Black Studies and Brandeis
Speaker 1: You cannot tell the story of Black Studies without Brandeis and AAAs. As movements for Black Studies exploded throughout the nation in 1968 and 1969, Brandeis took its place. AAAs continues to stand as one of the oldest Black Studies departments in the country.
Since that time AAAs and Black Studies at Brandeis more broadly have laid the foundation, pave the way and lead the charge for a field that continues to perform the critical work of correcting exclusionary and racist models of learning and knowledge production.
AAAs students, faculty and alumni are pioneers engaging in innovative research, asking critical questions and challenging old ways of thinking. And when I think of Black Feminist Thought arguably the most dynamic field within Black Studies it's fair to say that it would not exist as we know it today without Brandeis.
So, I am incredibly excited about our next panel it is my great pleasure to introduce our two moderators Carina Ray, Associate Professor of African and African American studies and Gilberto Rosa AAAs major in class of 2019.
Gilberto: Hello, oh.
Hi, Hello Hi. Where's Professor Smith? Just wanted to be able to see you. Hi.
Shout out to Professor Smith.
Cool, cool so I am just going to be introducing everyone, I'll start on my left here ...
Amaris Brown, focuses on the relationship between sexuality and memory in 20th and 21st century Black experimental literature and performance. She's a 3rd year doctoral student in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University.
Next is Ra Malika Imhotep, she's a black feminist writer from Atlanta, Georgia, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work tends to the relationship between black femininity, aesthetics and the performance of labor. She's the co-convenor of the Oakland based experiential study group, the Church of Black Feminist Thought and a member of their curatorial collective The Black Aesthetic.
Next we have Alexandra Thomas, she's a ... come on out ... Aly is a PhD student in African American Studies and History of Art at Yale University. Her current research explores African and African Diaspora contemporary art and performance, photography and new media. Black Feminist Thought and [inaudible 00:03:22], she has worked for and conducted research with the Rose Art Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project and the Sc homburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Next is Reuel Rogers, he is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is also affiliated with the department of African American Studies and Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. He earned his PhD in Politics from Princeton University and has held fellowships from The Ford Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of the award-winning book Afro-Caribbean Immigrants and the Politics of Incorporation: Ethnicity, Exception, or Exit published by Cambridge University press in 2006.
Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, is the interim director for the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at U Mass, Boston and is also the graduate program director for Gender, Leadership and the Public Policy Program. She has held faculty and senior scientist positions at the Heller School at Brandeis and has served as an affiliate faculty with HSSP, WGS and AAAs. She is also a Research Professor at University of North Carolina Charlotte, where she focuses on the Social Determinants of Black Women's Health as conditioned by the simultaneous intersections between aspects of Social Difference & Identity and forms of systematic oppression at micro and macro levels.
Robert Jones was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi where he matriculated through the segregated public schools system. After completing the Yale University transitional year program in New Haven, he went on to earn his BA and MA in History in 1971 and 1975 respectfully from Brandeis. He served as an instructor in the AAAs department between 1975 and 1982 and was the departments acting Chairman between 1975 and 1977.
So, yeah. Welcome, welcome.
Carina: That was wonderful, Bert so I feel like I am almost redundant in that you can just moderate this thing. What we wanted to do is have a conversation about both Brandeis and Black Studies here, but also Brandeis' influence in the development field of Black Studies.
The way that we wanted to kick that off was by asking each of you to just reflect on the most influential in what ever way that you might measure that text that you encountered in a AAAs classroom.
Reuel: Can people hear me? Okay thank you.
It's really good to be back here and I was reflecting on the question, it's a really important one. When I think about my own intellectual journey, I think AAAs is where I found my home here at Brandeis and the text I think that was most influential or transformative for me was Du Bois' Black Reconstruction.
I read selections from it in one of my AAAs classes and it actually wasn't where you would think I might have encountered the text, it was actually a text on African American Literature and Fiction that Phillip Harper taught way back when.
At that time, I was a Poli Sci major, and at that time I was thinking I had a great deal of interest in understanding Black Politics but within the confines of the Poli Sci Dept the interest in Black Politics was seen as either exceptional, exotic or epiphenomena at read marginal.
And when I encountered that text, I encountered a scholar whose pretty much was centering the black political experience to understand the underpinnings of American Democracy. That conveyed a message to me, that maybe the most important way to get a sense of how American Politics worked is to understand and center the experience of African Americans and Blacks in this country and that had not occurred to me because most of what I read in Poli Sci had kept African Americans at the margin sort of an exotic construction in America Politics or somehow epiphenomena.
With that book, I started to think more carefully about how the experiences of African Americans revealed the truth about the underpinnings of American Democracy, both the way it's practiced and the way that there's now practice in American politics and the functioning of democracy essentially.
