What do you think makes people uncomfortable with the phrase Black Lives Matter?
Issues of race can be very uncomfortable to talk about in general, in part because sometimes people have no idea what they’re talking about. What you get is people are very uncomfortable because they don’t know if they’re saying the right thing, if they’re being offensive, on a hundred different levels. Before Black Lives Matter made people uncomfortable, people have been uncomfortable talking about difficult issues around race, around racism, around bigotry. You can’t be so easily irritated that if you do say the wrong thing and step on toes, that if you get blasted for it you never have a conversation again. I think there’s also some people [who] are being obtuse about what Black Lives Matter means. People have defined and explained to people [that] in an ideal world, all people are treated equally. Anyone who says that’s the reality in this country is kind of being willfully ignorant on that issue. When these three young women coined this phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they coined it in response to black folk who were being treated like their lives didn’t matter. That’s the root of the phrase: even though society in a lot of different ways often treats black lives like they don’t matter, it’s a declaration, that yes they do. In this country, particularly if you are a black teenager, an unarmed black teenager, you’re almost 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than an unarmed white teenager. [To] say Black Lives Matter is to say, hey, why does this disparity exist? Where does it come from? That phrase Black Lives Matter is a phrase that’s also affirming for people who feel like they’re under attack. Even if it requires an explanation, the phrase makes sense to me.
Unquestionably, Black Lives Matter has done a lot of work in elevating dialogue in our country. Can you offer some criticism to the movement, or what would you like to see change in the movement’s approach?
All movements could be better. I regularly see people say things like, ‘Dr. King would be turning over in his grave if he saw this or that.’ [That’s] really ahistorical. The Civil Rights Movement was messy as a movement… They sometimes disagreed widely on how to approach those problems… So the Black Lives Matter movement is no different than that in the sense that some of us hardly know each other. Some of us see problems very differently. And so, a lot of people say, ‘Wow, I wish there was more unity in the Black Lives Matter movement.’ That’s never really been the case in any civil rights movement. There’s always disagreements and wildly different approaches. Less than a criticism, I’ll tell you where we’re going. For the past two years, this movement has been focused on building awareness. And I think we’ve succeeded. Here we are at the campus of Bates College in Maine talking about it…. Most Americans are aware that there’s police brutality. They were not aware of that just a couple years ago. We’re pivoting away just from awareness, which we will have to continue to do, to solutions. You’ll see in most movements, for a long time, you’re just trying to make people know that there is a problem. Once you’ve almost completely saturated the market, you then say, well how do we solve it? I think you’ll see more and more of us in the movement talking about what [the] solutions are and how we approach them. You’ll continue to see many of us disagree on many of those approaches, and I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy that we approach the problem from many different angles.
What role, if any, do you think your religion and faith plays in your social justice work? Do you think that religious values are something that can unite people?
One of the reasons I was excited to come here to Bates is a hero of mine, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, graduated from Bates and I graduated from Morehouse College, where he was president for 29 years and even before he was president, he was a professor and a debate team coach at Morehouse. And he was a man who had faith at the center of a lot of what he did, but did work that went way outside of religious circles… One of Benjamin Mays’ students was a man named Howard Thurman… He wrote this book called Jesus and the Disinherited. And Dr. King actually had that book when he was assassinated. Dr. King, Howard Thurman [and] Benjamin Mays all believed that their version of Christianity was one that fought against injustice. And I believe in that as well. There’s a huge evangelical Christian support of Donald Trump that I just can’t make sense of. And I’m deeply disturbed by [it]. But Dr. King was disturbed in the same way. He wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, and what it was really about was how he was confused and perplexed and bothered by his fellow white Christians in Birmingham, who seem[ed] to support segregation and worse… What bothered him the most was the silence of people who claimed to be Christian. So I don’t speak a lot publicly about my faith, but privately, it guides me, and it keeps me encouraged as well.
What sort of advice would you give with regards to motivation, inspiration? Who do you look to, and how would you guide young college students on their quest to make a difference in the world of social justice?
Some of the most amazing leaders in this movement are in their early 20s… Particularly college students and young leaders who are functioning inside of systems that they feel are racist or oppressive… I spoke at University of Kentucky last week, and earlier that day several students had people drive by in trucks and yell at them, have people throw stuff at them… And I felt terrible because I left that campus and flew back to New York… I just want to encourage students to know that if you look and study any movement over the last 100 years, students have always been involved, in part because they have a healthy recklessness that adults who have bills and jobs and all those other things don’t have. There’s a bravery and a courage that students have that you need to use… Don’t assume you’re too young to make a difference. Don’t assume you’re too far away from discrimination. Like the country might talk about Charleston, or Charlotte, or Baltimore, but there are problems right here in Maine, right here on this campus that need to be addressed… Just use the time you have and use it well.