Freedom is Never Given /ˈfrēdəm izˈnevər/ ˈɡivən/ phrase. – a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extracted from King’s letter from Birmingham jail, 16 April 1963. The whole quote states, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” See also. Civil rights leader Malcolm X similarly states in a 1965 speech, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
I’m a St. Louis native, so I’ve been in the Midwest pretty much my whole life, having accepted a job in the Midwest. I am a mother and a new grandmother, if you will. A college professor. Definitely a person who really is on a journey to completely enjoy life and enjoy it despite what I have understood over time as the trials and tribulations of life. I’ve really been looking a lot at sort of the intersection between tragedy and triumph and how those things, sometimes we treat as siloed experiences, but they can happen simultaneously. Um, so I think in a nutshell that probably is a good way to describe me in the journey that I’m on right now in life.
I think the way in which I think of beauty, it’s sort of like the way that I think of music, right? I think of beauty as being melodic, that beauty is ever changing and always evolving. I don’t think that there is one way to sort of pinpoint or peg beauty. I really do think that it’s more of a moving and evolving thing as opposed to something that can be narrowly defined or just kind of pigeonholed into a particular thing.
I think that the way in which American culture defines and describes beauty has been narrow, very narrow. And it’s kept certain images and certain groups on the peripheral. But in terms of my understanding and my description of beauty, I think of it, again, as something that’s more melodic, more of a sensation, of feeling, as opposed to a specific thing.
I think that that is a culture. That the entire Black culture and Black experience could be defined as beauty, right? And that we have the beauty of so many shades — shades that are harmonious, shades that express who we are, how we experience life, but also how we’re experienced.
I think that we have always been at the forefront of culture. And Black beauty is defined to me as a culture as opposed to the thing. In terms of everything from the way in which we express ourselves — in music, in art of all sorts of forms, in our intellectual thought, in our swagger, in our fashion sense, even in our movement, in our sway, right? I think that Black beauty’s such a broad collective of things that can’t be bottled into one thing. It’s cultural, right? It’s way broader than I think we have been led to feel or believe based on American culture.
Definitely beautiful. Empowering. Enlightenment. Love, wow, love above all things. I think those are the words that readily jump out for me when I think of, of Black beauty.
I think that is true of the Black experience, what we experience, so I don’t want to make it simply my own. I can certainly talk about the ways in which I have experienced it as an individual, but I think it’s not unique to me. I think that we suffer, especially those of us who are American, and even in different parts of the globe where you’ve had European colonization, we certainly suffer under systemic race racism. And that feeling of oppression, it’s weighty, it’s heavy. You bring it into the room with you; you experience it. And, and if we were to ever define it on an individual level as individual bias or hatred, we’re gonna miss that. We live in a society where racism and racial inequality was woven into the fabric of life of this place. So it affects us in social realms and economic outcomes and political decision making that affect us — that affect the movement, the control, and subjugation of Black bodies. So I think in terms of the difficulties and the oppression that we feel, it was all under this horrific umbrella of systemic racism in any places that have experienced European colonization.
Certainly. I think that for me, growing up, I had this beautiful experience of growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, being educated by Black educators, having everything from the lawyers and doctors all the way through to the street hustlers in my community. So I always saw that we were not a monolithic people, but that we were just as diverse as any other group. And so I never felt like a minority.
I was never made to feel like a minority, let alone inferior, until my college experience, in my introduction into higher education, especially higher education in a predominantly white institution. And what I saw was that as I was advancing academically… I mean from middle school all the way through high school, I was college prep. I was well prepared, you know coming from an inner city high school, but I was very well prepared for my college experience. And I didn’t realize, I didn’t even think that racist still existed, you know. Being educated by Black intellects who endured segregation and Jim Crow South and, you know, coming of age during time periods where we were not afforded the civil rights that I was able to take advantage of… I did not assume that blatant racism still exists. I wasn’t naive to the idea of racism, but, you know, given their experiences and then what mine were, I was always taught that the only thing that would ever hold me back was me. And to have the realities of how many things are exclusively white and how many things are protected with respect to maintaining whiteness and white privilege in our society, be put right in my face….
