some essays, sentences were so vague, unclear, or just plain muddled that they left me scratching my head. (Take, for example, this uncited statistic from p. 11 of the introduction: “A 2015 Huffington Post survey shows that three out of four white Americans believe that racism is a ‘somewhat serious’ national problem, compared to nine out of ten Blacks—that’s 68 percent of Black respondents, compared to 31 percent of whites.”) Other problems were content-based; one essay, in apparent innocence of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, uses the stereotypical image of the “crafty” Jew to criticize a former business partner.

The weak editing is particularly problematic in the first twenty-five pages of the book, which are the key parts for connecting with and drawing in an audience. Unfortunately, it is not clear who the intended audience is. Mary Canty Merrill, who drew the material together and wrote the introduction and conclusion, seems to address a sympathetic white audience on the back of the book, where she asks readers to “confront your own white privilege and fragility as you examine racial justice and equality in a revolutionary way.” The book’s prologue by Mirthell Bazemore, however, is written for a Black audience, whom Bazemore chastises for language and dress that she doesn’t see as liberatory (xx).

This prologue is followed by Merrill’s long framing introduction, which gives historical and sociological background for systemic racism. Some parts of this introduction are excellent, giving talking points and facts about topics such as internalized racism, discrimination in health care and employment, and inequality in the justice system. Merrill, whose PhD is in a psychological field and who works as an organizational psychologist, is particularly strong on the topic of mental health, and she provides careful, clear definitions of jargon such as “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Her conclusion for the book is also effective, outlining concrete strategies for readers to address racial injustice. Yet other sections of the introduction—particularly the opening pages—are much less focused, with abrupt changes in tone, facts stated without citation, and ad hominem attacks on other researchers.

These problems are especially frustrating because they distract from what is essentially a strong argument. Why Black Lives Matter (Too) could have easily been crafted into an effective introductory text for white readers who are curious about but perhaps still skeptical of the racial justice movement, and based on the back cover blurb, this seems to have been Merrill’s intent. Because the writing is not properly organized and edited for this audience, however, it preaches best to the already-converted.

Despite these issues, I can still recommend this book for educators and activists who are working with people who know little about or do not yet support the movement. Merrill’s introduction provides all the material an educator needs to give an effective introductory lecture. Educators can then pick and choose readings from the collection of essays for a combination that will draw in and then effectively challenge their chosen audience. Merrill’s conclusion, which outlines concrete strategies for activism, can be assigned whole cloth to guide future action. With this strategy, Why Black Lives Matter (Too) should be a powerful resource for anti-racism educators.

 

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