I never actually watched the life being squeezed out of George Floyd. The descriptions were enough to make my stomach turn. Coming so quickly on the back of the police killing of Breonna Taylor and the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery there are only so many images of violence you can take. It didn’t help that I was in the editing stage of the The New Age of Empire, having to recount horrific details of racist barbarity committed over the centuries. As the Black Lives Matter summer demonstrated there is no respite in the present day: from Black bodies being left to drown in the Mediterranean to a child dying every 10 seconds because of racialised poverty. In the era of right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson it feels like we are under attack. So many of my events with Black colleagues and community have become like support groups, where we spend the first several minutes trying to catch our collective breath. In one meeting I was asked to share how I was coping with the trauma, but rather than being deflated by the moment, this is where we can thrive.
Seeing the open racism of someone like Trump is powerful because it removes the scales from our eyes. Malcolm X explained that he preferred the snarling racism of the ‘Southern Wolf’ to the trickery of the ‘Northern Fox’, who "bared their teeth in smile", pursuing policy just as racist whilst pretending to be progressive. One of the biggest mistakes we have made over the last 40 years is having faith that we can reform a system rooted in white supremacy. Contrary to popular belief we are not in a new moment of racial protest, in many ways we are returning to the struggles that dominated the late twentieth century. Movements for racial justice were incredibly successful in bringing in laws to criminalise racial prejudice and open up just enough space for those fortunate, like me, to “make it”. But we are now seeing the limits of that change, recognising that when we took the road of reform it was a cul-de-sac. As dispiriting as it is to find yourself at the end of a wrong track, at least it allows you to double back and find your way. After everything that transpired in 2020 we should all now be able to see the big glaring sign in front of us reading ‘dead end’.
Thousands of young people out on the streets demanding change is giving me hope that change is possible. There have always been protests and organisations striving for racial justice but the uncomfortable truth is that before Black Lives Matter erupted in 2013 the millennium was marked by a relative lack of a sustained movement. But the spark has been lit with the ready access to videos of police abuses. What is even more encouraging is that the most brutal, obvious acts of racism are being connected to the more subtle, structural inequalities. Changes are being called for in healthcare, education and on climate justice and there is no compromise in the demands. We are hearing calls to ‘defund the police’, ‘abolish prisons’ and connections being made between global poverty and racial inequality in the West. This is a generation of young people who were raised on the lie that if they just worked hard they would have the same opportunities. It is no surprise that they can see straight through the false promises and are struggling for a better world.
Black women have always been central to Black politics, from Amy Jacques Garvey, to Claudia Jones, to Ella Baker and Althea Jones Lecointe. The most important Black organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, had at its peak in the 1920s over two million members across dozens of countries, an organisation so large it had observer status at League of Nations meetings. Although Garvey, its leader, was forbidden from going to Africa by the colonial powers the red, gold and green that we can see splashed across African nations flags are a testament to the influence of Garveyism, as is the black star in the middle of the Ghanaian flag taken from the UNIA’s ‘Black Star Line’.
I grew up in Black activism in Britain and learning from Black women leaders was a standard feature of activism. Figures such as Leila Hassan Howe and Beverley Bryan are now starting to get some credit for their contributions but there is an abundance of work to do in this area. But it remains true that Black movements were marked by misogyny, like the rest of society. A key source of hope today is the unapologetic embrace of Black feminist ideas in the movement, creating spaces where all Black people who want liberation can belong.
The movement that has reignited mass mobilisations. Black Lives Matter was started by three queer women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors-khan and Opal Tometi, but the change goes beyond who is leading the organisations. BLM in the US and the UK has squarely committed to Black feminist ideals, and the #sayhername campaign started by Kimberle Crenshaw is drawing attention to the Black women killed by the police. In the UK we can similarly see the centrality of Black female leaders and commitment to intersectional politics, with BLM UK donating funds to groups working to support the range of Black experiences. Watching the next generation of young people, representing the complexity of Black life is all the hope we should need for the future.
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Kehinde Andrews is the author of The New Age of Empire.
Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin. Photograph: Stuart Simpson/Penguin.