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Black Matter

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Black Matter

Nasser H

This blog post was originally posted on Kevin John Fong of Elemental Partners. Since 1995, Founder and President, Kevin Fong and his partners have worked with hundreds of organizations from the public and private sectors through several service areas to help their clients achieve excellence.Elemental Partners strengthens the capacity of organizations to build and sustain practical frameworks for governance and operations that are based upon transparency, accountability and collaboration.

by Kevin John Fong


"Black Lives Matter" has become a ubiquitous term in our society. But when I ask people if they know who originally coined the term, even racial and social justice activists struggle for an answer. When preachers and politicians proclaim "Black Lives Matter," do they realize they are touting a phrase that originated from a conversation between two radical queer Black women?
 
"Black Lives Matter"  was first used in an exchange between two friends - Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors - after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. They later partnered with Opal Tometi to establish the social media infrastructure that we now know as

Following the tragic events of this past summer and fall, "Black Lives Matter" became a rallying cry for a new movement. But it wasn't long before mainstream society, media, corporations and even President Obama revised the term to "All Lives Matter", "Blue Lives Matter", and "Everybody Matters" to name a few. 


The pasteurization of "Black Lives Matter" reminded me of a conversation I had with my mentor, Dr. Price Cobbs, a respected psychiatrist, civil rights pioneer, and author of the seminal 1978 book, “Black Rage.” In his memoir, Dr. Cobbs writes of a contentious civil rights meeting he attended in 1967 -

Just as the shouting became almost unbearable, someone uttered the phrase “Black is Beautiful”...body language changed, smiles appeared, heads nodded. We were suddenly no longer “Negroes” in that meeting. We were “blacks.” And we were beautiful. Just the sound of these three simple words formed a pivotal moment...(they) defined what and who we were. It was our truth.

"Black is Beautiful" was first coined in 1858 by African-American abolitionist John S. Rock, but it wasn't used until the mid-1960's as a rallying cry for the Black Power movement. By 1970, Ray Stevens, a Caucasian country singer known for his hit "Ahab the Arab," topped the charts and won a Grammy for his song - "Everything is Beautiful." A short time later, the phrase that moved and empowered activists like Dr. Price Cobbs was being used to sell cookware.

How did this happen? What does it mean? And why does it matter?
 
Take a look at these statements side by side -
 

Black is Beautiful - Everything is Beautiful
Black Lives Matter - All Lives Matter

The spirit between the former and the latter are fundamentally different.  Like pasteurized milk, the latter statements are cooked to a degree that retains some of the original flavor but renders the new form as safe for general consumption.  In this society, it seems perfectly acceptable for some to say, "If we just cut the 'black' out and replace it with 'everything' or 'all', the situation is solved."
 
The intent of "Black is Beautiful" and "Black Lives Matter" is to empower, mobilize and agitate. Statements like "Everything is Beautiful" and "All Lives Matter"  deny the existence of any tensions, suppress confrontation, and placate the mainstream. In other words, the latter statements perpetuate the very constructs that the former statements are trying to deconstruct.
 
At a recent workshop I facilitated on Race and Culture, one of the participants (a person of color) said "Why should these words matter? Why do we always focus on Black vs. White, when deep down, we're all the same? Why can't I just do my job and help people?"
 
I understood his frustration. As a doctor working with low income communities, he just wanted to do his job. He may hope that invoking the words, "All lives matter," will smooth things over. But for whatever comfort the word change brings, a fundamental injustice remains.
 
Knowledge is power. Words are important. If you hear or use an adapted version of Black Lives Matter, please talk about its inception, intent and political framing. You will honor the women who coined the term, open opportunities for dialogue, and help bring us together by fostering more truthful awareness and understanding.