And, you know, having subtle things, those more covert forms of racism, in how I was graded and evaluated by my instructors. I remember distinctly a professor who constantly kept giving me A- on papers. And so I finally went in to meet with the instructor to say, Hey, I really want to do well in this class. It’s a challenging class, but I’m up for the challenge, you know, but I noticed that I’m not getting full marks and I want to improve. And she basically said to me, Just accept what you’re given. You should be happy with that. So I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong, she just could not see me receiving full credit or gull marks on papers in her class.
All the way through to the time I’m in graduate school to actually have a professor use the N-word when he was talking to me just simply to evoke a negative response from me. And I had never heard anyone say that word while talking to me at all. Never. And especially not someone whose class I’m in and who I’m expected to work under as a teaching assistant. So I was just floored. I’d never been so insulted and humiliated in my life… and so completely at a loss of words. And understanding the hierarchy… At the time what I didn’t understand is that there were so few African Americans in the doctoral program and that I was making inroads into completing it, even though I was not the first in the program I was the first to complete it. And I didn’t realize that that kind of palpable hatred for simply doing what other students in the program were doing, what other students in my college education were doing — simply trying to do well in their classes — that could evoke those kinds of responses from the people who were supposed to be my educators, my leaders, my mentors.
It’s something that I’ll be presenting on at a national conference for my profession in a few days here — talking about the need for diversity of thought, curriculum that is race-centered and race-focused as well as ethnocentric in its focus and its discourse and dialogue so that we do have more critical discussions and thoughts around race and ethnicity and the centrality of it in our society. And higher education provides a perfect platform for that. So, I do believe that with respect to academia and the ivory tower effect, that it is very exclusionary. Again, I was in a program that was well-respected, is always ranked in the top five by US News and World Report for its criminology program, I was learning the theories that I cover in my classes and those theorists were my professors and now teaching this to my students. Yet, the further I went in higher ed, the less and less I saw students who look like me, but especially a faculty who look like me.
And so, I think that many of these places are places where we’re not learning about race. We’re not given positive images and views of people of different backgrounds and cultures. And we are not requiring that of students. So I think that for me, I was really challenged when I was on the job market — my goal was to go to an HBCU and to be in a place in an environment where I could teach classes that were race-centered and race-focused in a way that told about us and told our stories in a very different way and that would be well respected there. But I was also told by a Black faculty member, You also have to think about where you’re most needed. Not all students of color can go to HBCUs. And, you know what your experience was like being in a PWI, or predominantly white institution. Where would you be most effective? And can honestly say that teaching in a PWI has been good for me because it allows me to connect with white students, but even more so with students of color who you know, for me is disheartening to hear them say, You are the first Black professor I’ve ever had. But it’s also rewarding to see them think about graduate education and think about going further and further in their careers and being represented in areas where we are underrepresented.
So that has been extremely, extremely rewarding for me — to be able to mentor and really support students in environments that aren’t always supportive. Being able to bring to the curriculum courses that I teach that are race-focused. Classes like Race, Crime, and Justice or Blackness as Threat, where we cover the police officer shootings of unarmed African Americans and talking about the historical context of that way before we talk about these cases that have received a lot of national attention: Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown. But, understanding this disconnect between the African American community and the law enforcement community is a historical one. It is purposive, right? So that has been my way of kind of challenging the ivory tower approach in the exclusionary way in which higher education or academia has been, especially for people of color.
