Who can forget the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012? Although in these perilous times, many may forget to speak his name, this tragedy at the hands of an egocentric neighborhood-watch volunteer looms in our history not solely to signal a renewed awareness of violence against Black people in America but also to mark the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although this named movement is less than ten years old, the meaning and origins behind the urgency of Black Lives Matter can be traced historically, even without uttering the specific words “Black lives matter.” In fact, one could argue that the Black Lives Matter movement has only put into words what has been publicly and privately discussed and explicated by many notable African American figures throughout history.
In The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea, Christopher J. Lebron considers how we arrived at the Black Lives Matter movement by focusing a historical lens on the sentiment that Black lives matter, rather than on the movement itself. In this concise 165-page text, Lebron offers an intellectual history and provocative meditation on the philosophy behind the idea of “Black lives matter,” without preaching about, or assessing the efficacy or potential efficacy of, the current movement. Lebron’s work contributes to the literature of Black studies, history, and women’s studies as he utilizes the intersections of oration, rhetoric, Black arts, and feminism to demonstrate how the current Black Lives Matter movement is based on the philosophical ideas of notable figures throughout African American history.
Sandwiched between an introduction and an afterword are five chapters that take us on Lebron’s historical journey. Although, initially, his connections between present and historical events and figures can seem rather abrupt, the reader soon begins to perceive what the author is doing in this concise, yet powerful book. Chapter 1 begins with the infamous 2016 Trump rally in which we saw Black protesters assaulted by Trump supporters in the name of American patriotism. Although this chapter begins in 2016, its main purpose is to study Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, who through their well-respected writings and orations take us from slavery to lynching. Here Lebron offers lessons on the sociopolitical value of shame and shameful publicity (30). As a form of resistance, Lebron acknowledges how Douglass and Wells were not conventional public speakers, both instead bucking convention to force Americans to confront the gaps between their professed ideals as written in the Constitution and their treatment of Blacks.
With chapter 2 we arrive at the Harlem Renaissance, which is fitting since Black art has and continues to be a steadfast outlet for political expression. Lebron discusses how Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston pushed against the boundaries of resistance and how they effectively settled the debate over whether or not Black lives actually mattered (65). Through these figures, Lebron offers the idea of the countercolonization of the white imagination, and how in this countercolonization Black Americans would come to be accepted by white Americans (155). This countercolonization included the rebuke by Hurston that all Black lives had to be tragic and sullen. Her art, as well as the art of others, could rather be used as a model for life. This chapter reiterates the idea that Black lives matter not because they fall into a tragic category of unfulfilled lives and potential but because, as Langston Hughes wrote, we too can sing America.
Chapter 3 introduces to some readers, and reiterates for others, an understanding of the importance of gender and sexuality in the fight for Black equality. In fact, from the very beginning of this text, Lebron acknowledges the importance of Black women in the fight for equality, which is refreshing and appropriate given that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three women, two of whom identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Lebron’s refusal to neglect the role of Black women runs throughout the book; of the eight figures he discusses, four are women. Chapter 3 begins with the retelling of the end of the lives of Eleanor Bumpurs and Sandra Bland, and then explores the essential role that mental health and access to proper mental health care should play (72). However, Lebron later goes further to introduce the lesson of unconditional acceptance through his inclusion of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, who discuss race, gender, and sexuality (more so engaged by Lorde than Cooper) (141). Through these women, we see that the idea of Black lives matter lies at the point of making one’s self-worth nonnegotiable in order to fully embrace all political possibilities. This chapter also offers a rebuttal to the counterclaim of “all lives matter,” which fails to acknowledge the repression and genocide of Black people in this country dating back to slavery.
Chapter 4 offers the philosophical discussion of love through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. Lebron explores the difference between the agape love that King maintained was necessary and the philia love that Baldwin lauded as essential to our human dignity (121). Both of these forms of love boil down to what Lebron calls “unfragmented compassion” (145). The love ethic of both of these intellectuals requires that those beaten down by inequality take possession of their self-worth and risk what is comfortable and safe in the name of building a stronger society. Whether we have a love of humanity or unconditional love, unfragmented compassion means that, yes, Black lives matter. It also matters that we understand that when we act with love and compassion toward others, it is never guaranteed to be returned in kind; even so, that will never be a sufficient reason not to try to act with integrity and love. This in itself can be a form of resistance, as holding in esteem one’s value and self-worth is vital to the overall message that Black lives do indeed matter.
The fifth and final chapter offers a refreshing take on radical Black politics by directly engaging conservative Black intellectualism and respectability politics. Lebron questions those who have historically and presently sidelined the idea and meaning of Black lives matter, which only continues to contribute to the colonization of Black minds. To do this, Lebron calls to task Thomas Sewell, Randall Kennedy, Glenn Loury, and John McWhorter with a searing rebuke not only directed at them but also ultimately at white liberals and conservatives who also subscribe to conservative Black intellectualism or what Lebron deems to be white liberalism gone awry (130). The chapter draws together all of the philosophical underpinnings previously discussed and explains how each in its own way pushes forward the ethos of Black lives matter.
A reader, upon finishing this book, may wonder about the many figures and influences left out. For example, although Martin Luther King Jr. is discussed along with James Baldwin, and both of these men have foundations in the Christian church, there is no chapter on Christianity or religion and its influence on the idea that Black lives matter. When one thinks of religion and powerful theologians, the contributions of Howard Thurman and even Malcolm X come to mind. In addition, I fully agree that Black art has been a consistent vehicle for our political expression, but there is so much more to Black art than the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. What about the impact of music, film, even comedy through the likes of Dick Gregory and Dave Chapelle? Finally, this brief history stops in the 1960s, whereas the Black Lives Matter movement did not officially begin until 2013. There is so much more to be attended to in the fifty-plus years not discussed by Lebron.
The reader is advised to keep in mind that this book, as the title makes clear, is meant to be a brief history. While it is true that there are many more important people who could have been discussed, the brevity of the text was intentional, as no doubt was Lebron’s choice of the eight notable figures who occupy his brief history. The book then should not be read as a comprehensive volume on the history of the philosophical underpinnings of the meaning of Black lives matter, but rather as a companion to other texts and as a launching point for those seeking to understand the philosophical structure upon which a twenty-first-century movement has been built. The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea successfully expands our understanding of what Black lives matter has meant historically, so that when we look at the Black Lives Matter movement today, we recognize it as the uttered expression of what so many before us have dedicated their life’s work toward upholding.