All of that, to encountering that text and others like it while studying African American studies here at Brandeis. I mean, anyone who has read that text knows that he spends a lot of time talking about the economic and the materialist underpinnings of this country. Sort of ... it tells a story of how the American state came to be and I had learned about the American state or so I thought in these classes on American Politics with the department.
Only to discover that African Americans were not at all marginal to that development, they were actually central and so I think that text more than any other that I encountered during my undergraduate years here for me launched a life of the mind and understanding black politics and it's still a passion for me. I owe that to that text for sure.
Ra Malika: Wow I have hopefully, it's the same two part answer, because there are two texts one that really kind of was defining for my understanding of where Black Performance studies can go and both these texts were brought in to my life, by the life changing magic of Dr. Jasmine Johnson.
In the first was during Politics and Performance of Authenticity, which I took in the fall of my senior year, and we read two changes from Jayna Brown's Babylon Girls, which is on black female performers in modernity. There's a chapter called Letting the Flesh Fly about Topsy.
And I almost forgot, I've been doing all this work around black-fem performance, even like specific performance work around the Topsy figure, and I forgot how everything she says in that chapter just really opened up that world for me and really allowed me to think about kind of engaging with culture, engaging with performance in this really critical and not optimistic but she reads so much freedom and possibility into the figure of Topsy through an understanding of the work of black women performers. That is everything about I want my work to be able to do.
That's one part of the answer. And then I have to confess and it feels like a very like ultimate arena to make this confession, but ITA Black Feminist Thought the following semester without having taken the class. So a lot of the ... I was being exposed to a lot of material at the same time I was teaching it.
And in that class of course we had to engage and teach Dr. Hortense Spiller's Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book, and I was so scared. I was, I had I couldn't do it, I had this kind of way I wasn't, I couldn't engage in its fullness and I had to figure out how to teach it and guide it.
I think since that moment, since that initial really kind of thought relationship the text is almost like haunted my work, but really in a kind of beautiful and deeply [inaudible 00:11:45] way of understanding ... oh see I'm nervous I feel it.
I think those are my two texts that have had just a profound impact on the way that I understand the necessity, urgency and possibility of Black studies.
Thank you so much.
Amaris: I would say that Incidents in the Life of a Slave girl is probably the most influential text that I read during my time here, which is a tale sort of told by Harriet Jacobs and her escape to freedom from captivity.
It's a text that was taught in several courses and continues to be influential to the work that I want to do, which is sort of thinking about how Black women and girls emancipate themselves, how they negotiate places of confinement and make them look like possibility. But also, there are so many. I'm like I don't have to choose.
I think another text that continues to be important in my work is also Poor Man's Child and that text was taught in Professor Abdur-Rahamn's Sex and Race in the American Novel. Aside from with the other work, Faulkner, James Baldwin, Kate Chopin this text was the first one where I had a problem with the work of Fiction that was by a black queer author.
The text sort of, besides sort of working through a series of psychoanalytic problems for black feminist inquiry about mastery and self possession and sadomasochism all of these other questions. It made us sort of ask a question about the ways in which black women have been pathologized in their desires.
That being in a place of discomfort is part of being in Black Feminist research. I think those 2 texts continue to be gifts that keep on giving and keep on making problems. Those are 2 texts that are important to me.
Laurie: When I was first encountered with the question, I was like wait a minute 40 years ago, can I remember what I read 40 years ago. Actually, it took me a while, but one book came to mind that was really, really monumental in terms of understanding the ways in which inequities.
And that particular work was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, it was funny because, I was actually I think I was in Wellington's class and I would have to ... I'm just gonna give a little shout out first for AAAs, I graduated in 1980 I wasn't quite sure.
And I would have to say that, I loved being in AAAs, I mean I absolutely loved it. I was such that I would run to the library I think it opened at 8 o'clock or 8:30 but I was waiting at the door because I just wanted to pull my books out and I just wanted to read.
I used to also go to the BU Africana Library on Saturday's and just hang out there. What was really interesting is when I was reading the book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa I remember having to write a paper about it.
I'm a professor now and I would never accept and Wellington you did, it was an 80 page paper I wrote because I just got really carried away. So of course what that meant was that I had to learn later on how to write briefly and succinctly it took me a while to figure that out.
But what was really important about that particular text was that it helped me to understand that there is a give and take and at the end of the day, what Rodney was trying to say is that the way that Europe developed and became strong economical, socially and politically was at the expense of Africa.
As Europe was developing and becoming strong and better, it was pulling the resources away and that's why there was the underdevelopment of Africa. What was so important about that particular book is that it was giving you the alternative story.
In other words it wasn't the stock story in terms of what we understood and what we heard about Africa all the time and it was their fault that they were the way that they were. What that actually brought to me was first of all, there was important to read critical text and to also read text by people of color.
