Why My Black Life Matters

Reflections on Alicia Garza's October 30th lecture.

Photo credit: Jay Coney

As I reflect on PBHA’s 2015 Robert Coles “Call to Service” Lecture and Award featuring Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Alicia Garza, I feel empowered. The Black Lives Matter network challenges systemic violence against Black and Brown bodies by demanding that skin color does not denote criminality. According to Alicia, the movement was started by people who have a complete love for humanity and vision of what this world can be. That doesn’t mean that everyone thinks the same way or engages in the same tactics. People of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds have organized peaceful protests in solidarity to demand that all people have the right to a quality of life, and have been meet by militarized police forces. In addition to police violence, the Black Lives Matter network addresses education gaps, mass incarceration, reproductive justice, LGBTQ equity, and many other issues, both domestically and internationally. Alicia reminded me that social change can be actualized in my lifetime. Systemic inequality cannot be eradicated by one person, but history proves that when people come together with a common vision anything is possible.

Lessons Learned:

#1 My Black life matters because I am human, not because of the ways that other people perceive me.

Alicia dedicated the award to the families of those whose lives have been taken by those put in power to protect them. Alicia then discussed the process of court proceedings in the event that a Black life is taken. With every life lost in the Black community, we continuously watch court proceedings as those who have been murdered are characterized as “thugs,” as a means to legitimize their murders.
After her speech, Alicia mentioned why Black youth shouldn’t be encouraged to change their hair, clothing, and mannerisms in order to be respected and treated equally. Alicia rightfully stated that the appearance of a person is not grounds for persecution or murder. In truth, the American dream cannot be achieved through working hard or earning a quality education if your skin is Black. Black life is not valued in this society regardless of how you dress, speak, or style your hair. Enforcing politics of respectability has resulted in the justification and exacerbation of anti-blackness sentiments. The politics of respectability mandate the social positioning of Black people based on conduct rather than humanity.
My life matters, not because I’m a fellow at Harvard or because I have a bachelor’s degree from a top tier research institution. My life matters because I am human, and my humanity cannot be reduced to how eloquently I speak, how well I dress, or how my hair is styled. The value of my life cannot be reduced to the extent that others can tolerate my authenticity.

The value of my life cannot be reduced to the extent that others can tolerate my authenticity.

#2 My Black life matters regardless of my social positioning in the matrix of domination.

Alicia motivated all participants to respond to the call for service by serving on any issue that means something to them with whatever resources that are accessible to them. We are all affected by social injustice, whether it is happening to us directly or indirectly. The continuous murders of Black and Brown people plants seeds of unjust practices within the minds and hearts of children, who grow up to normalize systemic violence against Black and Brown bodies. This can lead to youth not valuing their own life or rationalizing these injustices by blaming the individual rather than systems of oppression (hence, politics of respectability).
It is also important to recognize where we stand in the matrix of domination, and reflect on how we contribute to the oppression of others and ourselves. Alicia challenged the audience to ask themselves, what is masculinity and how does masculinity serve you? Assigning gender roles and engaging in gender policing through a lens of binary gender and sexual identities informed by patriarchy can be internalized and normalized, like the killings of Black and Brown people. The acceptance of systemic injustices can only perpetuate those injustices, by design. Where each of us stands in the matrix of domination determines the social positioning of another, and that is why all of us must accept the call for service. Alicia reminded us of Frederick Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without demand.” It’s on us to change the world we live in by demanding a new normal. This calls for each of us to step out of our comfort zone and find power within ourselves that we may never have known existed.

Courtney A. Woods currently serves as a fellow with the Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard College. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in Social Science, with a Community Governance and Advocacy Concentration and Political Science Cognate, in addition to a Philosophy and Law Minor.

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