Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Theater Justin Emeka, OC ’95, and Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Yveline Alexis led a panel about the Black Lives Matter movement on Oberlin’s campus and abroad on Thursday evening. Professor Alexis teaches a number of courses about Caribbean history and is currently writing her manuscript “Haiti Fights Back: Charlemagne Péralte and the Structures of U.S. Empire.” Professor Emeka pursues acting, writing, directing and capoeira and teaches all four of these topics in his courses at Oberlin. The Review sat down with both professors before the panel to discuss the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, its growing role on Oberlin’s campus and more.
I want to start off by asking if you would highlight the main points from your panel for those who couldn’t make it.
Justin Emeka: The event is really just to give us an opportunity as a community to reflect on this movement that’s happening in the nation and how it impacts our work and presence here at Oberlin College. We didn’t go in to create an agenda. It’s really to just give students an opportunity to hear specifically from Black faculty about their perspective and responses to what’s going on. And then to also allow students to express what they’re feeling and what they’re seeing at this moment in history off campus and on.
Yveline Alexis: I share Justin’s sentiment that when we first thought of this idea, or rather when Justin first thought of this idea, it was to bring Black faculty together and students to share this space of healing and we thought it would be that type of space — not academic, not formal. Just us getting together as a community to think about this historically and not just the 2015 movement but the long, enduring struggle for Black Lives Matter. From the African slave ships that we were first upon to this year, the bloody summer we just had, culminating with the end of Sandra Bland’s life.
So really having perspectives in a time to come together early in the semester to say this matters to us in the way we’re acting, thinking, moving, teaching, researching and hopefully coming together — and not just us. Not just it being led by either Justin or myself but that there’s so many, I mean you can see from the general outpour of people who would like to attend that people are thirsty and very hungry for, I hope, a space where we can come together and debate and talk and feel.
There are many misinterpretations of the Black Lives Matter movement and its goals. May I ask what Black Lives Matter means to you?
YA: I’m a little confused as to what the misinterpretation is. Especially when I feel like many voices of color, specifically Black people, almost have to defend the term. And to me, I’m at my wits’ end after Emanuel Nine [the victims of the Charleston, SC, shooting] and especially with Sandra Bland and the lack of answers, to debate “Do all lives matter?” We know that, that’s almost a nonsensical question. For people to challenge even the title of Black Lives Matter or try to critique it as a youth movement makes me realize that people are divorced from history of long civil rights — of people like Frederick Douglass, who at seven dared to think of freedom, people like the youth involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s — and this idea that we may or may not need leaders. All of us are leaders on this struggle. The fact that we’re surviving white racial violence, I think we’re leading our own daily survival and movement.
I’m not sure why we’re even addressing this idea of “Do Black lives matter? Should it be all lives?” At the University of Pennsylvania, one of my sisters went on a rally after Ferguson and white liberals are passing out fliers on climate change. So us asserting these spaces of healing and grief, and it not being co-opted by everything other than a Black life, I think is really indicative of where we are as a nation.
JE: I think buried in the foundation of our country and in the foundation of our society is a long history of unrest that’s connected to our legacy of racial inequality, specifically around the formation of the notions of Blackness and whiteness, [which are] implicit in how those formations have come to inform American identity and inform everybody who comes to America no matter what background you are. You still have to negotiate this duality of Blackness and whiteness, and where you fall in that spectrum.
And I think that Black Lives Matter at one level is evidence that the Black community does not feel recognized or seen or, for a lack of a better word, loved by America — as evidenced by institutions that justify Black murder, and the loss of Black lives in such a cavalier manner. In a way that makes Black people feel unsafe, in a way that’s very old, unfortunately. This generation is really just discovering that painful unease of the relationship with their country.
And so I think the Black Lives Matter movement is aimed at getting America to address and assert its relationship more proactively, its love for Black people and Black life because Black life is at the center of the American experience for all people. Black culture, I should say, is at the center, not on the margins. But you don’t have America if you don’t have the Black experience. So not even to separate this as a “Black thing” but the specificity of this as a Black story that informs and inspires and binds us all as Americans.
Your panel discusses the Black Lives Matter movement on campus and abroad. How have you seen the movement interacting with Oberlin’s campus specifically?
JE: As indicative around the country, young people are feeling the turmoil and unrest that resonates as a result of things that are happening in communities like Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. Those moments are resonating, sending a ripple effect. And I think the Oberlin community feels the same rage and sometimes the same helplessness, the same impotence within their own lives here at Oberlin College and is desperately trying to process those feelings and figure out a way to proactively find resolution in their own presence here in Oberlin. Black, white, brown — everybody is now questioning what their presence means as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The unique thing about the movement is that it’s not one led by a leader with these set of demands, although we start to see certain ideas that are emerging, agenda items, it’s not one thing. So I think we’re still in the process of forming a movement, so to speak. And that’s what this meeting is all about: to discuss how we transform our feelings into movement, so we don’t all become immobilized by our frustration and pain.
