Welcome to CivicList, an independent newsletter to build community and uplift voices! In this edition I include:
What I'm grateful for as a result of self-reflection.
Resources for you to take anti-racist and voting action today.
An interview with Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, professor and poet.
A bit of art.
A quote by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m grateful to have time to reflect and slowly understand family scripts of hard working immigrants more accurately as hard working immigrants who directly benefited from a system imbued with policies big and small to steer benefits to only the white race and deny them to others, and how our succeeding generations continuing to benefit without reflection and action perpetuates that system and relinquishes the responsibility to understand and undo the injustices suffered by my brothers and sisters of color over the centuries and through to today.
As soon as you say “community,” I go back to my South Bronx community. Growing up in the Bronx was important for me as a black child-- as a child of the hip-hop era-- being in that milieu of a time where we had both struggles but also quite a bit of resistance, and quite a lot of liberation mostly through youth culture, hip-hop, breakdancing – it’s a way of life actually.
I think about being at Teachers College and people in that community who have helped me to thrive. These institutions are not easy to thrive in, and yet the community of folks that shepherded me through and helped me see tenure as a reality were also my community.
And I'm thinking about community sort of writ large particularly as we see what's happening in society, the need for a worldwide community that is often accessed through social media. Showing solidarity, folks in France showing solidarity, in Germany and elsewhere around this latest horrific sadistic killing of George Floyd that those folks who are about liberation that I've never met are also my community. So those folks who are in the fight for liberation who are academics, who are teachers, who are everyday lay folks are my community. If you're about justice, if you're about change, if you're about moving the needle forward in love, then you're part of my community.
We don’t we hear the word “love” much in academia and politics. Why do you think that is?
I think it requires vulnerability. It took a lot of vulnerability to write my book and I am so grateful that I offered it to the world because I freed myself, and others are telling me how they are being freed. In spaces like the academy, people are often behind a wall of intelligence that often builds a world of arrogance-- you don't want to show any weakness because sometimes your colleagues will see that lovingness as weakness and try to take advantage. Because if you have this distance from other human beings, you also don't want people to ask you to do a lot of things. Love requires vulnerability and we've never been comfortable in showing that in this country, certainly, and certainly not in a space like the academy where intelligence prevails.
The of dual crises we're facing right now of the pandemic and confronting police brutality makes a lot of people uncomfortable; I wondered what you thought about that, or what else you might be curious about today?
I'm wondering about who's doing the training of police, at academies: is it possibly a space for vulnerability? I don't think it is, because vulnerability may show weakness and when you are facing a domestic violence situation, or someone's robbing a bank, you can't be vulnerable. So I'm wondering about the mental conditioning and then what that also does to the heart. When we have these social forces of anti-blackness, when a police officer sees a black person, what triggers? So I'm taking it all the way back.
So it seems like have two different types of academies--higher education and policing-- where vulnerability might be helpful?
Exactly. As an educator, when I think about my student-teachers, and what I'm trying to get them to think about before they go into a classroom, or while they're in a classroom, it has to start with the heart. If the heart is dark the work will be dark. So I'm just wondering about and I can extend that metaphor to politicians, when they're making policies about communities that they've never visited-- what is that information based on? How have they been trained to think about those communities? Until we're able to interrupt that, Matt, sadly I think we're going to continue to see this-- every now and again there will be this eruption because until everyone has freedom there will not be peace.
How do you uplift voices, especially those that aren’t heard?
I’ve been working on a model of racial literacy development. It’s a pyramid with six components, at the base is critical love. We need to have a profound ethical commitment for the communities that we serve--I don't know that anyone can truly be an advocate if they're not advocating in critical love.
Advocacy for me is interrupting the status quo, trying to shift, move, open power for others. I think the biggest piece of uplifting the voices of others is to be humble and make space to keep your own mouth quiet when the time is right, or to be willing to be behind the scenes to do some of the unglamorous work. And that requires a constant engagement of being reflective of where you are in that moment on this issue. When it's time for you to speak, and when it's time for you stand aside, when it's time for you to get money for the movement and have people join the movement who know more than you-- you have to be humble enough to know that even though you might have started something, or even though it might be “my classroom” that doesn't mean that I am the only bearer of knowledge.
