Photo by Johnny Silvercloud (https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnnysilvercloud/28476745294), used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)
Kali Nicole Gross
2020 is a year that will undoubtedly go down in future U.S. history books as one marked by unprecedented political turmoil and social upheaval—tumult fueled not only by a deadly global pandemic, but also by a fierce nationwide rebuke of virulent anti-Black racism. There is no shortage of adages, clichés, or pithy quotations about the symbiotic relationship between the past and present—or the past and the future for that matter. Yet somehow this moment, far more than many others in recent memory, summons with an intense urgency the need for historians to provide context for what has happened and simultaneously help chart a course forward. The essays here manage both in ways that are persuasive and insistent.
They delve into the African American experience of racism and resistance in ways that are patently of the current moment and yet profoundly indicative of African Americans’ extensive history of struggle. Black people have fought back from the very beginning—against enslavers and forced family separations. Black folks have battled racial violence, segregation and routinized second-class citizenship, voter suppression, and biased criminal justice. And throughout this history Black women have been central to those efforts, often in their widely acknowledged roles as foot soldiers, but also as strategists and astute architects of antiracist activism.
African American women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett embodied antiracist practices. For example, early on Wells-Barnett advocated Black self-defense, advising Black families to keep Winchester rifles handy for racist attacks. Her stance in the late nineteenth century, however, was not new for Black people. Rather, Wells-Barnett reflected the legacy that Dr. Kellie Carter-Jackson maps in her pioneering work on abolitionism. Carter-Jackson’s essay here shows how Black abolitionists embraced force and violence “because decades of nonviolent organizing, demonstrations, and moral suasion failed to protect black people and failed to produce liberation.” That radicalism has been echoed throughout Black history and expanded upon across generations.
Through her paper, the Memphis Free Speech, and subsequent publications, Wells-Barnett helped wring out an independent, radical articulation of Black resistance. Her collective organizing with Black clubwomen helped fund the publication of widely circulated booklets about the extralegal murders of Black women and men at the hands of racist whites. Substantial fundraising efforts also allowed for Wells-Barnett to take her campaign on the road, both nationally and internationally. The latter was impressive for a Black woman of her time. Her decision to take the antilynching campaign abroad strikes at the core of transatlantic anti-Blackness in a broad sense, and yet it rested at the precipice of still wider geographic forays.
Increasingly, Black activists understood that challenging racism and white supremacy was a global endeavor. Whereas Wells-Barnett’s campaign took her to Europe, “During the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, James Weldon Johnson and several other race leaders encouraged African Americans to identify their interests with Asian people,” as Keisha Blain points out. African Americans understood white supremacy as a corrosive impacting their lives and also decried it in racist immigration policies like those that targeted Asian immigrants. Black internationalist organizations sought coalitions aimed at constructing a global assault on white supremacy—believing this would ultimately strengthen resistance movements at home.
Even as African Americans took their battles abroad, masses of others fought oppression wherever they found it. Some of the most powerful movements have been undertaken by Black athletes. Amira Rose Davis shows that before Colin Kaepernick took to the knee, bravely calling attention to anti-Black police brutality, his actions were preceded by decades and decades of Black athletic protest—by professional sports players and also by students at the collegiate level. Davis’s work also charts how university administrations changed policies and rules to undermine students’ demonstrations. Such countermeasures are hardly new.
Black resistance movements have always had to contend with repressive forces, particularly those of the state. As Ashley Farmer’s insightful piece reveals, “under the watch of multiple presidents and Attorneys General the government has engaged in decades-long surveillance and harassment campaigns against Black activists that began with the creation of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908.” That surveillance evolved alongside the various resistance movements and under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and “expanded significantly with his establishment of the Counterintelligence Program or COINTELPRO. From 1956 to 1971, federal agents partnered with state officials and police to eavesdrop on phone calls, create false mail and ‘Black propaganda’ publications, infiltrate organizations, and fabricate evidence aimed at turning activists against each other.” Farmer calls attention to the ways that Black women’s groups especially became a thorn in Hoover’s side and as such endured intense FBI scrutiny. When paired with LaShawn Harris’s essay, we learn that this surveillance works as part of a larger judicial schema, in that sense that “African American women and girls have experienced a long and painful history of police brutality. Like African American men and boys, police terror, in its varying and insidious forms, was an occupying force in women’s everyday lives.”
But then as now, just as activists have run afoul of repressive forces of the state, they have also found effective ways to thwart it. This summer’s national uprisings ran the gamut of expressions from nonviolent demonstrations to those revolts that witnessed violent clashes with authorities and the destruction and looting of local businesses. Ashley Howard’s essay maps the range of protest expression to explore in part how “violent revolts represent a microcosm of our communities, capturing the web of intersectional identities in various social hierarchies.” Howard argues that “an individual’s decision whether to participate and what that participation looks like reflects their regional, gendered, racial, and class identities most acutely.” Howard’s work shows that while there are clear parallels between today’s uprisings and those of decades prior, a new era of antiracist activism dawns.
Still, the lessons from the past are crucial for us to effectively meet this moment. Shannon King’s essay moves through the layers of deaths that have shaped various generations to present powerful models for teaching. He approaches this by “centering the uneven battle between anti-Black violence and Black resistance as prelude of Black uprisings” while simultaneously “spotlighting the problematic of cross-generational anti-Black violence and the long history of racial injustice found in the criminal justice system.” His essay explores historical memory and trauma in the process and offers meaningful assignments and questions to spark important dialogs.
Those proposed discussions, like the powerful themes in all of these essays, demand an unflinching examination of the intersectional rot underscoring American democracy. It also necessitates a firm resolve to better understand the potential of Black resistance as a powerful curative.
Kali Nicole Gross is an Acting Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She is also the National Publications Director for the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), 2019-2021, and a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Her primary historical research explores Black women’s experiences in the U.S. criminal justice system and her expertise and opinion pieces have been featured in press outlets such as Vanity Fair, TIME, The Root, BBC News, Ebony, HuffPo, Warscapes, The Washington Post, and Jet. She has appeared on venues such as ABC, C-Span, NBC, and NPR.