July 4 and Invisible Onlys and Alsos

Saturday was July 4 and I am unsure how I was supposed to celebrate it without at least ambivalence, if not outright cynicism. Links to Douglass’ ‘What to the slave is the Fourth of July?’ filled my timeline. Racial inequality, white supremacy, and American hypocrisy are more collectively salient than they have perhaps ever been, and it is not a pretty backdrop for a celebration of nationalist pride, if such a thing exists.

This year I’ve been thinking about the things that we say and don’t say and where we put our implicit ‘onlys’ and ‘alsos’. Someone on Twitter commented that Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be a controversial statement and that All Lives Matter is not a valid counterpoint because the invisible word in ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not ‘only’ as in ‘Only Black Lives Matter’ but is actually ‘also’ as in ‘Black Lives Also Matter’. I like the elegance and simplicity of this explanation. But I’m not naive enough to think it would appease the majority of detractors, because most are not making their arguments in good faith to begin with.

Despite this, the ‘alsos’ are still deeply needed. The invisible alsos are not there for the detractors. They are there for the people who have been walled in by onlys. The ones in all of our precious founding documents: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that [only white men] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…’

In a little over a month, on August 26, this country will mark the centennial anniversary of its nineteenth amendment. For my entire education, 1920 was held up as an example of progressiveness and activism at work in its securing ‘suffrage for women’. In the timeline page of the National Women’s History Museum website, they describe the event this way: ‘American Women win full voting rights’.

(I tweeted at the museum to ask them to edit this page. Feel free to do the same.)

The ‘only’ in here is at the front. ‘[Only white] American Women win full voting rights.’ Suffragist heroines like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the fifteenth amendment, which conferred suffrage rights to Black men, and white suffragists turned their backs on their sisters who were still disenfranchised after 1920. I am dreading the insulting corporate feminist pink-washing that I know is coming next month on the anniversary of white women’s suffrage. It is an insult because ‘all women’ still can’t vote in this country.

This is why we shouldn’t tolerate the slightest whiff of ‘All Lives Matter’ bullshit. Because it was never the people saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ coming with ‘only’. ‘All Lives Matter’ is subtext in ‘Black Lives Matter’ and has been all along. The sanctity of all life is a core value baked into the DNA of Black Lives Matter. It was the rest of us, it was white people, white Americans, our white founders, our white founding principles, written with ‘onlys’ from the very beginning, that made this a conversation about ‘only’. And this was not an accident or an oversight but by design.

Two books are helping me develop my understanding of the historical and current context to racial justice and intersectional feminist issues: Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis, which taught me about the racist history of the white women’s suffrage movement and the damage wrought by the concept of white womanhood on Black people specifically; and Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom, which reflects on how the modern construct of beauty is a tool designed to uphold capitalism, racism, and whiteness, and in which she shares a damning account of how the medical system failed her and her baby as a lens for examining the dissonance between the care afforded Black and white bodies.

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