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DeRay Mckesson, fighting for Black lives
by Ada Cheng
2018-09-19

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By the time this interview was conducted Sept. 7, DeRay Mckesson, one of the most visible Black Lives Movement organizers, was already on his book tour in New York for his memoir On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope ( Viking Books ).

When asked about the reception for the book so far, he said, "I am very excited. I am excited about the conversation that's happening. … One good thing about the written text is that people resonate with different things in the book. … Some have an 'aha' moment about police violence while others resonate with issues like identity and language."

Mckesson, known for his Patagonia blue vest, details in the book how the decision to drive from Minneapolis to Ferguson in 2014 following Michael Brown's death changed his life. He would later spend a year in the streets protesting, being teargassed, and walking all night because it was illegal for protestors to stop. He, along with other activists including Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Samuel Sinyangwe, launched Campaign Zero in 2015, a policy platform to end police violence. For his activism, Mckesson has received many awards and honors, including The Root 100, Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership, Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award and Out 100.

The memoir itself is more than a recount of his experiences with police or activism. Intermixed with personal stories about childhood, school, faith and community are his reflections about storytelling itself and the larger questions about narrative and power.

He pointed out why the discussion of language and storytelling loomed large in the memoir. "It is important to think about the way we use language to frame issues. Even though I write about police, it is the storytelling that's the real power," he said.

He talked about growing up near Baltimore City, where he learned to see a world structured through whiteness and defined by white people. He described an incident through which he came to understand that white people could be wrong, too.

A pivotal moment for his consciousness, prompting the first act of resistance: naming the world in his own terms.

And it is not the learning of language but the unlearning of it that leads to that act of resistance. As he writes, "Language is our first act of resistance. It matters how we talk about the work we do; the words we use or the words we create matter to describe the world we live in, the freedom and justice we deserve."

When discussing police violence, McKesson is posing fundamental questions about power, narrative and storytelling. That is, who gets to tell stories in our world? Who has the power to shape the narrative that dictates our worldview? Who gets to define truth( s )? And what does it mean when institutions, such as the police, hold lethal power to harm and kill people of color while at the same time wielding the power to define who is the victim in incidents of police brutality?

For example, using particular narratives and images, the police and the media consistently frame and portray Black victims as thugs and criminals. And with their assumed criminality and thus presumed guilt, they are deemed underserving of justice within an earn/deserve paradigm in the United States.

In other words, the violence against the Black body is accompanied by and justified by the violence of the language.

In that sense, changing the material reality of inequity in the larger society necessitates reshaping the inequitable ways certain stories and truths are told and validated.

This applies to how each group history is narrated as well. Mckesson gives examples of a few stories often swept under the rug to demonstrate who is deemed as the legitimate representative of the Black community and who in turn gets silenced in the narration of the Black history.

For example, one was the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who also refused to give up her seat on the bus, yet she remained unknown in history compared to Rosa Parks due to respectability politics. Another important figure, Bayard Rustin, played a central role in shaping the nonviolent strategies during the Civil Rights Movement and was an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—yet he was banished to the margins due to his open gayness.

Similarly, using "out of the quiet" as opposed to "out of the closet" to describe his experiences as a gay Black man, Mckesson has struggled to find his place in the movement at times with some people who might not believe that he deserves to be there.

As he poignantly writes, "In activism, I am often asked if I am gay or black first as if I am not black and gay and male at the same time, all day, every day. … I am asked if the 'gay agenda' has superseded the goal of bringing about justice and equity, as if there aren't gay black people or as if the oppressions are connected, interwoven."

The question then is: In social justice movements, how does one engage in activism that doesn't replicate the oppressive act of erasure and instead sustain a practice and a narrative that respects the contribution of all members regardless of their gender, sexuality and class?

In this thoughtful memoir, Mckesson ponders on the need for social movements to go beyond trauma and critiques and to envision a future where concrete visions for a better world can be developed and a just society can be built. When asked about his vision for the future, he said, "It is not just the absence of oppression but is the presence of justice and equity."

That entails both faith, the belief that something will happen, and hope, the belief that something can happen, as he succinctly puts in his work.

DeRay Mckesson will be in Chicago discussing his book Wed., Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m., University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration ( with Seminary Co-Op Bookstores ), Gordon Parks Arts Hall, 5815 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago. For tickets: ssa.uchicago.edu/deray-mckesson .


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