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“Black Americans Never Got Their Share of the ‘American Dream’… Who Is This Dream for?”

Aja Barber, an American activist and social-media influencer who focuses on race and intersectional feminism, decodes #BlackLivesMatter.

The world has watched with consternation the latest protests unfolding in the US in the past few weeks following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by Minneapolis policemen during an arrest. His death amplified the #BlackLivesMatter campaign into a nationwide rebellion that some now call America’s ‘second civil rights movement’.

But black Americans say that despite legal affirmative action, they have been denied justice promised to them six decades ago.

For them, this outpouring is the culmination of years of frustration and discrimination as a minority community struggling to rise above the poverty, lack of resources, and racism that is their legacy after centuries of slavery at the hands of the whites.

Aja Barber, an American social-media influencer and activist born in Reston, Virginia, who now lives in London, UK, has used her voice to raise these issues and others, from women’s rights to ethical fashion. Having studied communication and journalism, she worked in television production before becoming a full-time blogger focusing on race and intersectional feminism.

Coming from a country that has championed democracy and the idea of ‘The American Dream’ for centuries, Aja believes the concept doesn’t apply to black and Native Americans.

“No, they have never got their share of the American Dream. But I also invite most people to ask what sort of dream can be built upon slavery of one group of people and genocide of another? Both groups still suffer today from this sort of routine trauma. Can there be a dream there? And who is the dream for?” she asks pertinently.

The rising tide of social-media awareness in the past few years has brought to the fore the day-to-day struggles of black Americans as they go about making a living, raising families and pursuing personal happiness.

There have been alarming reports of killings of unarmed black people like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was killed by a suspicious white neighbour while out on a walk; 25-year-old athlete Ahmaud Arbery who was shot dead by two white men for running down the street; and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old medical technician, who was shot by policemen as she lay asleep in her bed at night in a case of mistaken identity.

One black father wrote on social media about being afraid to walk outside alone without his dog or daughter for fear of being shot or arrested.

“Things have always been this bad for black Americans. Anyone who says otherwise is only fooling themselves. We just have camera phones and social media now,” says Aja, who says she completely identifies with the black father’s experience.

“Where I was once very confident and drove at any hour of the day for any reason, when I’m home in the US, I often avoid driving at night if I can. I have been accosted before by a neighbour in the neighbourhood my parents have lived in for 37 years. It’s not okay,” she stresses.

Ironically, most of what the world follows as American pop culture today has roots in black heritage and talent. From music to sport to literature to building infrastructure, the contribution of black Americans is substantial and undeniable.

Then why is there still racial profiling today despite all their achievements against odds? “Because of systemic racism,” says Aja. “It’s in every American institution and folded in the fibre of our country. And until we’re ready to address it as a nation, these issues will continue to prevail.”

She adds, “I also believe that even if we had no contributions, we still wouldn’t deserve the poor treatment we’ve received throughout the years. No one deserves that.”

Though only 12 percent of Americans identify as black, there is a disproportionately large number of blacks in American jails, a topic on which Aja recommends the documentary Thirteenth by Ava DuVernay to anyone “who has an interest in fighting systemic oppression.”

Like oppressed peoples anywhere in the world, women bear the brunt. Black women in the US are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in terms of education, income and opportunities.

Inspired by black women visionaries like Audre Lorde, Josephine Baker, Janet Mock, Marsha P Johnson, Angela Davis and Kimberle Crenshaw, Aja believes that first and second wave feminism in the US has “definitely focused more on the liberation of white, able-bodied, cis-gender, upper-middle class to rich feminists above all.”

She avers: “My feminism is intersectional because without intersectional voices, everyone who doesn’t fit into that description gets left behind. Rise together or fall together. I choose the former.”

Lead photo: Stephen Cunningsworth. First published in eShe’s July 2020 issue

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