And that is something that I didn't have a lot of experience doing before. Learning how to read critical text really was something that stayed with me always and I said, what is the other way in which we need to look at something.
And also look at did in terms of me thinking about works around black women and around black feminism was to say that even when I read something that's an anti-racist text I'm also going to read that critically as well.
The other thing that Walter Rodney's book did for me, was it helped me to look at and understand that we have to take a root cause analysis in terms of looking at social problems and social challenges. And what we tend to do most likely is that we say okay this is why, this is the problem, we really don't look at the real root reasons for it.
When I'm in my classrooms now, I make sure that my students are reading critical text in addition to that, that they're also at the same time making sure there's a root cause analysis. So it was a wonderful book and I will also say that there are many books that I read after that, that made all the difference in I was able to look at them differently because I read Walter Rodney's book.
Robert: So, I want to give a shout out to people, not necessarily books. I grew up in Mississippi, my education was in a segregated school system and I mean true segregation, all of my teachers were black from Kindergarten through 12th grade.
And they taught black history in the schools. So I learned about James Wilson Johnson, John Hope Franklin, Veron Billy Jr., Harriett Tubman from my teachers. I had a basic grounding in somethings about understanding some of the Black History Issues that are still being grappled with today.
But, when I came to Brandeis I was one of the Ford Hall group, helped to establish the AAAS department. I was also one of the first graduates of the AAAS department. I actually graduated in '71 with a degree in AAAS and American History so I had a double major.
Two people were instrumental in my formation and I think my approach to understanding society and that's ... both are not here with us, they passed away. Hussein Adams one of the first Chairman's of the department he was after Ron Walters, who died a few years ago unfortunately I did not get the chance to see him prior to his passing.
Also Ernest Wamba some of you may remember, Honest Ernie his given name was Wamba dia Wamba. He would say that all the time and I loved the alliteration of that. Wamba dia Wamba, he was from the Congo and Wamba dia Wamba means Wamba dia Wamba means Wamba son of Wamba.
That always resonated with me. Wamba was an intellectual to the nth degree. You could not ask Wamba, why is the water in the fountain dropping on the floor without Wamba giving you a long history of water and what it meant in traditional African culture. He would go on and on, but he taught me how to look critically at issues.
I would say, I'm sure for a lot of you at Brandeis that what's you take away is the relationship with people. You may forget some of the texts that you read, but what you will always remember is the people, your professors and what interests they did or did not take in you.
For me, Hussein and Wamba were mentors. They instilled something in me that never goes away. And my teachers, I still remember my history teacher in high school, Mrs. Watson and that's been almost 60 years. I still remember what she taught me, but also how she taught me and that is something that carried forward.
People as opposed to texts are what shaped me, Walter Rodney for example How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Hussein introduced that to me in one of his classes that I took with him. I don't know how many of you know, but Walter Rodney was assassinated later in Guyana. He was a revolutionary thinker, we brought him to Brandeis actually and I met him and talked with him. He was a small unassuming man, that you would never think would have the power to transform people the way he did.
So for me, it was people as opposed to just texts that shaped me.
Alexandra: So for me ... can everybody hear me?
There's two text that are really important and I think about them every day. One was Cathy Cohen's 1997 Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics? The other one is Combahee River Collective Statement from 1977.
Right now I'm deep in the archives of the Beinecke Library at Yale, in the Lisbeth Tollefson collection which is a really understudied collection of Black Lesbian Journals which includes erotica, visual art, letters between Audrey Lorne and Barbara Smith.
And so because of that I think about Cohen and I think about the Combahee River Collective basically every day and both of those texts really introduced me to how short lived Black Feminist organizations really stay with you. And its amazing to me that six years of Combahee yielded lifetimes of research for people like me.
Cohen's work definitely taught me that Black Queer studies and Black Feminism are really led to each other in that Queer Theory is important to Black Studies, kind of no matter what and Yeah.
Gilberto: Nice, thank you for invoking those names. I guess to the ... especially thinking of Cohen and the radical potential of queer politics. What do you all imagine the future of Black Studies ... and I'm also really interested in people who are in conversation with black studies not necessarily in the departments what the future of black studies might have on your fields too.
Ra Malika: I consider black studies to be a life practice and one that I was born into, and that is always performed in excess of the institution or the institution, the academy. I think from that stand point the future of black studies for me is also in excess of the institution.
I'm really grateful for the sister Janice who was up here earlier and just really calling in the power of doing too much. Doing the most, doing the most and recognizing that certain type of endurance when held with health, when held with the consideration for and appreciation of our wellbeing particularly as black folks, as black women.
I think doing the most ... understanding black studies is the thing that leads me into all different types of cultural, social and political productions. I feel like the future of black studies at least in my mind and heart is about the ways that all this knowledge, all these texts, all these conversations, all these people are brought back from whence they came. Taken back to the people to be rhetorical, but thinking about what does it mean for us to develop black studies practices that aren't dependent on Institutional support or funding.
