BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea’

Two recent Twin Cities news stories — the trial of former St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez and verdict in the fatal shooting Philando Castile, and the family of Jamar Clark suing Minneapolis Police Officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze — highlight what has become all too commonplace here and across the country: African American lives selectively imperiled by police departments sworn to protect and serve all.

These stories and subsequent outrage are disquietingly reminiscent of some 50 years ago when national news report after news report detailed Black unrest.

In the 1960s, after what Dick Gregory, citing the Declaration of Independence, described as “long periods of injustice,” America refused to respect that Black lives mattered until the figurative cauldron boiled over, from coast to coast, literally shedding blood in the streets.

One reasonably wonders whether that is what it will take in this era — for things to keep getting much worse before they get any better at all. The Black Lives Matter Movement, having emerged and grown as a peaceful protest movement, conceivably stands on that precipice, a virtual storm warning.

(Courtesy of Oxford University Press)

An incisive, powerfully articulate book on Black lives mattering couldn’t be more timely. Oxford University Press has instead published Christopher J. Lebron’s ineffectual The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea, a stilted, pretentious exercise in grandstanding intellect that, itself, addresses Black lives in the abstract and not as human beings whose flesh and blood are on the line.

It has all the heated, heartfelt passion of a roughly 200-page term paper. For instance, “Conceiving of a refreshed radical black politics faces serious obstacles. Some of these are local and private: basic failures of imagination, fear of what directly confronting power requires of each of us, or simple lack of motivation.” Similarly, Lebron props the book with quotes from historic figures, hardly a fault in and of itself, but confines it to those with the loftiest language (e.g. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes).

He does include the wondrously eloquent James Baldwin, but, eschews gutsy, grassroots icons like Gregory, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and more who, like Baldwin, arose from the fire last time and spoke to the common man, woman and, for that matter, child. The populace whose wellbeing were at stake in the ’60s and are at stake today.

One obvious difference between the ’60s and now is there are no longer as many Black citizens with as much at stake. This Yale University assistant professor of African American Studies and Philosophy overlooks that among those to whom grassroots Black lives evidently don’t matter are academia, where the ’60s trenched warfare forced open thousands of doors through which many walked and closed right behind them.

The gulf between educated and uneducated Black America has grown wide as the ocean slavers crossed. Scores have assimilated into the upper middle class, their credo changing from “We Shall Overcome” to “I Have Overcome.” The book blithely ignores that police are not brutalizing and gunning down moneyed Blacks in privileged neighborhoods, but the everyday world.

Most conspicuous among those comfortably assimilated, Barack Obama had to have his hand forced, embarrassed by Congressman Bobby Rush’s protest on the house floor, before he said a word about Trayvon Martin. And that was with the weak-kneed statement, “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon.” Action important to Black America never happened because the leader Black votes put in power stood on the sidelines while public protest was all over the news. Lebron fails to call Obama to account or address what the president’s resolute disconnect from the Black community may have cost Black Lives Matter. Oh, the difference he could’ve made had he stood up and been counted.

The Making of Black Lives Matter indulges a great deal of sterile, self-impressed pontification amid constant name-dropping to exploit the issue at hand more than actually address it.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.