American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020

The Love Note That Launched a Movement

Carly Jennings, Doctoral Student and Research Assistant, Texas A&M University

We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where Black lives matter. Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter. -Alicia Garza, in her “Love Letter to Black Folks” (2013)

Carly Jennings

How can there be a counter-frame to a prima facie observation that Black lives matter? Why do people read "Black lives matter" as "Black deaths matter”? This article focuses on data-dense Twitter discourse for analyzing this particular conversation about Black lives’ merit in America.

She Said What She Said

Garza’s love letter to Black people flowed from her aching response to the verdict in a criminal case. A Florida jury had decided not to hold George Zimmerman responsible for his shooting and killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin who was only armed with iced tea, candy, and a little swagger. Perhaps as alarming as the verdict was the nihilism Garza heard in response. Many of her peers had predicted such a response to this perversion of life’s natural course for the Black teenager. Alicia Garza’s friend, Patrisse Cullors, immediately “co-signed” the love letter’s simple thesis by tagging her posts on Twitter with #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM). Black Twitter, a densely populated culture-based network within Twitter, quickly embraced Alicia’s reminder: “we deserve to live.”

Connections between collective grief and #BLM’s messages of consolation are clear. In addition to adopting #BLM as a hashtag, online supporters amplified the message by disclosing their personal experiences surviving violent policing. According to Pew Research Center, from the day of the Zimmerman verdict in July 2013 until the end of that year, about 30 reminders per day that Black people’s lives matter were posted – 5,106 times in total. The following summer, consolation was again needed. On August 9, 2014, Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson ended Michael Brown’s life. Pew Research reports that in the sudden aftermath, 58,747 #BLM tweets per day were posted. Between 2013 and 2016, Black Twitter and allies found it necessary to tweet their mantra 11.8 million times, repeating Garza’s thesis: Black people deserve to live, #BLM.

Black Lives Literally Matter

This year, on June 25, Black Twitter commemorated Tamir Rice’s birthday. He should have become an 18-year old instead of forever being a child who was executed at the playground by an unfit police officer. Space-camp kid Trayvon Martin – his life mattered. He did not deserve to be stalked and killed by a self-deputized gun owner. Recently elected Congresswoman Lucy McBath’s life matters, and so did the life of her son Jordan. Jordan’s life ended while he was still a teen. Some adult shot him at a convenience store because the guy thought Jordan’s friend’s music was too loud. Jordan’s musical taste did matter, though. The guy who shot him hates rap music. Twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor’s life mattered—the part she lived and the future life she deserved to have. One night after Breonna and her partner Kenneth had fallen asleep, police with a “no-knock” warrant knocked down the door with a battering ram. Kenneth grabbed his weapon—his 2nd amendment right—but was assailed by a barrage of police bullets, eight of which tore into Breonna’s body. For the last five minutes of her life, Breonna gasped and bled before succumbing to those injuries. People who say “Black lives matter” should be taken literally and seriously. It is unkind to discomfort people in mourning.

The notion that Black people deserve to live did not suddenly occur to Alicia Garza one night in 2013. That simple tenet has needed repeating for hundreds of American years. Harriet Tubman’s serial fugitivity lived by that uncomplicated tenet. Ida B. Wells, the 19th century Black investigative reporter who exposed social intricacies of vigilantism and lynching, said so in her exhaustive survey of extra-judicial killings, many planned with cooperation from off-duty police officials. In current-day Chicago, Nicole Van Cleve has exposed the brutal “quality” of life meted out by Cook County’s judicial system. Black parents racially socialize their children on how to stay alive during police encounters, instead of enjoying the privilege of expecting police officers to protect their Black lives.

Say What?

Tangentially, and in retort to #BLM’s organic and robust online presence, a subgroup of general Twitter users began tweeting “#AllLivesMatter (#ALM).” More than 1.5 million times between 2013 and 2016, some people actually contested, in writing, in public, the notion that “Black lives matter.” #ALM posters evinced clear patterns: the number of #ALM posts rose and fell in concert with, as counter to, #BLM declarations, which themselves were countering illegitimate police usage of violence. The #ALM proclaimers do not engage in significant or sustained self-determined collective action – they are content with interrupting potentially lifesaving calls and responses. The timing of #ALM’s deployment suggests it is more than flippant correction of a slogan they dislike. When used, #ALM amounts to an attempted undoing of something many people are not comfortable seeing: Black folk engaged in a conversation FUBU (for us by us).

In the harrowing context of extrajudicial killings of Black people, #BLM became a public soothing, a life-affirming counter-frame to premature death, as well as a memorialization of lives lost. But the word “life” in the middle of this slogan is often misread by #BLM rebutters as “death.” Why? I suggest this begins with mental and racial frames white people connect to Black people. More often than not, those frames are incomplete. For example, in the mid-20th century, Emmitt Till was one of a few African Americans whose name was recognized by millions of white people. But most white folk did not actually see Emmitt’s face in life; they met only his corpse on September 6, 1955, after a gang of adult men kidnapped, lynched, and disfigured him. Emmitt’s courageous mother, Mamie, aware of intense media attention surrounding her son’s murder, opted for an open-casket funeral, thereby displaying the teratology of white American racism. Therefore, when Emmitt was referenced in the ensuing decades of racial reckoning, the white American imaginary could not compose a living Emmitt. A living Emmitt was available only to those who knew him while he had life – Black people, for the most part. For others, he was and remains framed as death.

