The Battle for Black Studies: Desiring a beloved community…

Jan. 12, 2021, 9:44 p.m.

The Battle for Black Studies is an article series run in collaboration with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Black Student Union (BSU). It comes among a decades-long struggle for a department of African and African American Studies at Stanford. This series, however, is not only born out of a desire to highlight the need for a departmentalized AAAS program it is an ongoing project of imagining and theorizing possibility, in line with the long tradition of Black Studies. It is a project of education, addressing the realities of race and fighting for a more equitable future. We hope you will join us. 

“Black celebration is a village practice that has brought us together in protest and ecstasy around the globe and across time. Community is a mighty life force for self-care and survival. But it does not protect against murder. Dance itself will not free us.” 

– Elizabeth Alexander, “The Trayvon Generation” 

I write this for all of us who are now “The Trayvon Generation,” and especially for those who have grown up in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 in Sanford, Florida. We want not only a beloved community that values Black love, life and liberty as a foundation for a freer world; but also strive for structural change to achieve that desire. Indeed, since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about places of refuge, of care, of hospitality and the hope of health … of the too many (especially Black, brown and native) who have died from the pandemic and of Jacob Blake speaking from his hospital bed.

If you have participated, as I have, in Professor Hobbs’ Sunday Community Hours, you may have heard some guests speak of southeast Arkansas where Fred Moten, Daphne Brooks and I claim roots. My mother, who is 89, grew up in the segregated South in the town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. So did civil rights lawyer Wiley Branton, activist Ivory Perry and writer Alex Haley. As was the case in many other places throughout the South, Black residents of Pine Bluff built communities of necessity that were dedicated to the survival of its members. There was a Black university, a Black-owned taxi company, a Black movie house, churches and other institutions where the brutality of their lived reality — the daily deprivations — psychological, economic and otherwise — could be countered with a measure of dignity.

My grandfather, Ernest Edward Bright, moved to Pine Bluff in 1929 as a young man and in an effort to make a space for Black care, he became the founder of the United Links Hospital — the only hospital dedicated entirely to Black patients in the entire state, where predominately white hospitals only had segregated wards. He was its administrator for more than 20 years. He devised an insurance plan for landowners to use for sharecroppers who could receive care at the Hospital. My mother, Erness Edwyna Bright, was born there in 1931 and as a child remembers much about growing up in the “U-shaped” building and where her “house” took up one wing. He used to joke that, had he had a son, he might have named him “MISTER” so that he would be accorded respect in the days when everyone was merely “boy.” The hospital was sold to Dr. Flowers and his daughter, also an M.D. presiding over a clinic on the site of the original building designed by Black architect Floyd McKissick.

Every day since the pandemic began, I talk to Mother, who lives on the East Coast. She, like so many Black, brown and native folk — harbors many of the risks for contracting COVID-19 — diabetes, lung disease from having smoked since she was a 15-year-old freshman at Fisk and the tobacco companies gave out free cigarettes to Black college students — and heart disease not to mention the generational stress of segregation. Recently, Mother shared a memory with me about her time growing up in the Hospital that I had never heard before. I was shocked to learn about the numerous times my Mother claims she and her best friend, Julia Effie, snuck over to the “emergency room” side of the hospital and witnessed the gruesome sight of tortured and maimed patients who had survived racist violence — often at the hands of the Klan who may also have been members of the Pine Bluff police. She astonished me when she said that when she heard about George Floyd’s lynching, her first thought was that his killing reminded her of things she had seen when she was a child. Such torture is excruciating to witness and reverberates. My mother’s memory reminds us of John Lewis’ observation that “humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time.” In his powerful, posthumous piece, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” Congressman John Lewis — “founding father of a better America,” as Barack Obama’s eulogized him — reiterates his hope for the next generation writing that Emmett Till (murdered in 1955, in Money, Mississippi) was his “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rashard Brooks.” To know that each generation generates such gruesome deaths is to desire a disruption in such cyclical violence.

Like Lewis, there is no doubt that the anti-Black violence my mother witnessed and that our family suffered spurred her to collective action as well as to become a professor of education and chair of an African American Studies Department. She was determined to teach about the past with the hope that we could intervene in the future. It is imperative that we all do so. I close with Lewis: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” Vote. Protest — for police reform, healthcare, dignity and more …

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Jennifer DeVere Brody is a professor of theater and performance studies and the faculty director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). A version of letter originally was published in The 2020 Project, a special issue publication coordinated by the African & African American Studies Program at Stanford University (AAAS).

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