What does it mean to literally, take the text to your people. I've been trying to start doing some of that work with the Church of Feminist Thought, what does it look like to convene people monthly around black women thinkers and artists and scholars and just say we are gonna sit in this room and talk about it.
We're gonna breakdown quotes, you don't even got to read it, we gonna do this together. We're gonna be in our work together. Because I think there is also a kind of anti intellectual impulse that sometimes movement spaces have, but I don't think that's it either.
I think there's a way that for me, black studies is this kind of radical commitment to an accessibility to a community accountability to bringing all the things that we are gifted or that we steal from the academy and redistributing them. I hope that the future, or that my part in actualizing that future is in developing muscles or redistribution.
Reuel: It's a great question, I mean I can't see into the future obviously and so I feel like my answer won't necessarily be biased toward non discipline and the kinds of questions I think about that in hearing Professor Davis talk yesterday about the destabilization of the Nation State and how people think about that political construct.
I was thinking that, I think it's really important for our black studies AAAs at the center of those conversations, to look to what, to see what the experiences blacks around the globe really can teach us about how populations respond to those kinds of changes when they're under assault or actually participating in those as well.
I been thinking a lot lately how blacks in this country build political consensus because, something that's been bugging me a lot in the recent coverage of the 2020 election, the horse race style coverage is the constant branding about of the black vote. Without a real sort of complicate account of who represents the black vote? who is the black vote? who are we talking about? Which black voters are we talking about?
I think if you look to black studies, there's some very sophisticated rigorous treatment of that question specifically. I mean in my own word sort of looking at how African Americans respond to demographic change, immigration specifically and also dis aggregating the black vote.
You talked about it yesterday Chad, this sort of sense of kind of a homogenization of the black experience and I see a lot of the coverage lapsing back into that. They might make a nod to black women specifically, but it could be complicated even further, there's class, there's color ism, there's gender, there's culture and I think that's a useful pathway at least for African American studies to lead the way in the conversations about what's happening to the Nation State.
And also, what the experiences of African American or blacks in this country can tell us about the challenges of building a political consensus. That it can't be taken for granted, it requires work its struggle. Secondary marginalization happens< I'm thinking of Cathy Cohen's work and who gets marginalized and who gets to speak as to what black interests are? What are the ballacies embedded in that process.
I think that's an important frontier for black studies and where black studies can lead the conversation that's happening across the globe about that.
Robert: One of the things that I hope Black Studies never does, is focus on the trees and not the forest. One of the things that I love about black studies is that it has developed expertise, insight into things that we never thought about back in 1970 or '71.
The whole issue of black feminism, gender studies, transgender things that have evolved in society that have impacted us and we've had an opportunity to embrace them, analyze them and look at them. But at the end of the day, there's racism which holds down all of us.
I have 3 daughters, they are out working, they're very strong and have a lot of personality and drive. Yet, at the end of the day they talk to me about the racist policies, behavior that they encounter daily. My youngest daughter is an attorney in Philadelphia, she recently was hired at FEMA. Her focus was private practice she wanted to do business law and she worked in 3 different private firms.
Her most recent experience was so negative that she says, I just can't take it anymore. I want a career that allows me some personal freedom, some stability because in private practice it's all about the billing. If you don't bill enough hours, you're not going anywhere, you're not gonna make partner they call you in and say hey you didn't do a hundred hours of billing this week you need to get that up.
But what she saw, white females were brought into the office and given guidance in terms of how to keep their billing and she was sort of thrown to the side and said you gotta do it on your own. She did not get the mentoring, and this in a firm that professes to have diversity, blah, blah, blah blah.
On a personal level in terms of how people actually act towards her versus how they react and act towards white females coming into business, there's this persistent racism. So at the end of the day, black people and people of color in this country encounter that racism.
If you look at Boston for example, there's very few ... despite all of the big firms and powerful legal firms how many black partners are there in these firms. It's willfully inadequate. At the end of the day, don't forget the forest in your pursuit of the trees.
Laurie: As I'm listening to you and I listen to your story about black women, clearly every thing you said I've heard and I feel and it's my life.
So one of the things that when I think about black studies, I think a lot of people aren't thinking about this but it gets back to what you're saying. How do we even consider and think about self care? Because many of us are in pain, many of us are hurting, many of us are angry.
Now that doesn't mean that at the same time that we're still ... some of us are up for the fight, some of us aren't even up for the fight anymore cause we're just too damn tires. And so you might say, what the heck does this have to do with black studies, I think it has everything to do with black studies.