How does one come to counter-frame a counter-frame of death? By operating from several mistaken presumptions. One such presumption is that the #BLM slogan needed correction – that “All Lives Matter” is a better watchword than “Black Lives Matter.” By presuming an emphasis on “Black” was a deficit, rather than an intentional call. Black is considered beautiful by many, not something to be avoided. #ALM advocates are again mistaken when they presume there is a place for them in a movement of which they are explicitly not a part. Especially if they cannot even bring themselves to say “Black.”  Another #ALM error stems from mistaking a self-reflexive, prognostic and solution-oriented framing by Black activists for a diagnostic frame that would attribute blame to white people, and thereby center white people. The words “Black Lives Matter” contain motivational resources, Afro-centered epistemology, and a prophetic tone so familiar to those who speak “Black.” The phrase does not contain the stuff of which diagnostic frames are composed: deficit, blame, deceit, injury, and complaints thereof. Although the #BLM movement has evolved to interrogate systemic racism, their foundational words do not assign blame. Yet, since the hashtag’s inception and amplification, there has been pushback working to diffuse the slogan’s impact and subsequent blame. This matter of life and death misread should not be mistaken for what sociologists call a “framing contest.” Falsely equating one “side” with the other erroneously suggests parity between two sides. There are not bona fide movement activists on “both sides.” The #ALM proclaimers do not engage in organized, collective praxis or organized mobilization; they just heckle.

Why is that short slogan about Black lives so troubling to naysayers? Is it because something is elevated to importance? I don't think so – America’s merit trope is beloved. Is the word "lives" the problem? Certainly not. That would mean naysayers “don’t care if someone dies,” – an apt definition of hatred I learned from a young child. "Black." Could that be what triggers attempts to de-center Blackness in this outcry over systemic existential threats? Say it ain’t so. Surely serious people would not think it necessary to correct Black people who are talking to other Black people about Black people. That would be akin to one’s neighbor stopping by to announce they dislike your book club's choice of literature. Your neighbor doesn’t know Spanish, so “shouldn’t the book choices be something all people would like?” The perplexing part: your neighbor is not a member of the book club. So, what fuels their presumption of authority? With saintly courtesy, some members of the book club might respond, “¿De que habla? Nos encanta la poesía de Excilia Saldana,” though others might just close the door, leaving the interloper outside. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement does not need to change its words – because only those words can make the salient point the movement exists to make.

This is a "A" and "B" Conversation, So "C" Your Way Out

What undergirds the disempowering boundary breaches the #BLM movement experiences? Whereas I have sometimes named hubris as the primary spiritual malady causing people to overstep racial discursive bounds, sociologist Glenn Bracey might suggest more dynamic root causes such as presuming Black people are desirous of becoming more recognizable by others (i.e., assimilation) and further, that Black people’s success is facilitated by being recognizable to others. Whatever the depth of analysis, many analytical paths taken by African American theorizers lead to confrontation with dominant white framing. I see the audacity of trying to rename a movement as another way of presuming there is consensus on the desirability of Black assimilation to white norms.

Typically, a call-and-response ritual is a unifying, or at least socially regulating, mechanism. It is not unusual for Black people to encourage each other’s words with yet more words. When a sermon (a call) sets out upon a crescendo, listeners respond, “Preach!” If I register a valid complaint to a sympathetic ear, in return I will hear, “I know THAT’s right!” But if I re-hash an oft-repeated complaint I might get a lukewarm “I heard that…” Adhesive-strength unanimity might inspire a response difficult for non-Black people to decipher: “Who YOU telling?” Someone being unreasonable or shocking is likely to hear “Oh no you didn’t” – even though they clearly just did. A child’s misbehavior can be reined in by a vague, yet prophetic, “mHmm. Keep on!” Someone untrustworthy “ain’t shit,” which sounds like a good thing to accuse someone of not being – but trust me, it isn’t.

Similarly, as a large, dynamic, conversational community, Black Twitter is a pitch-perfect venue for Black messaging and issues framing. Its denizens provide calls, responses, and reality checks on matters “for us, by us.” It is therefore unsurprising that Black Twitter has become an online space where coded conversations flow freely. With home culture frames as points of reference, Black folk on Twitter join together to laugh, celebrate, grieve, wickedly understate, gleefully overstate, jab, signify, watch the BET awards, and applaud each other. More than other factors I have considered while theorizing the bifurcated response to those three plain words, “Black Lives Matter,” it is Twitter’s demonstrated capacity to sustain and encourage Black people’s rhetorical cultures that indicates how insular the #BLM hashtag was, and was intended to be, at its inception. Alicia Garza said as much: She wrote a love letter to Black folk, not a hypothesis to be subjected to “peer” review.