Last Updated on August 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372
“The War on Drugs” by James Forman Jr.
In the early 1980s, illegal drug use was rife in America’s major cities and became an important political issue when Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs. The author asks whether this war could have been fought differently and could have produced less destructive results. Experts who testified before Congress at the time stressed the importance of drug treatment. The Reagan administration, however, ignored this advice and instead focused on law enforcement. This was the approach that successive governments were to adopt for years to come, further exacerbating the problem.
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“The Hip-Hop Generation” by Bakari Kitwana
The author voted in a national election for the first time in 1988. He was eligible to vote in 1984 but felt he had no stake in the process. During those four years in the 1980s, hip-hop artists began referring to history and politics in their work, pioneering a subgenre called “conscious hip-hop.” This coincided with the rise of both Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, both of whom appealed to the hip-hop community. The author believes that the hip-hip generation had a profound influence on American history for decades to follow and was vital to Black participation in Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“Anita Hill” by Salamishah Tillet
On November 1, 1991, a full-page announcement appeared in eight of the largest American newspapers, including the New York Times, with the headline “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” The sixteen hundred women who signed this were declaring their support for Anita Hill, who had recently accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas described the ensuing hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee as “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks,” ignoring the fact that Hill was as Black as he was. Over the following decades, Hill and her supporters changed the position of women in America for the better, and when a similar case arose in 2018 involving Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, sixteen hundred men signed a similar announcement in the nation’s newspapers, saying that they believed both Hill and Ford.
“The Crime Bill” by Angela Y. Davis
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed into law on September 13, 1994, on the twenty-third anniversary of the suppression of the Attica prison rebellion, in which 128 men were shot. Although the Crime Bill was not as overtly violent as this, it caused devastation in poor Black communities. The bill was the product of a moral panic which conflated protest with crime, and its effect was to criminalize many members of the African American population. After it was passed, prisons became more repressive, and the number of prisoners grew. The “law and order” rhetoric which had led to the passing of the Crime Bill concealed structural racism.
“The Black Immigrant” by Esther Armah
The author writes about the violent death of Amadou Diallo, who was born in Liberia and died in New York City at the age of twenty-four when he was shot by police officers. He was part of an African-born population which increased from under 200,000 to almost 1.5 million between 1980 and 2009. His name means “to praise” in Arabic, and his shooting caused widespread consternation in New York. The police who shot him accused Diallo of being a serial rapist, but the author sees both racism and anti-immigrant prejudice in his shooting.
“Hurricane Katrina” by Deborah Douglas
The author refers to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, as an instance of what the historian Barbara Ransby has called “the gendered nature of disaster.” The Black women who were impacted by it were all too familiar with the “lack of regard that renders their lived experiences invisible.” The least privileged residents of New Orleans—the elderly, the disabled, minorities, and those on low incomes—were least likely and least able to evacuate. This makes Hurricane Katrina a powerful metaphor for America’s attitude towards Black women, who were forced to bear the brunt of this natural disaster.
“The Shelby Ruling” by Karine Jean-Pierre
Otis Moss grew up without the right to vote and gained that right when the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965. On the day of the first election after the act was passed, Moss put on his best suit and walked six miles to the polling station. He was turned away, and so he walked five or six miles to the next polling station, but it had closed by the time he arrived, so he walked home. He died before the next election and thus was never able to exercise his legal right to vote. This is a story often told by Oprah Winfrey, but the author relates the recent but similar story of a man named Eddie Lee Holloway, who was denied the right to vote in Wisconsin as recently as 2016. In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder decision brought down crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act, and voter suppression remains a serious problem which “has taken on more pervasive and pernicious forms than ever before.”
“Black Lives Matter” by Alicia Garza
The essay’s author is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, which she started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman on the charge of murdering Trayvon Martin. She asserts that a series of murders involving Black victims, many of which the police have been involved in, demonstrate that “Black lives still do not matter in American society.” Black Lives Matter may be new in its current form, but it has deep roots. The prevalence of white nationalism under Donald Trump seems to offer little hope for the future, but only time—and strategic organizing—will tell the next four hundred years of Black American history.
“American Abecedarian” by Joshua Bennett
The poet uses the style of a child’s reading textbook (e.g., “A is for Atom Bomb”) to comment on the violent politics of racial oppression in contemporary America. He ends with the image of “national pride like an infinite zipline” which is “the fastest way down.” The word “Abecedarian” in the title refers literally to a child learning the alphabet but also more conceptually to a neophyte who has not yet grasped the basics of the subject—in this case, racial politics.
Conclusion: “Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” by Keisha N. Blain
Keisha N. Blain, the co-editor of the collection, begins with a common saying in Black communities: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” Blain has often wondered what her ancestors dreamed about, but she is certain that they wanted a life of freedom. She wonders whether Black people in the United States are now living the lives their ancestors imagined and is unable to say that they are. African Americans continue to face the problems against which their ancestors fought. However, Blain believes that Black people in America still have a unique opportunity to make their dreams, and those of their ancestors, a reality.
Keisha N. Blain offers a hopeful conclusion to the book when she says that she believes African Americans have an opportunity to fulfill their ancestors’ dreams of freedom. Hope, however, is not the same as optimism. Blain does not by any means regard it as a certainty that freedom and justice will increase, and the essays that immediately precede her conclusion give limited cause for hope. James Forman Jr., Angela Y. Davis, and Karine Jean-Pierre all highlight abuses of power which have become ever more serious at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fifth century of Black American history. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter points out that the title of the movement is a response to an assertion that is never made out loud but constantly implied: that Black lives do not matter in America.
Several of the essays in this part of the book focus on legislation and the criminal justice system. The point is repeatedly made that the system which currently purports to represent all Americans grew directly out of the system that enslaved African Americans. This system cannot be relied upon to protect the interests of Black people, and if the future for which Keisha N. Blain hopes is ever to arrive, it will do so because of grassroots activism and ceaseless vigilance.