Because if we don't have the energy, if we don't have the will with all. If we don't have what we need inside of us spiritually, emotionally, physically then we can't do the work that needs to be done. I come out of a tradition and my education also connects to health and health care and I haven't really heard much this weekend around thinking about health and health care and how do we take care of ourselves as a community, as a culture and also at the same time move the structures forward that need to be also doing the work that needs to be done.
One of the things that I think is important in a black studies program and other programs where we're working with students of color is that we make sure that whatever we're doing that we're taking care of them. But at the same time we as faculty, we as staff have to also be taken care of. And I know through Ford Hall we all know what we're talking about here.
How do we make sure that in these particular departments and these programs that's what's part of that is that we're making sure that not just the minds are being taken care of but also the souls. And that students and faculty and others don't become discouraged, because we have to all be in this to make it happen.
Amaris: Yeah, I will go next cause I'm gonna talk about Soul Work. It feels like sort of a spiritual coincidence that the first text or one of the first texts I ever read in black studies with Professor Williams was the Souls of Black Folk written by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Currently in my third year at Cornell I'm lucky enough to be in class with Professor Smithers where right now we're working through a close reading of the Souls of Black Folk. In this text as some of you might know one of the questions that is supposed to stick not just with black study in theory in soul work and in spirit work what is it feel to be a problem?
The way that I see black study moving into the future is, it's a question that's also about our commitments to ourselves and to our spirits also commitments to wellness, but also what does it mean to live in discomfort.
I think that the moment that we begin to start thinking ... at least I've begun to start thinking that black study is something or even black feminist study is something that we can master or that we can own is the moment that it sort of fails us.
As I sort of step into a sort of political identity a commitment of being an instructor has made me reevaluate this text that now I've been sitting with and revisiting over the course of 4 years or more.
I guess, the questions that ... I have more questions for black studies than I have answers. To what degree are we willing to live in discomfort? To what degree are we willing to ask about the price of freedom? To what degree are we willing to suggest that freedom is this unfinished project.
These are the questions that I want to pull into my classrooms, these are the questions that I want to facilitate and I can't say that there are answers to them. Away from mastering ownership towards redistribution, towards being a problem, continuing to be a problem.
Alexandra: To answer the second part of Gilberto's question about the future of black studies in our own fields. My undergraduate training at Brandeis was in Women's Studies and AAAs so I had a really just completely interdisciplinary training.
But now at Yale, African American studies doesn't standalone so you have to be completely joined with another department. I happen to be History of Art, which is probably a couple decades behind everybody else in the Humanities.
Also, the first black woman graduate student in about 6 or 7 years. I think a lot about a future in black studies in which were not only measured in our ability to be joined another department and it's really difficult.
I remember often a moment in Professor Smith one of her courses, where she wrote Hegel on the board and circled it and talked about Hegel's views on Africa. I think about that all the time after reading 300 pages of Hegel in a week and then talking about Hegel for hours and hours in our history department without ever talking about Salah Hassan or Kobena Mercer and all these other great black arts folks.
Yeah, I think that I want to see a black studies ... we're not forced I guess to think that Faucal was more important than Patricia Hill Collins. A way that my interdisciplinary training should be beneficial to me as opposed to forcing me to kind of make an intervention into another field that I might not necessarily want to make.
Carina: I think the question ... I just wanted to make an observation which is that as you were saying Bob that you were part of the first graduating AAAS cohort. You are graduating this year so we literally have the full spectrum represented on this stage and just wanted to make that observation, because I think that is just another wonderful thing to come out of this weekend of collective gathering, really beautiful.
I think the question I wanted to ask and probably before we throw it open I'd also just love to hear from the audience too as well ... to reflect on any number of the questions that we've asked the panelists here.
But I think my sort of last question ... and I think some of you have already gotten to that in terms of thinking about what is the kind of difficult part ... often times when I think we're asked to envision the future it is in an area where there is already some movement or direction towards it, so it makes it possible to imagine that.
What are the areas for us that are current sort of Institutional, disciplinary and even sometimes interdisciplinary ... we talk a lot about interdisciplinarity but that has its own, sometimes its own in book kinds of limitation cause we still live in institutions disciplinary oriented.
What are the questions for black studies and the future directions that we literally have to decolonize our contemporary thinking to even imagine? What are the questions that we need to be asking that we maybe don't even have the language for right now?
Which is not to ask you to do the impossible, in a way I think I am. It's an invitation to kind of think what's the really difficult path to imagine. What are the areas of growth that we haven't yet to think about?
Their possible and we know that, black studies 40, 50 years ago would not have imagined the kinds of frontiers that we're at now. This does happen, and it will happen. So it's the kind of invitation to think without boundaries in this moment.
By using your wildest imagination, if you didn't have to think in ways that were constrained.
Ra Malika: I think I got a little something, something.
