To begin this month’s Black History Month celebrations, LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund and a 2020-2021 American Democracy Fellow at Harvard University, discussed civic engagement, voter suppression and political power in the 21st century at a virtual event Monday evening. 

Hosted by the University of Michigan Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the event marked the start of a month dedicated to honoring, informing and recognizing the important role that Black people play in American history. 

Brown not only spoke on the significance of Black History Month but also shared personal experiences. She began her lecture by singing a song discussing how her hometown of Selma, Ala., influenced her political activism today. 

 “Well, the first thing I did right was the day I started to fight,” Brown sang. “Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.” 

Brown’s vocals and use of music during her talk resonated with many attendees, including Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jack Williams III. 

 “It was really beautiful to not only hear her sing, but to also hear her stories about how music has helped shape her life and shape her work, and about the ways in which music is being used time and time again,” Williams said. “If you look at old videos from the Civil Rights Movement, you will see them singing as they're marching. It just makes me think of the ways in which Black people have used their voices time and time again to enact change.”

Despite the bleak history that often accompanies her tune, Brown said this song is also optimistic because it is an anthem for political activism.  

 “It was being created and raised within the context of people who had that song in their heart that ultimately shaped me into the person I am today,” Brown said. 

Brown carried this tone of positivity into addressing President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. She said people have a responsibility to be civically engaged and cognizant of the policies that impact their day-to-day lives.

 “We want people to believe that they have agency and the right to govern themselves,” Brown said. “Every single aspect of our lives is impacted by policy. We’re not asking you to believe in the system. We’re asking you to believe in your agency and power. You’ve got to show up.” 

Brown urged the audience to continue fighting for democracy, noting that democracy has always been a threat to white supremacy.

“Democracy has been a vehicle for American exceptionalism to hide behind,” Brown said. “At the same time that we were having lofty ideas that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator, we saw the genocide of Indigenous people in this country and the exploitation and dehumanization of Africans. However, democracy allows us to use our leverage and our collective voice to reduce some of the harm that has happened in our communities. If Black people were not voting in this country, we would not have a democracy.” 

Brown also commented on a more recent event: the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Brown said current economic uncertainties, as well as blatant racism and scapegoating, contributed to the attempted insurrection.

 “There are some larger structural issues that are driving the frustration that is rooted in the current state of the country and economy,” said Brown. “However, Black people and immigrants are consistently the scapegoat and receive most of the blame. There is an expectation that America is supposed to serve the interest of white comfort. So when there is white discomfort, there has been a history of society blaming people of color.” 

LSA senior Josiah Walker, vice president of LSA student government, asked Brown about the influence that Black college students have on the future of democracy. Brown responded by posing a question of her own: “What would America look like without racism?”

 “98% of people cannot see anything when doing this exercise,” said Brown. “Spend more time radically envisioning what this world can be. There is nothing that has ever been brought into being that was not first envisioned. We can radically reimagine every system as founders of a new America. Spend more time not just reacting to what is happening around us, but to reimagine how we can better our world.” 

This exercise was powerful and eye-opening for many attendees, including Music, Theatre & Dance associate professor Antonio C. Cuyler, who moderated the event.

“I've heard of this experiment before and I've been thinking about it more,” Cuyler said. “If we remove racism, if we remove sexism, if we remove all forms of oppression currently in our society, what would that look like? And the answer I came up with is a more prosperous society, a society that allows all of us to prosper unencumbered by these artificial differences that we placed too much value in.” 

Walker said he wanted to see the University raise awareness of Black history during all months of the year. 

 “Black people still exist outside the month of February,” Walker said. “I want to see the University continue to promote Black history further and highlight the contributions that the Black community has made in American society throughout history and today.”  

Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers spoke on the panel and echoed Walker’s sentiments, urging the audience to celebrate Black history and recognize the contributions Black people have made to the country.

“You can’t understand American history without understanding African-American history,” Sellers said. “I would like for everybody — regardless of race and cultural background — to have a better understanding of the role of African Americans in the world.” 

Williams said he wished the University would spend more time and resources to events supporting the Black community on campus.

“I think having consistent programming that acknowledges Black students on campus is important,” Williams said. “Members of my Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., Epsilon Chapter in the past were really influential in starting organizations such as the Black Student Union and things of that nature. So, I think that it's important that the University acknowledges the work that Black students do because part of the Black experience on campus is not just the hardships of being the only person of color in the classroom. It's the fun things too — it's the things that we do to constantly uplift students on a day-to-day basis.”

Public Policy senior Cydney Gardner-Brown, also a panelist, encouraged the University to pay students who speak on panels and offer their knowledge to the University community.

“It seems that the University recognizes the importance of having student panelists and having the voice of student activists on their panels, but they don't see the necessity of making sure those students feel compensated for their work,” Gardner-Brown said. “A lot of the work that student activists do are things that people in the workforce get paid to do.”

Throughout the event, Brown urged attendees to advance humanity in a direction where equality reverberates through every community. According to Brown, commitment and perseverance form the foundation of successful movements. She encouraged the audience to welcome the tension and pressure that accompanies producing radical change.

“Pressure either destroys you or stimulates you,” Brown said. “You have to radically recreate what you want to see. Every generation has something to offer. Tension is normal. As long as you have mutual respect, change can happen.”  

Daily Staff Reporter Janice Kang can be reached at janicegk@umich.edu.

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