Your new book is called “Love From the Vortex” and you’ve said that writing it helped you “unfreeze” from a traumatic two years in your life. Stepping into the vortex seems like losing control. How can others realize the benefit of losing control a bit?
You made a connection to this idea of what I think undergirds white supremacy and white domination. This need to control, to be able to control generationally the benefits that have been earned and unearned. And relinquishing that control possibly means the loss not just for yourself, but generational loss which still connects to you and your name. I'm thinking particularly let's say white males who have gone to Columbia or Harvard and they want to make sure that all of the males and maybe even the females in their family also become members of let's say Columbia or Harvard. Generationally there's a legacy. In some ways the way we know that this dehumanization project has been able to happen for 400 years is because folks have figured out how to pass that control for four centuries. That is done certainly through policy, through institutions and so we're asking people to fall into equity, the way people fall into love. There is a relinquishing of control and just being.
What’s a small scale change that people could take today?
People could maybe take the small step to say “I will engage in this self excavation,” but understand the lifetime of work--that you never arrive. Even if you believe in your wokeness, that at any moment you can say something that a person of color can say “oh my gosh that was racist” and you can’t get not be defensive, but instead should have the attitude of: and to really say “hey let me go back and let me do some work.” That’s human-ness, that's the dance. And people aren't willing, I don't think, to engage in the dance. So maybe that metaphor is to say “I’ll be willing to step onto the dance floor,” and know that the dance is for the rest of your life.
It's one of the six components of this racial literacy development model that I've been writing about and theorizing about. It’s all in deciding that you're going to do a deep excavation of your beliefs of your biases and of the way that you see the world. And understanding that those beliefs, those biases, the ways that you see the world, deeply impacts everything that you do--in your life as a teacher, as a politician, as an advocate, certainly even as a partner in a relationship; as a guardian of a child.
What else might you be excited about even in the context of a very traumatic time?
I'm grateful for the solidarity that's being shown across races, across sexualities, across countries. Often times when they see this kind of resistance, it's just billed as violence and “look at them they're just ready to explode.” No. No, we have to look at what incited this. And why it keeps happening and keeps happening. There's a lot for us to unpack about that but what I am excited about is that people of all ages, races, classes are standing up and saying “This abuse—no more.” So I'm excited about that.
I think a lot of white people let themselves off the hook because they'll say “Well I don't treat people just because the way they look. I'm not a racist” But that's as superficial as it gets, because it's denying that deeper stuff that you're talking about, and it's denying what's below the surface, and in the history and archaeology and infrastructure that set this whole system up from its founding.
We're not taught a lot of that in school either. By happenstance on a visit to Washington, D.C., I learned about the Virginia Retrocession, when Virginia decided to take back land that was meant to help form the nation’s capital. It split the capital in half because it wanted to maintain slavery.
I didn't know that—I knew about the illustrious Benjamin Banneker who gave us our almanac and also laid out DC. I wonder what those conversations were like for him? I wonder what the pressure was like for him? I didn’t start learning black history until I was in my 20s because it's not taught in school outside of Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” and Malcolm X was pictured as the devil. We don't even get a full picture of brother Malcolm, and his change of going to his El Hajj, and certainly we don't get the full picture of the Nation of Islam being involved in his murder. So this complexity, and because there's no space in schools to really learn layered history—our children don’t know deep details of who they are, because purposely, because of the way it's been constructed, to not know who they are. That also produces anger by the way, and it produces a vulnerability that if you don't know who you are, you will take these images of what people say you're supposed to be. So there's so much un-learning that we have to do before we learn ourselves. That can produce some rage as well.
That excavation of some of that self-loathing had to be replaced with the beauty of the historical literacy of my people. I did a lot of unlearning before I could learn. And that process is almost half my lifetime. Some people get to be in their 40s and 50s and they still have not done the unlearning process—the archaeology of the self.
"A Diamond With Blood Running Through It" or, a map of Washington, D.C., before the Virginia Retrocession.
The Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season. --Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.