I am having so many thoughts right now. I think what feels most urgent is something that I've been reckoning with both in my intellectual curiosity and my developing art practice. What are ways for us through black studies to ... the language, what are the words ... How do we get out of this bind between pessimism, optimism [inaudible 00:46:40]
How do we really get through our history? How do we think with the ways that are bodies are marked? Think through the ways that our navigation's of society, our navigation's of capital are marked? How do we really think through them in all their messiness and all their beautiful ness and all their ugliness to glimpse and get moments of freedom even when they don't feel good?
I think, I don't even know how to sum it in a concise way, but I want for there to be a way for us to even reckon with the fact that all these beautiful work in black studies ... even like my ... if I were to just think about my own intellectual training and growth at Brandeis was also accompanied by devastating depression.
All of different types of traumas, sexual traumas there was no space for me as a black woman on this campus to talk about at the time and this is happening as I'm TA'ing Black Feminist Thought. I want black studies to be able to hold all of itself.
I want black studies to really truly and honestly be able to hold the lows and the highs and not in a simple way ... the language isn't serving me in the way I want it to right now ... I really want for it to not feel taboo for me to say what I just said.
I want it to be like, no part of my black studies practice was navigating mental health crisis'. Part of learning black studies, part of learning black feminism for me was learning myself as a survivor. Even sharing stories of trauma with my folks, that was part of how I enacted or how I got close to or how I saw myself as free through those really uncomfortable moments.
I think that there's a way we do a lot of running and hiding and fleeing from things that other folks see as ugly. Even on some silly shit, even thinking about the Topsy figure or thinking about Caricatures and minstrelsy we do a lot of running and hiding, oh no don't do that in public, dirty laundry just clears all that stuff.
I feel like for me, the black studies of my wildest dreams 1. Doesn't exist inside the academy, but 2. Also, can hold its whole self.
Reuel: That's really well put and I think it can be married with what I'm thinking about and sort of what black studies spaces represent. I know a frustration of mine at Northwestern where I teach is ... I've always thought about African American studies or black studies as a place where the impossible is possible as you put it, where you can imagine alternatives.
Often times you find that even black studies spaces get colonized, particularly when it comes to methods and practices. We talk about interdisciplinarity but often times you see balases show up in the kinds of methods that are privileged or that have primacy in particular intellectual spaces.
If we can imagine an intellectual space where that kind of confessional praxis is married with experimental methods as I was talking about with Amber and interviews and biography so on and so forth and on, and on and on.
It's really hard to pull that off, obviously because people have stakes in different methods right, and replicate and so that kind of decolonization it seems to me, that kind of intellectual decolonization is probably most important and I think about. So that our black studies for the next millennium actually to think about how we can make black studies a space where multitudes can exist both in terms of the topics and the questions and in that kind of epistemology, but also the methods and what counts as valid intellectual praxis.
I think that's what I envision for the next millennium for black studies actually.
Robert: I just wanted to say that this weekend has been wonderful for me, to hear the language that you've created. As I said, you're aware that I taught for almost 10 years at Brandeis, actually I started actually teaching as TA and actually Hussein empowered me to actually teach while I was supposed to be a TA, but I actually taught.
I started teaching in 1971 during my senior year actually. So by '81, '82 I had taught for a decade, it was 10 years and I hit the wall. It was like wham, I don't wanna do this anymore. How do I take what I've learned and relate it to something real?
So I was in the middle of my thesis and I just sort of walked away from it. I went to the city ... well I lived in Boston but what happened in the city is they elected the first black city councilor and he became the first black president of the Boston City Council, Bruce Bolling, who has since passed away.
And I said, I have all this theory I want to see how you can put this in practice. I actually went to volunteer to work for him as his ... on his staff. Actually he said, we pay people for this stuff. Oh really?
I went to work for him and I had my first real taste for politics, which is at the end of the day not pretty. Especially this country it's all about money, because if you don't ... if you aren't able to be elected then you can do nothing. And then unfortunately Boston City Council you run every two years, so it means you are in constant state of fundraising. You were raising money all the time.
I got kind of burnt out after two years, and I said well where is it that I can go that I think maybe have some impact, and I became involved in urban redevelopment and affordable housing development in the city of Boston then I spent 30 wonderful years doing that.
But what I saw even doing that and the things, the projects I hid and did I can walk around the city and point to and I'll admire them. I've taken my daughters to see my work, and say this was a hole in the ground, this was a burnt out building now there 40 units and people can now live here at an affordable level.
But at the same time the city was changing tremendously, those of you who live in Boston and who've been there for a while remember during the 70s the South end was predominantly Latino and Black, it is not anymore. There are few projects that now maintain a black and latino that are not there, lost it.
What I want to say is, hopefully moving forward black studies can marry theory and practice to make life better for black people. We're gonna have to do some soul searching and asking some hard questions. For example, went to Barbados spent a week there; wonderful vacation, wonderful people but I found out in Barbados they're called the Amputation Capital of the Caribbean.
