Finding Our Intentional Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement

By Chelene Knight

Mayah Simone - Fruit of May

As a Black professional in the publishing industry, I have been listening deeply to all of the conversations taking place around what folks can do to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these conversations have been groundbreaking and the actions set forth, impressive and long-term. Other moves have made me question not only my position in the movement, but it also forced me to look a bit deeper into my own capabilities to search for ways to not only support my community, but uplift it.

I’ve always been driven by solution-based actions, and these are the conversations that I see myself being most helpful with. But that being said, it’s easy enough to question myself too, and this second-guessing is a direct result of the life-long experience of being tokenized, and only ever being offered temporary space. I recognize that. And it makes me ask myself: What do I really know? We aren’t all activists on the front lines doing the incredibly emotional and terrifying heavy lifting, nor are we all equipped to do this work. This is something we have to remember and talk openly about. I recently had a conversation with a friend about the weight of this. About the questions that are now surfacing within the Black community: Do I know enough around the politics of what’s going on? What is my role in all of this? How do I support and uplift in a way that makes sense for me as an individual? If my activism is not online for all to see, will my behind the scenes work be misconstrued as silence?

The violence that the Black community is facing is heartbreaking and the added emotional labour is exhausting for so many of us. It is difficult to be on social media, scrolling through so much heartache and helplessness. Scrolling through black squares and mentions of movements that only seem to get attention once there’s a hashtag attached to it, started to make me feel a bit lost. In thinking about how my own family has been deeply affected by police brutality, the recent events that continue to plague us just keep getting heavier. Some of us are uncertain about how long we can carry it.

Recently, through my online writer’s studio, we helped curate an all-Black women poetry reading called “Fro My Soul” in collaboration with a Black owned American online magazine, Fruit of May, (founded by Mayah Simone) and it was exactly what I needed—and I think what the entire online room needed. To share voice, story, emotion, and history in this particular moment was more uplifting and inspiring than I could have imagined. All of the readers changed something in me. In hearing them read, there was a bit of hope reignited. I am thankful for that. Thank you Junie Désil, Victoria Sharpe, Nala Latrice, Bridget E. Ukeni, and Hope Lauterbach. If you don’t know these incredibly gifted Black storytellers and poets, I suggest you get to know their work.

In sitting with the uncertainty of how to share some of the weight so that I didn’t have to carry it alone, I did what I always do when trying to work through something difficult. I sat down to write about it. In free writing on how I could have my say, and help at the same time, I found that I kept coming to the same conclusion. We all come to the table with a different set of tools, capabilities, intentions, strengths and “know-how.” I know where I can personally make the biggest impression and create the biggest change, and that happens to be through the documentation of story, voice, and experience through teaching and publishing. Now, although the effects of amplifying voices in this way will likely breed slower less visible results, over time I predict—and hope— that the voices we turn up the volume on, will be the ones that people will hold close and listen to the longest.

I work closely with new writers, authors, and publishers. My goal is to consistently hold up Black voices, creators, entrepreneurs, activists, and changemakers, by making it a priority to do so. This is the best tool I have in my tool box. Long term solutions take time to implement and they take time to stick. But so many people are tired of waiting. So many of us are indeed tired of having the same conversations over and over without anyone fully taking action on the action items. But I try to breathe deep and not give up. When thinking about what my own individual purposes are in this fight, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone’s tool boxes will look different, but that the dedication, passion, and intention is likely the same.

Writing this, I still feel like I am leaving so much unsaid, or maybe I just don’t have the energy to say it all, at least not right now. In writing this, I think about my uncle Eugene Knight who lost his life to police violence and I wonder what he’d say or think, that even more than ten years after his death, knowing this is still happening and that it’s likely getting worse. I wonder what he’d think if he scrolled through social media threads, as videos and pictures of so many lost lives hold space on the screen. Lost Black lives. I think about that a lot, probably more than I should. But I keep telling myself that every small step forward counts. And I hold on tightly to my small yet powerful toolbox.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.