I think what’s missing from the conversation is the historical context under which this disconnect was formed. That when you think about criminal justice system practices overall — everything from policing to courts to corruption — that the thing that made this different and unique in an American style of criminal justice is the advent of slavery in what would become our nation. And that meant in the formation of unique styles of policing from slave patrol all the way through to plantation justice. So we were not able to ever use the legal system to see justice or fair outcomes, right? But that same system was designed in such a way to limit our freedoms, to restrict our freedom. Anytime you have the highest court of the land deeming slavery as a justified system, deemingsegregation as the law of the land…
And so we’re not just talking about slavery, but then the hundreds of years that follow where we weren’t even given any sort of civil rights, let alone human basic human rights in this nation. So we’re talking over 400 years of oppression of a people in a place that’s supposed to be a democracy, right? The land of the free, a place that’s built on this idea of freedoms and liberties that were never afforded or created for my people, for my ancestors. And that we suffer from that systemic racism, that purposive, intentional way in which, even today, laws are formed. That, not inadvertently, but advertently affect us and purposively subjugate us to punishment within that system. So, you know, when people say things like, it’s not justice, it is just us, that is not rhetoric. Those are things that I can easily substantiate based on people of color, but especially African Americans experiences with criminal justice broadly.
I think is going to begin with first recognizing, acknowledging that systemic racism exists. And we begin first with our political institutions and we don’t pass laws like in the late ‘80s when crack use was actually on the decline, you saw the federal government step in and set mandatory minimums. For the first time in U.S. history they set mandatory minimums, that applied only to crack cocaine not powder cocaine and it allowed for a hundred to one ratio disparity in sentencing for persons with small quantities of crack cocaine to be in prison for a minimum of five years, and that was increased to 10 years. And that did not apply to powder cocaine, that didn’t apply to any other drug. We’ve got to first begin with looking at our laws and looking at the ways in which our laws are slanted or biased and are targeting, flat-out targeting, people of color.
And when you pass laws like this that affect Latino and the Latinx community in our society, that if you can do this to any group of people, then all of us are subjected to such. Right? And that this targeting of African Americans and how we’ve always been on the outskirts of justice in our society, it begins to be addressed first through our political institutions from our decision makers all the way to decision making bodies and legislation. I think we also tackle it in terms of economics — so much of what we do in terms of imprisonment and in terms of incarceration, how we mobilize our police — that so much of this is tied to economics, right?
Our country wouldn’t even exist as a nation, would not have been born as a nation, had it not been for slavery. And that slavery is the backbone, it is the blood money upon which this country was founded and built. And so until we do something about our perversion of capitalism, in the way, I think Dr. Claud Anderson defined American capitalism as us wanting wealth, but at the labor of someone else or others. Really at the heart of the American dream is our fetishism, our obsession with money, the way we demonstrate our success in this country is through our accumulation of wealth. And until we start thinking more systematically and critically about that, we’re not going to change this system. We’re going to always allow for so many of the inequalities, the -isms, the cancers that our country suffers from are undergirded by economic greed and economic inequality.
And even in terms of our social institutions, right? For me, my students….they’re not hearing about implicit bias, they’re not having critical and real conversations about race or the censoring of whiteness or white privilege in our society until they’re in higher education. Why isn’t that a part of the curriculum for kids in elementary and middle schools? To begin to really truly understand what racism is and how it has permeated our society? We need to stop acting like it doesn’t exist or those are things of the past and really bring it to the forefront and begin to have really, really critical dialogue and discourse on these things. And not just discourse, but discourse that’s gonna allow for actionable items in terms of our curriculum, our social lives, and wellbeing so that racism isn’t a regular part of our lives and daily experiences.
I’m proud of being a mom and a grandmother first and foremost. I’m proud of being an activist scholar, right? That I can see that in so much of the things that I do in terms of research and teaching and my service to my university and university community and the surrounding community…is really centered on activism. That’s important for me: being an activist scholar whose aim and whose focus and objectivity has been on racial equality as well as gender and economic equality in our society. So I think those are the two things that I’m the most proud of.
I think my biggest personal dream — and I think there is really one cause everything else kind of falls under the umbrella of it — is to be a person who was so centered and grounded in love and compassion at those around me, those even remotely connected to me, feel that and know that. That is my ultimate dream.
