Though Black History Month does not officially begin until Saturday, the University began its month-long series of events two days early with a keynote address by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” and a political science professor at Tulane University.
At the University’s 2014 Black History Month Keynote Lecture Thursday evening, Harris-Perry discussed ways to address racial issues on campus to about 500 students, faculty, staff and alumni who attended the lecture at Rackham Auditorium.
The hour-long lecture delved into a history of the collective efforts of the Black community, from the Civil Rights Movement to the continued institutional marginalization of Black bodies and experiences today. Harris-Perry said continuous struggle is an avoidable trait of a democracy, and stressed that one uncontested voice is more fitting of a totalitarian regime.
She said a problem with campus activism today is that allies have not experienced the same “corporeal body experiences” of the Black community, and misunderstandings often arise as a result.
“A problem with race talk on campus is how we know that we know something,” Harris-Perry said. “I know that this moment is racist because it trips my racial trigger, because it makes me feel nauseous. I’m not generally angry, but you just made me mad.”
She added that the problem stems from an inability to scientifically measure these emotions.
Concerning real change on campus, Harris-Perry suggested that student activists focus on fostering change within the University faculty and administration. The administration can then inform students and construct a functional feedback loop between students and administrators.
While allies may not be able to directly relate to Black experiences, she said, they can engage with professors and then with the wider community once they have the proper tools to help.
She said students need to break down the walls between their separate campus lives and their interactions with faculty members, adding that bringing change to campus “cannot be identity politics.”
“There has to be people engaged with these questions,” Harris-Perry said. “Part of the answer to how you begin those conversations is you bring more faculty in who are teaching these courses, who are well-resourced, who are not visitors, who are not adjuncts, but who are actual faculty.”
University alum Amber Williams, the community development program manager at the Trotter Multicultural Center, organized Thursday’s event. She said she was happy to have someone address issues of race, especially in light of the recent events on campus.
“For so many people, some of the experiences that she talks about and issues that she talks about hit close to home,” Williams said.
Though Harris-Perry addressed serious issues, audience members applauded, snapped, cheered and laughed throughout the lecture.
Engineering senior Breoshshala Martin said she enjoyed Harris-Perry’s speech because of its “down-to-earth” approach to discussing the lecture’s themes.
“It was really good to come here and hear her perspective on it,” Martin said. “She wasn’t talking over your head, she was just really personable with us.”
The speech comes nearly a week after the University’s Black Student Union met with University administrators to discuss issues surrounding minority inclusion and diversity at the University raised by the group’s #BBUM Twitter campaign in December. As a result, the University pledged to allocate $300,000 to the Trotter Center for renovations, which are yet to be determined.
—Maya Kalman and Daily Staff Reporter Yijia Zhou contributed reporting.