Jonathan Mathias Lassiter, PhD
Black lives matter. And #BlackLivesMatter, a movement founded after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, is bringing this fundamental truth to the masses. As cited on the movement’s website, “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” #BlackLivesMatter’s mission is a radical one. The mission takes seriously the plight of the “least of these” to which Jesus often referred. This makes sense given that the movement was founded by three Black queer women (Casper, 2014). Black queer women live intersectionality and must often challenge a world that regards them as subordinate in androcentric, heteronormative, and ethnocentric paradigms that privilege white heterosexual males. It is also womanist in that Black women, central to the movement, are working to not only improve their lives but all Black lives.
Challenging oppressive systems requires an intersectional framework that is cross cutting and examines the ways in which several oppressive forces act interdependently at the microlevel to impact people’s lives structurally. We have had centuries, since the start of European colonialism, of people of color being assaulted by deadly oppressive forces. In societies structured by imperialistic, capitalist, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal ideas, Blackness is deviance that must either result in profit or death, or both. The implementation of this ideology is seen in America through racial/ethnic disparities in such domains as housing, education, incarceration, and healthcare that leave Black people inadequately housed, under-educated, imprisoned, and dying. Meanwhile, predominately white-controlled corporations overwhelming commodify Black cultural creations, profit from Black prisoners’ labor, and bill “supposed” Black deviance. Although, intersectionality begins with an examination of how the microlevel influences the structural level, the inverse relationship is also of interest. Anti-Black ideology and its manifestations not only impacts Black lives at the structural level, it also infects the psyches of Black people.
Anti-Black ideology has serious negative implications for Black people’s mental health. Many Black people have internalized, explicitly and implicitly, Black inferiority myths promoted by structural forces. At the other end of the spectrum, some have adopted Black superiority myths which promote white values in Blackface while confessing Afrocentricity. Such internalization has resulted in psychological trauma in various forms, ranging from the exaltation of white beauty aesthetics to Black-on-Black crime. While there is a substantially large literature on the psychological ramifications of anti-Blackness, as a psychologist, I am becoming less interested in pathology and more invested in the affirmation and optimization of Black mental health. What are the possibilities for Black people’s psychological well-being when they internalize the truth that Black lives matter? Such internalization would take effort and I imagine it would be a revolution of self-love. That revolution would require a queering of the status quo through the disruption of what it means to be Black in a white supremacist paradigm that dictates anti-Black relations across the globe.
Black psychologists have forged a rich body of knowledge that defines, analyzes, and critiques the contours and composition of a Black-affirmative psychology. This literature is mainly classified into three schools of thought: traditional, reformist, and radical (see Karenga, 1993 for more information on Black Psychology’s history). The radical school of thought within the field of Black Psychology most informs my ideas about what an internalization of “Black Lives Matter” would look like. It privileges Black lives through centering an African worldview and promoting self-consciousness. It is less concerned with the white gaze and more focused on defining Black lives in relationship to an African cosmology. This is the promise of the radical school of Black psychology at its best (although it sometimes does not reach this height and recasts heteropatriarchy and other oppressive ideologies, which are most detrimental to Black people who are not able-bodied heterosexual men, through a Black lens). At its best, radical Black psychology is intersectional. It provides a framework for shaping Black people’s mental health in a way that promotes healing and optimization through reclamation of an African personhood. This personhood is grounded in a spirituality that permeates all aspects of the Black being (Piper-Mandy & Rowe 2010). Black people who embody this African personhood are integrated in spirit, mind, and body and connected to all else that is spirit. Consequently in this paradigm, Black people are whole people and all parts of them (i.e. gender, sexual orientation, ability-status, class, educational level, etc.) are equally essential in their optimal functioning.
If Black people are to internalize “BlackLivesMatter,” we must start by accepting, privileging, and integrating all of ourselves. If we are to internalize and live “BlackLivesMatter” for ourselves, beyond the structural efforts (which is a physical manifestation of love in public), we must start by doing four things:
1) Resist myths of inferiority and superiority
2) Engage in reflexivity to understand ourselves and the reality of our diverse and intersecting realities
3) Accept ourselves as we are: multifaceted, fallible, gifted, and beautiful
4) Privilege our personhood without oppressing others
These four actions have the potential to transform a people who have, in significant numbers, internalized death as executed through imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchal forces into beings that understand and cultivate their own worthiness and wholeness as people. These actions also allow us to nurture the worthiness and wholeness of all Black people and Black creations through emotional and social uplift at the interpersonal level and activism for pro-Black policy at the structural level. In this way, the actions at the microlevel have positive implications for progress at the interpersonal and structural levels.
#BlackLivesMatter, the movement, was birthed from the ideas of three queer women. It often articulates queer, intersectional, and womanist critiques of oppression. While the much-needed push for Black lives to matter at the structural level is ongoing, I hope the psychological work needed for Black lives to matter is also happening. As a psychologist and activist, I believe helping Black people internalize “BlackLivesMatter” is essential to any structural work being effective and sustainable.
Casper, M. (December, 2014). Black Lives Matter / Black Life Matters: A Conversation with Patrisse Cullors and Darnell L. Moore. Retrieved from http://thefeministwire.com/2014/12/black-lives-matter-black-life-matters-conversation-patrisse-cullors-darnell-l-moore/
Karenga, M. (1996). Black psychology. In K. Monteiro (Ed.). Ethnicity and Psychology: African-, Asian-, Latino-, and Native-American Psychologies-Revised Printing, pp. 21-39. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. Retrieved from http://www.radford.edu/jaspelme/minority-groups/past_courses/Karenga_Black_Psychology.pdf
Piper-Mandy, E., & Rowe, T. (2010). Educating African-centered psychologists: Towards a comprehensive paradigm. Journal of Pan African Studies, 3(8), 5-23. doi: Retrieved from http://www.jpanafrican.com/docs/vol3no8/3.8EducatingAfrican.pdf