They have one of the highest diabetic rates per capita in the Caribbean, the diet has changed in such a negative way that the people are suffering. They're literally killing themselves by what they eat. So we've got to find a way to know what we've learned about health, health care what it takes to have a healthy body as well as a spirit and effect positive change.
At the end of the day what we want to do is survive and replicate ourselves and have people who are going to live healthy for generations. And right now there are a lot of negative things that are happening in our culture that are turning us the other way.
Laurie: As I was listening to this question, two things kept swimming around in my mind. One related to children and young people. As I was listening to the audience this weekend, I heard a lot of young people and some of those who weren't young people talk about when the light bulb went off for them.
What black studies, African American studies brought to them. But I feel like why do we need to wait until we're 18, 19, 20 and 21 for the light bulb to go off? It seems to me why can't we get down and dirty in kindergarten?
And some of that can happen at home and some of it can happen in the community, but some of it would happen in schools too. And so if we have all this great knowledge, can't we take it down to these other levels. When I say down I don't mean down like down, but actually down is up.
How could we in black studies departments find a way to partner with elementary schools, nursery schools, churches, other types of community settings and parents groups because I think that students would come to college much stronger. They'll be equipped, and they'll be easier, quicker to say okay now I need to say something, now I need to do something, because it's too much to happen when you could be focusing more on your education.
So that's one, the other one is that I've worked in politics and policy for a number of years and when I finished my PhD at the Hellers School, I thought maybe I know something now cause I got my PhD. I had been doing a lot of studying using the intersection of fame and I kept about how do we infuse intersectionality into politics and policy.
I got up on Capitol Hill and I was working for the Congressional Black Caucus, it was no easy way to take what I had learned ... gets back to your point ... take what I've learned and actually make it happen in the real world.
And that doesn't mean it hasn't cause I've seen it happen in different places, but it does not happen enough at all. And so again ... how can ... what I'm thinking about, I'm thinking about when we're getting a little bit more radical, we're getting a little bit more progressive.
It's really interesting cause I ask my students in my class; your assignment is, you've got a middle of the road white male as your boss and you have an intersectional framework and you have a pretty radical way of thinking about things. How do you get that particular person to first of all see your view, see your value and then make it happen?
It's one thing to be able to do that in the classroom, cause it's the students come up with it and it works really well. But what I'd like to know, is how do we then take that beautiful exercise and it happened and make it really happen, because that's where the change is gonna be.
Gilberto: So if no one has anything else to say, we want to open it up for conversation. Especially current AAAs students, all of y'all right here. Come, lets open this up. Let's chat!
Audience 1: Hello
First I wanted to say thank you for you alls insight it was very helpful and thank you for everything. So my question is; well reading and studying various AAAs giants and scholars in the field, how did you train yourself to accept the contradictions and flaws that are inherent in the works of a lot of your favorite scholars. How do you accept that you be the voice of C.L.R. James and the likes but also recognize that they silence women like Ida B. Wells and Anna Julie Cooper. How did you employ Marks' theory while also realizing it doesn't provide a framework for black people. How did you struggle with those contradictions?
Gilberto: Can we take like two more? So we can actually like from over there and over there.
Audience 2: This is just more to the point of ope rationalization of black studies and to the future of black studies. I graduate from AAAs in 2002, I did not go on to get a PhD, I actually work in academia. Working with students I do a lot of college transition, all you recent alum who are like - what am I suppose to do - come talk to me.
But the point about skills and those things, what I find interesting is oftentimes when I talk about what I do, how I do it. I do draw on a framework that comes from studying interdisciplinary studies like AAAs. When you bring that to the table, with folks like yourselves, I'm often times curious as to be anti intellectual because it's, oh well what about this? These are all very valid things, however to your point people have to live in the real world and we have to think about how does this translate, how do the identity of politics that are very theoretical translate into the real world.
And so my question for you is, how do you have that conversation without that tendency or how you manage that tendency toward the criticism of anti intellectualism? Education is very important, being thoughtful is very important. But when you step into a world with that mediocre white boss, or you're in a room full of folks and you're trying to get them to understand, no it's not okay just to talk about gender and stem that you have to talk about race and class too, that's a different conversation.
Audience 3: Okay, so a little background, I just started here so my frame of reference is all high school. My best friend and I raised hell at Board of Ed meetings and this really has to do with the last question. What would like for ... we actually have some ability to make change, so where should I start.
My friend the one who goes with me, wrote an article about Can Black be Beautiful and she wrote it addressing really, really difficult topics and then saying yes all for it, we can all be beautiful and then she got suspended for it because she quoted someone who said - I would never date a black girl.
