Africana studies kicks off yearlong series on activism and Black life

The virtual series will explore the relationship between freedom and black identity

Virginia Laurie

Imagination and creativity are necessary for black activism, said panelists during the kickoff event of the Activism and Black Life series.

The yearlong series began Aug. 26 with a virtual panel on racism, police brutality and how the struggle for freedom shapes black identity. 

Michael Hill, professor of Africana studies, Elicia Cowins, assistant professor of accounting and Mohamed Kamara, associate professor of French and Africana studies program chair, each spoke during the panel. 

“A central facet of activism in black life is the enduring struggle for freedom…the imagination is directly tied to this project of restoring liberty,” Hill said. 

The series of virtual lectures, debates, film screenings and roundtable discussions will feature participants from all different academic disciplines, across campus and from other academic and civic institutions. 

Cowins said that creativity is key in overcoming “the status quo,” which is black overrepresentation in under-resourced areas. 

“If you are both an activist and a member of an oppressed group, you have no choice but to be creative as you are always being exposed to and consuming harmful ideas,” she said. “You have to create your own identity in order to combat existing narratives.” 

Kamara reiterated the necessity of de-normalizing injustice. 

“You have to decolonize your mind,” he said.  “You have to think that ‘even if the world was about to end, I’m still going to do something that has the potential to bring good to myself or others’…you have to imagine everything that is possible, even if it feels futile.”

The panel also discussed the meaning of the word “protest” and what it looks like. 

“Throughout black history, protest has taken a multitude of forms, including in ‘secretive’ ways,” Hill said. “New historiography has suggested that domestics in the heart of slave owners’ houses were engaging in all sorts of subversive protests that were not conspicuous but effective.”

He said that the myth of black complacency is harmful and emphasized the fact that activism often happens in unexpected places. 

“There are people on Wall Street who are doing activism,” Hill said. “People everywhere are engaging in activism, even if it’s not obvious, and sometimes they’re sitting where we can’t see them. Trying to wrap a bow around ‘activism’ and saying ‘this is what it looks like’ can be a dangerous thing.”

Cowins and Kamara discussed overshadowed activists in black history, including women and the working class, addressing some of the complications of intersectionality.

The next panel in this series, “Antiracism, White Activists, and Black Freedom” will be hosted on Sept. 16 and feature professors Nneka Dennie and Henryatta Ballah and Director of Institutional History Lynn Rainville.