Black Lives Matter: The lessons that fail to be learned
Words of Colour's executive director Joy Francis speaks her truth about the impact of George Floyd's murder and the global Black Lives Matter Protests and asks: when will we be in a position where we hear the words ‘lesson learned’?
‘We must learn the lessons…’ ‘It must never happen again…’ These earnest and urgent statements are all too painfully familiar. After every inquiry, every tragedy, every miscarriage of justice, these hollow words are wheeled out for public consumption then locked away until the next time a lesson isn’t, inevitably, learned.
We heard these words after the untimely deaths of David ‘Rocky’ Bennett, Cherry Groce and Stephen Lawrence, but only because their families fought long and hard for justice. So, what will the legacy of George Floyd be? And what will we allow it to be? It cannot be what we know it was on the verge of becoming: George Floyd as another statistic.
It should never take a Black man being killed so heartlessly, with such casual violence, in public view by a white police officer, seemingly unperturbed at being filmed, to shame governments, institutions and individuals into action.
Why has it taken Black Lives Matter global protests, during a pandemic, to generate hand-wringing and symbolic statements of support – from corporations to heritage and artistic institutions – about their commitment to us? Why did it have to inspire the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe to highlight the stark difference in the fiscal value placed on white compared to Black writers? And why has it given Black writers and artists the confidence to now reveal a litany of mistreatment by publishers, agents, or film distributors after years of bearing the burden in secret?
What is undeniable is that many corporate institutions and creative industries, who have declared their commitment to Black Lives Matter, are among those who only two weeks ago would have said they were already doing enough. That our stories were too niche. That ‘quality’ Black writers were hard to find or that it would take time for change to happen. I would say 400 years is long enough to understand how structural racism, white privilege and paternalism works.
Black artists have used their talents and ancestral pain to reveal the realities of our experience through poems, plays, novels, memoirs, films, essay, articles, documentaries, paintings and sculptures. If you have managed to somehow miss this cultural treasure trove, then there’s Google’s search engine, Twitter and other social media platforms to reduce any ignorance about who we are.
Black Lives Matter is a fact, yet this anti-racist global movement has had to fight against a system built on our backs, based on a hierarchy that dictates the terms of engagement. A structural hierarchy that feeds into all aspects of our lives, including the arts and publishing.
This single narrative, filtered through a privileged white middle class lens, largely accepts its truth as the benchmark for all. One that often reframes Black Lives Matter as an attack on the lives of white people. As if our respective realities cannot co-exist. That, somehow, Black Lives Matter seeks to undermine white reality when, for centuries, the reverse has been true.
The point is that what happened to George Floyd is frustratingly and crushingly common. And that fact needs to horrify everyone. There has been a dismissiveness of our deaths at the hands of agents of the state by mainstream society. A tacit belief that this is a Black reality, not anyone else’s. That, somehow, we must be bringing it on ourselves. If this weren’t an underlying narrative in our society, there would be consistent outrage on our behalf, leading to real structural, interpersonal and institutional change. There hasn’t been, though based on the diversity of people joining the uprisings online and in real life, the tide may be turning.
We have been gifted with a unique confluence of circumstances that have provided us with an opportunity for transformation, growth and sustainable change. We also have to indirectly thank the largely white and male inhabitants of Silicon Valley, for inadvertently creating social media platforms that allow us to share our truth before the media does. Platforms that give us access to a global audience and allows us to counter cultural falsehoods while fighting off racist trolls.
Yes, going digital can leave us burnt out, hurt and in retreat, but it can also lead us to our tribes and allies, expose us to useful knowledge and new audiences, and inspire us to be stronger, powerful and more determined.
Then there is impact of the ongoing pandemic. Covid-19 has restricted our freedom of movement. It has forced us to face our mortality and has scores of us glued to the news cycle, social media feeds or engaged in WhatsApp groups in the hunt for accurate information, community, solutions and healing.
As a result, mainstream society’s capacity to shut out or disregard any inconvenient truth, such as the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black and Asian people, due to pre-existing inequalities, is hampered as it cannot be excused away as a fallacy. The blind spot isn’t ours.
For me, it has been a time of both loss and transformation. A desire to consolidate how I want to honour and care for myself and live fully. Like many Black women, I do too much. I want to ensure that the Words of Colour family will continue to creatively contribute to the world and the success and sustainability of Black and other racialised people, particularly creatives and writers, when I have to move on. To do this, we have to create safe spaces to heal and recover, to be heard and counted as this reality is traumatising and has significant consequences for our mental wellbeing.
George Floyd, a man who until a few weeks ago was a stranger to us, is now lodged in our memory bank. His image graffitied onto walls and buildings across the globe while the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ now pour, with less scorn, from the lips of government ministers, sportspeople and archbishops, making it harder to say – ‘this has nothing to do with me’.
It is still too soon, and too raw, to speculate where all this will lead and land. Hopefully, we will be in a position where when we hear the words ‘lesson learned’ – we believe it. Until then, the fight for true inclusion, equity and social justice continues.