With kind audacity to say the hard things, where can we start when I go back from break and go to the Board of Ed meetings, bring up all of these things, we leave them as part of our history and then just drop then move to college and then explore ourselves.
How can we go back and hold them accountable for the things that have happened and how to move forward in growing from them?
Amaris: Oh okay, it is on.
To the first question, you asked how do we sort of hold all the sort of complex and contradictory arguments of political thinkers and social theorists before our time. The way I think about that is that I'm the contradiction. I live in contradiction, in that way this is part of what cannons are for, there made to be disrupted and to be reassessed and reevaluated.
For that reason, there's a way of which I'm think about if we lived in these contradictions, why can't we install these new ways ... you know inventing ourselves and self fashioning in all of these other things. That's how I would answer that.
Ra Malika: I just want to tack on that, I think there's something about or something I find myself telling students often is that ... you're a contradiction, you're allowed to apprehend black culture material whether its like a music video or a song and recognize everything that's wrong with it. But you don't have to write me a paper that tells me, it's like the worst song in the world, when you know that's your favorite song.
I think there's a way that we have to be in this practice of understanding the very reality of doing different things not saying the right thing all the time and recognizing that these texts that we ... that are in our cannon. These folks who are our giants and our Julius' and our ancestors and our elders, they are also ... they're human underneath it, there's a person who can make new decisions who change their mind.
This is also on that divestment from the mastery thing. Why assume they mastered it, why assume that I have to master them pretending to master. Why not just allow for it to be a little bit more unsettled than that and why can't that be the productive space that we learn from.
Reuel: Pretty much what they said.
I don't have much to add to what they said, except your last point about not necessarily feeling compelled to savage ... it is your favorite ... I think that's an invitation to think of yourself as offering an internal critique when you recognize your own contradictions. Right?
It's not just about criticism, where its about sharp ... having these razor sharp critical skills, it's also about constructive engagement with the work and that requires you to find a way to develop that internal critique. Put yourself in their contradictions recognizing that you have your own.
And I think that's where you start to do that work and you become a part of that intellectual conversation, if you will, rather than operating outside of it. And [inaudible 01:07:20] said it, recognizing that you can mount an internal critique recognizing your own contradictions and theirs at the same time.
Carina: So we have about 5 more minutes, I don't know who wants to take a few more responses perhaps to the question about anti intellectualism and how to deal with that. A few more questions? Okay, so maybe a few more questions and we'll integrate our answers into that.
Robert: I just wanted to respond, not necessarily to the anti intellectualism but holding the contradictions together. Unfortunately, its Du Bois and most of our critical thinkers have indicated there's a duality about being black in society and it hasn't changed. It is gonna stay there, so you can read Moxx and you know it doesn't apply to us or that is that racism trumps. Trumps ... a lot of theory that in theory some of these things shouldn't work wonderfully but our experience and our history shows that ultimately race has triumphed over everything.
So we can look back at Paul Robeson clinging to communism as a solution for the suffering that black people encountered and he saw that communism, felt that communism would be the salvation for black people. But I think we could pause it, that if this is a communist society and it stayed with white people in control we wouldn't suffer.
We walk around, we live in contradictions in fact that today we can live and breathe and do many things that our parents couldn't do and that maybe 30, 40% of our contemporaries can't do. We have the luxury of being at Brandeis for four years and you're thinking and you're talking and you're doing things that well other people are trying to feed themselves, that's a contradiction. We live with it, you gotta accept it and move on.
Hopefully you can bring that to your life afterwards and hopefully try and close some of the contradictions, but ultimately there's contradictions that will never be resolved.
Ra Malika: I wanna try to offer something that might to speak to both the question about what do we do and also this thing about frameworks perspective, in translation I think what I gather. So for me what I've found and try to practice is just always being clear, always leading with care, always knowing what my intention is and never compromising my integrity in any room.
For me it's like ... I can't lie and be like I'm not a PhD student; see sometimes when I show up to the table that's who I am that's where my language is. But there are also multitudes, contradictions ... I think for me part of my commitment to personal integrity and facing these uncomfortable conversations or facing this task of translation whether that's with the figure of the white boss or with my folks.
I think there's a way that just committing to a personal sense of integrity and I'm sorry if this isn't useful, but I just feel that understanding what my intended impact is always and having some clarity about the work I intend to do when I open my mouth is what I let lead me.
What I let guide the way I decide to transfer ... and I think as far as what to do in change and facing different types of again discomfort in this work. I feel knowing your intention and being grounded in a sense of integrity is where you get your answers too, I don't if there's a road map, there's not a checklist that I have personally of next stops on the list, but I think when you're grounded by a personal sense of purpose that's connected to the collective function that you serve, that's where the answers come, that's where the answers come from.
Carina: We need to get ready for the next wonderful keynote professors at 10 still, so thank you so much to everybody.