Scholars and Activists Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters’

January 19, 2015

Hundreds of scholars, activists, policy makers, and artists converged late last week on the University of Arizona for a conference titled "Black Life Matters."

The conference, which was free and open to the public, attracted scholars from 19 campuses nationwide. It was sponsored by the university’s department of gender and women’s studies; Lehigh University; The Feminist Wire; the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and gender equity; and dozens of academic departments and centers across the Tucson campus. It focused on areas including racial disparities, the "criminalizing" of black communities, sexuality, violence against women, and immigration.

The conference’s academic speakers touched on a variety of issues, including the forces that are weighing on the black community. Here’s a sampling of some of those scholars’ comments.

Carolyn Finney, assistant professor in the department of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California at Berkeley

Some people say black people don’t have a relationship with the environment. Every time I hear that, it makes me crazy. When I showed up at Berkeley eight years go, there was a large introductory course on the history of culture and natural-resource management in the U.S. I looked at the syllabus. I saw readings on Native Americans and Asian-Americans and Latinos, but there was nothing about black people.

How can we talk about the history of natural-resource management in this country without talking about black people, who toiled the land against their will and stayed there anyway and lived their dreams?

My parents were caretakers for a 12-acre estate outside New York City that belonged to a wealthy Jewish family. I grew up in the gardener’s cottage. It was a beautiful place, with a small pond with fish, flowers, and gardens. My parents never considered themselves environmentalists. But for me, at the core, it was their love of the land and working it, caring for it, and understanding how you’re connected with it that made them environmentalists. Where do they fit in the larger story of who we are in the country?

Charles H.F. Davis III, director of higher-education research and initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education

It’s important that our young people aren’t marginalized and pushed outside the boundaries of the work that needs to be done. When we’re thinking about the criminalization of black people, it’s critically important to think about the policy implications. We need to repeal those policies that are oppressing us.

You have that power within you, and you can analyze this. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. or a master’s degree or even a bachelor’s degree to say, "This is wrong; this needs to change."

Think about the school-to-prison pipeline. And truancy and what that means. When you’re absent from school, our solution is to keep you absent. What the hell is that?

We need to think about the impact of these policies that dramatically affect the lives of black youth. Remember the power we have. We have ability to create change. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Tamura A. Lomax, visiting assistant professor in the department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of The Feminist Wire

What does it mean to be black in this moment where white safety equals black murder, where black resistance is read as black terror, where black blood caulks the grounds on which we walk? We need both anger and hope in this moment. Anger provides honest insight, however hope enables us to keep on going. This hope, historically, is often drawn from a source that is greater than ourselves.

My personal goal as a black feminist mother of two teenage sons, and for every mother and father who’s lost, or fears losing, a child, is that we change the narrative, that we foreground both black rage and black hope, and that we bask in black beauty, empowerment, wholeness, radical community, and imagination. May we participate in changing our futures by writing a different script about what it means to be black in America and beyond.

Imani Perry, professor in the Center for African-American Studies and faculty associate in the program in law and public affairs at Princeton University

Academic accounts of black life are often about the conditions black people live under; they speak of black life in America, how black life is constrained by, determined by, limited by a litany of ills and ails, and these are important to always note. Our infant mortality is highest in this country, and our life span shortest; we must testify to that.

But art, both high art and the art of our daily existences, reminds us that black life is also a robust and beautiful thing. Black life in action has political importance because it is the visceral refusal of the debasement and the constraint. The cadence of our voices, the cleverness of humor, the witness of song, the complexity of our card games.

Black life forces us to acknowledge the premature death, the violence, the poverty, the suffering that black people face disproportionately, and yet refuse to say these wounds make us broken. The cracks are where the light enters.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.