American Studies Program Statement on Recent Events

Fri, 06/05/2020

From American Studies Program Director, Prof. Noliwe Rooks

As I sat down last night to draft a statement about this moment on behalf of the Program in American Studies, I knew I wanted to denounce anti-Black police violence, actions and policies. I knew I wanted to point out the intersections between the pandemics of public health, economic violence and the rise of authoritarianism. In collecting my thoughts, I reread a speech by one of the most potent organizers, thinkers and activists of the 20th century, Ella Baker. Her words, spoken so many decades ago and excerpted below, pulled together the threads and thoughts I was struggling to articulate. And so her speech is the bulk of our statement.  

What I can add is that, as a Program, we in American Studies are comprised of faculty who teach, write and think about the meanings of freedom and equality, the frailty of democracy, the limits of public policy and the law, and the facts of anti-Blackness, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. 

1)      We know that as philosopher and activist Angela Davis has written, the quest for freedom is “a constant struggle.”

2)      We know that the pursuit of justice is a marathon, not a sprint.

3)      We know that we stand with, draw strength from, and offer our strength to those who work for equality, freedom and justice.

4)      We know what Emma Lazarus meant when she wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

5)      We know that, as Ella Baker says below, until justice and freedom are constants in our world, “We will never turn back.”

 

Ella Baker on Freedom Day 1964 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi

"We are not in the final stages of the freedom struggle. We are really just beginning…Let me tell you why. Because even tomorrow if every vestige of racial discrimination were wiped out...we still would not be free. We won’t be free until within us we have that deep sense of freedom from a lot of things that we don’t even mention in these meetings.

And I’m not just talking about Negroes, I’m talking about people. People cannot be free until they realize that peace is not the absence of war or struggle, it is the presence of justice. People cannot be free until there is enough work in the land to give everybody a job.  We have to recognize that in this country, in this land of great and plenty, and of great wealth, there are millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. Tomorrow, if we were to call up all the able-bodied men in our country who could do some work, we wouldn’t have work for them to do…

We are going to have to have freedom schools, and we are going to have to learn a lot of things in them. We are going to have to be concerned about the kinds of education our children are getting in school, and all of this has to be done at the same time that we also recognize that our white brothers, the very white brothers in Hattiesburg and in other parts of Mississippi who have kept us in bondage... did it because they did not know any better.They have been fooled, and they have been fooled by those who told them the “big lie.” The “big lie” was to the effect that they could do what they wanted in Mississippi with the Negro question. And you know what? The rest of the country for a long time tacitly agreed. That is, they didn’t do anything about it.

And so all of us stand guilty at this moment for having waited so long to lend ourselves to a fight for the freedom, not of Negroes, not of the Negroes of Mississippi, but for the freedom of the American spirit, for the freedom of the human spirit for freedom, and this is the reason I am here tonight, and this is the reason, I think, that these young men have worked and given their bodies in the movement for freedom. They are here not because they want to see something take place just for the fun of it, they are here because they should know, and I think they do know, that the freedom which they seek is a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind. And until that day, we will never turn back."

**

Excerpted from Ella Baker’s remarks at the second SNCC “Freedom Day”  held in Hattiesburg Mississippi in 1964 the February before the launch of Mississippi Freedom Summer. (https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/ella-baker-freedom-day-rally-speech-text/). For more on Freedom Day and SNCC see, https://snccdigital.org/events/freedom-day-in-hattiesburg/

Black Lives Matter sign listing names of people killed by police