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Of Hashtags and Home

The Department of Justice released its “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” this week. Its findings, once again, raise the call of #blacklivesmatter, Twitter’s form of public protest against public violations—in particular, racist laws and law enforcement.[1] Yet at the heart of #blacklivesmatter is something a bit less public and more private; #blacklivesmatter calls us to prepare the kind of space where grief and anger are okay, where rage is not fearful but necessary, where public outcries make sense. It’s there—“somewhere in the bend of an elbow” or in the private spaces between hashtags, demonstrations, and vexed kitchen table conversations—where I witness what feels so very familiar about these three words. What #blacklivesmatter demands, right ways of feeling, reminds me of home. Black lives matter there because each feels in whatever way that matters, at home. When I speak of “home,” I mean what Toni Morrison tells us is “a-world-in-which-race-does-not-matter.” Now, the world where race does not matter is neither the site of some proverbial, post-racial utopia nor is it a color-blind fantasyland that sells itself as the actualization of King’s dream.

Where race does not matter, #blacklivesmatter. Home. Race does not matter where “black”—as a cultural moniker, a mark upon the skin, or a racial identifier—is normal enough to go without mention and is not simply the curious by-product of an unspoken past. At home where black can exist as a normal and, therefore, in relation to itself, white supremacy neither governs nor determines how language or experience makes meaning. Rather, home is a creative space wherein we live in those “compellingly human” ways that invite us to bear witness to the substance of what matters or to the affective experience of a collective humanity.[2] When I think of “home,” I think of the place where we get to create meaning and matter in spite of the improvidence of white supremacy rather than because of it. Home is where I am safe to live in a language that believes in me; and there, I am safe enough to feel, to laugh, or to get angry. I get to say what feels good. I get to say what I hate and what I love. Black lives matter in these homegrown spaces wherein those black lives claim and define meaning in ways that may refuse or ignore the world outside.

Home is not a public or inclusive space. Not everyone is invited home and not everyone should be. It is private and interior. #Blacklivesmatter publicizes this interiority and in so doing, compels the feeling that it seeks. It too gets to determine meaning even as it seeks to create new ways of meaning and reminders of being. I find myself most compelled by the anger for which it asks because I know it. And because I have had to come home to live it out, and to talk and walk it out.

I had a student once read “nigger” instead of “negro” as she recited the lines of a Phillis Wheatley poem. Her rendition of “On Being Brought from Africa to America” went like this, “Remember Christians, niggers, black as cain/Maybe be refin’d and join the angelic train.” She read it this way three times in quick succession. When asked why she insisted on pronouncing the word “nigger” instead of “Negro,” she responded, “I thought the word was pronounced that way.” Her mispronunciation seemed an innocent problem of the native speaker who cannot discern the differences between Negroes and niggers—in language or in people. I can’t tell you the cause of her sleight of language; I admit I’m not particularly interested in questions of causality. What concerns me most is what happened to the anger I felt in real time. I couldn’t speak it. I couldn’t scream it or fight it out. I was the teacher who had learned long ago that this kind of anger has no place against a so-called innocent mistake.

Instead I had to find home; I had to find where I mattered and where I could speak in ways that would not affect my tenure or my professionalism. I had to go home to be the angry black woman whose life mattered like so many other lives. Even as mainstream news cycles forget the matters of black lives, #Blacklivesmatter continues to confess the unspeakable truth that this “home” exists. It exists because of (and not in spite of) the beautiful anger of those who are not supposed to feel. I don’t know the shelf life of a hashtag. My invocation of #blacklivesmatter may already date me. But, what I do know is that its message—black lives matter—invokes an ages-old call, response, demand, and appeal. It is part of a genealogy that has sought to create spaces in which black people and their unapologetically black lives can be at home.

–Tara Bynum: Of Baltimore and rowhomes.

[1] For the “herstory” of this hashtag, see http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[2] Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2004) 9. Ralph Ellison, “A Very Stern Discipline: An Interview with Ralph Ellison.” Harper’s (March 1967).

Image credit: Mickalene Thomas, detail of installed living room, 2014

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