YA: Just to connect on a point that Professor Emeka made about this generation feeling a sense of unease — so, we have a biracial president, Barack Obama, and there’s this sense of relief that comes over people of having a face of a Black family, including his girls and his wife and mother-in-law, in the White House. So there’s a layer of it when we agitate against the word post-racialism, specifically in light of this continuation of white violence on Black bodies. And I think this year, especially this bloody summer, I mean after Emanuel Nine, who’s not reckoning with the racial truth of this day?
And the fact that Oberlin for some people is a bubble, a haven, might be safe for some — I can’t say all, given our own incidents and what happened in 2012 on this campus — but thinking about how students and faculty and staff have to come to class to learn, to teach, to give, but Cleveland is right near by and we know about Tamir Rice, may he rest in peace, and what happened with that chase and how many bullets were shot into that car. So we’re literally only 30 minutes away from that kind of intrusion or even ourselves being followed by cops, arguably for good reason or not for good reason, as oftentimes it has been proved.
We’ll see how tonight unfolds. I think it’s going to provide a valuable space for us to gauge the temperature of what is needed. Is it a space to vent? Is it a space to continue acting on solutions? Is it a space for us to just be like “I just want to hold your hand and listen”? Or wail at this recrudescence of violence? I’m thinking of some of the youth involved in the Black Lives movement — I’m impressed by them and the fact that despite almost a monthly occurrence, they’re still going on. After Emanuel Nine, I personally shut down for a couple of days and could not think beyond “wow.” So the fact that despite so many incidents, so many crimes against Black people, that this movement is still alive and still going, I think we can find solace in that as well.
We had a big surge in organizing and action last year after the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others. Many students criticized Oberlin’s response to these events, citing many cases where the institution failed to be supportive. How do you feel about the administration’s response to these events? Could more have been done?
JE: From my vantage point, it is a little regrettable that the events of the Black Lives movement last year are characterized, or came to a climax, over the issue of extensions or no extensions. I don’t know about fault in that regard, but I don’t feel like that’s the crux of the issue. That’s in there, but that’s not the crux. And I think that at one level that became too much of the crux of the issue. With this moment, we’re trying to do more, we’re trying to improve upon what’s happened last year, the year before that, the year before that.
At this point I’m not as concerned about looking at that moment and trying to point fingers, I want to think about how we move forward toward something specific, and for each of us it’s going to be different. There’s not going to be one thing that we’re going to attain and say, “Ah, see, the administration or the students should have done that.” We need to build a process that allows us to examine what’s going on critically and express our rage and emotion without those feelings becoming the issue itself. It plays an important role, so we have to know how to be upset and angry; we also need to know how to be very clear about what the prize is that we’re trying to attain.
YA: In terms of thinking about Oberlin the administration, I think of Oberlin College as us, the people who are working and studying here. We are those people. I feel if there’s agitation against staff who didn’t do too much, students who didn’t organize a rally, faculty who didn’t do a teach-in, that it behooves all of us to get involved. So I’m not waiting for the administration to say, “Okay, you get this extension,” or “It’s okay for you to miss class to plan a rally.” It’s more so about what we are doing collectively to keep this movement going, which I think is more important to me.
In an ideal world you want to fulfill every institution from BP gas stations to Spelman [College] to the White House to sign a Black Lives Matter petition, but again to Professor Emeka’s point, what is that end game? What does that look like and what does that really achieve? It’s an interesting question and I’m glad that you pose it, but I don’t necessarily look at the administration as separate from how we all act. Does Black Lives come up on day one of your classes in biology? In philosophy? Is it just in Africana Studies or Comparative American Studies? It should behoove all of us, whether you’re in the Conservatory or in the College. More important, how about just reaching out to the Oberlin community at large and being like, “Hey, how is Black Lives Matter impacting you? What are ways that we can act and plan together?”
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you want to speak on?
JE: I will say this about Oberlin the institution: As a large institution, in micro and macro levels, I would like to see our Oberlin community take pride and be articulate in our pride for the presence of Black people at Oberlin. Because I think we have a very unique history at Oberlin that gets diluted sometimes, and one of the things that I hope to help students, administrators and professors with is being articulate about their commitment towards Black lives in a way that does not threaten their commitment to everyone else. Because the idea that it’s either-or, that it’s Black Lives Matter or it’s all lives matter, is a false assumption. One does not threaten the other. There are different ways of articulating the same idea, and right now we have it where it feels like is it this or is it that.
YA: We hope [the panel] is just an inaugural event. … We hope to continue throughout the rest of the year and onwards of that. It isn’t reactive, but proactive in the sense that it’s not until we have another violent incident that we’re coming together to discuss this, but more so making it part of our everyday.