The JHU Forums on Race in America presented a panel on “The Next 50 Years: Black Power’s Afterlife and the Struggle for Social Justice,” Tuesday, Sept. 27 in Shriver Hall.
The discussion panelists were Robin D.G. Kelley, the chair of U.S. History and African American Studies at UCLA; Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based think tank which promotes the public policy interests of black people; and Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a national non-profit that uses art to inspire young people to end violence against women. Nathan Connolly, associate professor of history at Hopkins, moderated the panel discussion.
Panelists examined the future of anti-racist politics, possibilities for anti-racist school curriculums, the creation of a critical citizenship and the effects of the Obama administration on race relations in America.
Connolly began the panel by reflecting on the history of the Black Panther Party.
“Now, it’s not coincidental that we are having this event fifty years after the establishment of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966 as of October,” Connolly said. “One of the things that’s often looked over with the Black Panther Party is that they were very dedicated to empowering working class people across color lines. So what I’d like to look at for a moment is how there can be a space for consensus politics throughout our fight against anti-black racism.”
Love argued that distinct black intellectual traditions are an essential part of the fight against racism.
“I think unfortunately that many of us are socialized to understand activism as merely a response to structures of oppression, which in part it is,” Love said. “But activism should also be about the importance of building independent, black institutions that can negotiate their status in a largely white, patriarchal society. These institutions should have the ability to promote the intellectual work of people of African descent that does not rely on the intellectual traditions of European scholarship.”
These independent institutions are essential components in the creation of long-term social justice movements, according to Love.
“It’s really important that we focus on rediscovering the intellectual traditions of people of African descent, which are often blocked out of the public mainstream, so we can determine the kinds of intellectual work that can actually contribute to building the kinds of institutions that can produce sustainable activist movements,” Love said. “We need to a build an infrastructure for now that can be passed on to future generations, so they can use the sustainable institutions built by this intellectual tradition as a template for engaging in issues as a collective.”
Connolly asked the panelists to discuss the limitations of multiculturalism in education.
“One of the things that’s very clear now at college campuses around the country is that the old post-1970s version of multiculturalism has not actually served anyone,” Connolly said. “There’s something about the kind of institution that was built in the wake of the ethnic revival of the 1970s that never got quite around to answering the problem of how to create concrete social change. So one of the questions I wanted to ask you all to think about is how do we in fact create an anti-racist curriculum and not just a curriculum for diverse multiculturalist issues but one that actually takes as a civic service and a duty its obligation to create the conditions whereby antiracism can leave the school and become a part of society?”
In his response, Kelley stated that a discussion and critique of power is an essential component of any anti-racist curriculum.
“One of the limits of liberal multiculturalism is the way in which it makes power absent. It celebrate differences and identifying differences, but not being productive with these differences, because productiveness in the sense of activism is always about a reaction to power,” Kelley said. “I don’t actually have to make up stuff, because you can go to Mississippi middle schools and see the way they develop curriculums that ask questions about why some people are poor and others aren’t and how that relates to the development of America. These are the questions that have historically been ignored, and we cannot claim to have an anti-racist curriculum if we push questions of power structure off the table.”
Tillet discussed how anti-racist curriculums should encourage students to have movements of self-discovery about activism.
“In my senior year of high school I read two books: Malcolm X’s autobiography and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,” Tillet said. “Those books gave me my own language and my own way to then diagnose and understand the two major events that were happening in the country at that time, which were Rodney King and the Clarence Thomas trial. So that was my ‘aha!’ moment.”
In her own teaching and activism, Tillet aims to allow students to have moments of realization that are similar to her own.
“You have to have a moment of epiphany, you have to have a moment of self-radicalization and then you have to move from being a witness to being an agent of change or an activist on the frontlines,” Tillet said.
Attendees responded positively to the panel discussion. Allison Gunter, an Urban Teachers Lecturer at the School of Education, initially took interest in the event because of the current climate of race relations in America.
“I wanted to see what the experts in the field had to say,” Gunter said. “I found it encouraging. I thought they had a lot of positive things to say and shared a lot of insight that got me thinking about those next steps and those next critical conversations I need to have moving forward. Since I teach coursework, these are conversations that I want to have with my students to push them to be more active in these spaces that the panelists were talking about.”
Freshman Melissa Eustache, a member of the Black Student Union, appreciated the panelists’ candor about race relations.
“I was part of a general student body meeting for the Black Student Union, and they talked about [the forum]. I was like, ‘This is super interesting,’ and I wanted to come,” Eustache said. “I liked that it was a very candid conversation about race and about the kinds of contemporary problems that often are overlooked, and I liked that it brought [these problems] to the forefront of the conversation.”