Every liberal municipality in America flies a flag of remembrance. I use “flag” broadly—it lives not just on the flagpole, but the signpost, t-shirt, face mask, bumper sticker, and virtually everywhere else with enough space for its message. The message makes a reasonable request. It asks that we remember the lives that hate has cut short, that we remember that there are years of hard work and healing ahead, and, most overtly, that we remember that Black lives matter. The proclamation of countless truths rolled into one: Black lives matter.
One would expect this to go without saying. Life itself matters, so Black life must too. It’s simple enough, but the slogan wouldn’t exist if we all agreed on this. The chanting of “Black lives matter” follows actions suggesting that they don’t. It’s as much a rallying cry as it is a cry for help. The odd picket sign and hashtag propose a more direct alternative: “Stop killing us.”
Still, millions take offense to these simple requests. You’ve undoubtedly heard the variations. Don’t all lives matter? What about white lives? And blue lives, our humble guardians? The assertion that Black lives matter has been received as everything from discriminatory to something heinous enough to warrant the burning of materials bearing the words. Its critics find it divisive, misleading, and ill-intentioned. Its supporters find it true.
Black Americans have always been victim to the routine denial of their humanity, so there’s nothing novel in this dissension. The result of this is a central aspect of the Black American experience: the gradual desensitization to disrespect. Microaggressions abound at rates so regular and scales so small that many are rendered imperceptible. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the flag. Everywhere I’ve seen and heard the argument for its importance. Nowhere have I seen or heard the tragedy of its existence.
When I’m made to remember that Black lives matter, I instead remember the factors that make that remembrance necessary. No one should have to announce that they matter, yet the flag reminds me that I do. You can disagree on the critics’ intentions all you want—perhaps my life matters to them, but they find the verbiage to be problematic. Perhaps they take issue with the movement instead of the phrase. Nitpick what you will; I still have to say it.
There’s a strange misery in knowing that the importance of one’s life is up for debate. If this feeling isn’t conjured by the phrase or the resulting discord, it’s conjured by news clippings or personal experience. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the perennially unasked question between Black and white Americans was “How does it feel to be a problem?” The nature of this misery, I imagine, must be the answer. The folly of “all lives matter” is that it takes aim at the expression of misery, not at its source. So, to its faithful, I have but one question: Why are you more bothered by my words than my suffering?