I think the issue of poverty. I think that so much of what has happened to us historically has allowed for us to be on a different playing field. And so the fact that you cannot find one community across the United States where Blacks and whites live in ecological equality given continued pervasive– and for us we’re not just talking poverty — but places where we’re dealing with extreme forms of poverty and deprivation. And so I think one of the things that I would like to bring light to are the ways in which we are kept from the American Dream and the idea of economic — and I’m not even talking about prosperity — but economic wellbeing in this society.
I think my biggest dream for society is where we focus more on humanity. And I mean humanity in the purest sense. Humanity that is centered and focused on love, right? That when I love, I don’t feel it’s right, let alone appropriate, to demean others, to subjugate others, to allow others to suffer and it not bother me and it not penetrate my soul. So I think that is my biggest desire, my biggest hope and prayers for humanity is just that when we return to our sense of humanity that is grounded in love and compassion and mercy.
I think we began by understanding the suffering of others, right? It’s easy for me, for instance, to be critical of someone’s poverty if I feel like I worked really hard to get out of poverty, but not ever, ever acknowledge the opportunities and advantages given to me and perhaps were not afforded to the person next to me. And so I think part of it is having a more grounded understanding. This is why I think education can play an important role — we begin to expose people to the lived experiences of others so that we have a level of compassion. So I think it would begin there.
I think it also begins with the ways in which we express that in our laws.And I remember a time when I would talk about, for instance, ways in which societies can embrace compassionate capitalism. That in the United States we have a high violent crime rate, especially homicide rate, compared to other industrialized countries that we are often compared to simply because we just don’t know how to tame the market. We don’t know how to engage in compassionate levels of capitalism. It used to be that I would say policy recommends recommendations and I had to detach it from this idea of communism, but now socialism has a negative connotation to it, depending on which circles in which you’re talking about this. But those other economies, those other industrialized nations have figured out ways that tame the market. So for instance, us having things like no federal family leave policy…because when we invest in our families, when we invest in children, we invest in a better nation, a better country overall. We have lower crime rates. We know that that’s not a hyperbole, that’s fact. When we invest in things like universal healthcare…when we invest in things like college education…that is not overwhelmingly burdensome.
And, you know, one of my daughter’s closest friends growing up is in grad school and in Paris. And the rate that she pays for her college education there versus what we pay for graduate education here is ridiculous. There are, again, other countries that we’re compared to all the time where college education, if you agree to work in that field or in that profession for a certain number of years after, you don’t owe for your college education. And so we call many of these institutions “public institutions” or “public education” when it’s not. When it’s not accessible, it’s not affordable for most families without having to rely on through loans.
And that’s a debt in and of itself. You know, I was seeing a recent thing being sort of floated around social media where the U.S. — I think it was the U.S.Department of Justice — that individuals have said they would spend a week in prison if it meant having their student loan debt erased. You know, like, clearly, like, Sign me up. Who agrees to go into an American prison, for that matter, simply to be rid of that kind of debt? So I think that there’s so many things on a macro level all the way down to a micro level…from curriculum to socialization of youth and of children with respect to compassionate ways in which we view each other. And just do not allow suffering to happen, especially in the wealthiest nation of the world.
The biggest thing is to not give up. Do not lose hope. It is so easy in the world and society that we live in to feel hopelessness and despair, but where there’s hope there’s an avenue for change. We always see the possibility for change.
You know, I have to quote Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. She said, The question is not if we have been affected by systemic racism in our system, but how we have been affected by it. And I think recognition of systemic racism, purposive systemic racism, in our society. And how that systemic racism has been directed at — not that other groups of color have not suffered under it — but how that racism has been so targeted towards Blacks and African Americans in our society I think is what I would want the biggest takeaway for them to be.
Interview Date: November 13, 2019
Story posted on August 4, 2020