Over the course of the past month, over 3,000 viewers have tuned in to this year’s virtual Martha’s Vineyard Author Series to watch journalists, historians and award-winning authors discuss their work, the world and everything in between.
On Thursday evening, for its fourth and final event, the series turned its focus to the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing the national conversation to the Island stage with a panel discussion between scholars and BLM experts, David Blight, Kiese Laymon and Barbara Phillips.
The event was moderated by Harvard professor of law, Kenneth Mack, with the panelists joining an audience of 457 viewers to discuss the movement, how it came to be and where it will go next.
“BLM has helped me stop lying to myself about who leads black liberation movements in this nation,” said Mr. Laymon in his opening remarks on Thursday, speaking from his experience as a writer and the son of activists. “Movements don’t just spontaneously combust. They’re impossible without organizations.”
Building off Mr. Laymon’s remark, Mr. Mack invited the panelists to weigh in on how they think the country arrived at its current anti-racist moment.
For Ms. Phillips, a civil rights litigator who got her start in social justice activism early as one of the first black students to integrate her high school, the Black Lives Matter movement has been long in the making.
“I think about where we are at this intersection of law and activism as being a very long continuum,” said Ms. Phillips, pointing to the first reconstruction period, as well as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, as historical antecedents for BLM.
The failures of previous efforts, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, are what has brought American to the current BLM moment, she said. “Instead of talking about justice and white supremacy, which is what the Civil Rights movement was talking about, we all of a sudden heard about diversity,” said Ms. Phillips. “Diversity is the Trojan horse that we have been riding back into the 19th century ever since.”
Mr. Blight, professor of American History at Yale, agreed, adding that the BLM movement is what he calls “a shock of events,” or a moment in history that forces everybody to reposition themselves.
But Ms. Phillips pushed back on this. “White folks are coming to a new reckoning of their world. There is now a shared reality,” she said.
Turning the conversation to the protests that have swept the nation, Mr. Mack asked the panelists what kind of social justice work they think needs to be done on the Vineyard.
“A frank answer to that is, I think Martha’s Vineyard as it exists in the popular American imaginary has to be destroyed,“ said Mr. Laymon. “I don’t mean that hyperbolically at all. I think that if we’re interested in any sort of liberatory action, then what I think of when I think of Martha’s Vineyard cannot exist.”
The answer garnered mixed responses from viewers, who took to the comment section of the website to share their thoughts.
Ms. Phillips, however, echoed Mr. Laymon’s sentiment. “You don’t get to transformation by just putting a little lipstick on,” she said.
In the question and answer segment, viewers asked questions about how the movement can avoid polarization and how it can sustain its momentum going forward.
Mr. Blight took what he refers to as a “pragmatic, hopeful, pessimistic” view. “I do not believe that the arc of history bends toward justice. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.
As a historian, Mr. Blight emphasized the importance of using laws and legislature to make long-term change. “Until we can begin to carve away this tree of economic and racial inequality at the heart of our society, we’re going to remain sick,” he added.
Mr. Laymon, on the other hand, expressed his reservations about what the future holds. “My fear about progress and promise in this nation is rooted in my reality that what we call American progress often proceeds spectacular black death,” he said.
As the discussion, and the 2020 Author Series, began winding down, the panelists left the audience with their final wishes for the future of the movement.
“I think Black Lives Matter as a sentence, as a movement, as an organization, I think all three of those are forever,” said Mr. Laymon.
Ms. Phillips agreed. “We’ve got to make our way forward,” she said. “It’s like the people in Mississippi—they talk about making a way out of no way. That’s where we are now.”