The Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD) held their second annual workshop, a symposium on “Social Movements and the Black Intellectual Tradition,” at Breed Memorial Hall at 51 Winthrop St. on the afternoon of Nov. 20.
The symposium, which ran from 1:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., was hosted by the Africana Studies program, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD), and was co-sponsored by the Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) Diversity Fund, the Department of History, the Department of Sociology, the Department of Political Science, the Africana Center and the Center for Humanities at Tufts (CHAT). The main organizers of the event were professor Adriana Zavala, director of the RCD; professor H. Adlai Murdoch, director of Africana Studies; professor Kendra Field, interim director of the CSRD; and Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center.
Before the symposium began, roughly 30 students, faculty and alumni participated in a memorial walk from Capen House to Breed Memorial. The walk path consisted of locations on campus which have been significant in Black history and Black life at Tufts, including the site of a tree behind Ballou Hall, planted in honor of African-American students and alumni who had attended the university as early as 1909, according to Field.
The memorial walk also represented a special tribute to late history professor Gerald Gill, as the trail was inspired by a project Gill was working on before his passing in 2007, Field said. Organizers of the event had collaborated closely with professor of political science and Africana studies Pearl Robinson in order to carefully recreate the trail based on the findings and stories Gill had shared with Robinson.
“We see this gathering of African-descended students, alums and faculty as an opportunity to come together as a community, to support one another across generations, and to provide perspective on the past, present and future of ‘Social Movements and the Black Intellectual Tradition,’” Field told the Daily in an email.
Following the walk, Robinson began the symposium with a live-streamed speech, sharing some of the history and stories of Black alumni that Gill had shared with her. Phillip Ellison, a senior, poured libations for Gill during Robinson’s address. Murdoch, Zavala, Field and Bernard Harleston, Tufts’ first African-American professor hired for a tenure-track position and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, then gave an introduction to the symposium.
The bulk of the symposium consisted of three panels made up of Tufts alumni and prominent Black scholars, activists and scholar-activists.
The first panel, “Racial Justice, Scholarship and Activism after Tufts,” featured six African-American Tufts alumni: Leslie Brown (A ’77), Christina Greer (A ’00), Zachariah Mampilly (A ’99), Seth Markle (A ’00), Zerlina Maxwell (A ’03) and Emery Wright (A ’99). Four of the alumni panelists — Brown, Greer and Mampilly — are professors at various colleges, while Maxwell writes for Essence Magazine and Wright is a co-director of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide.
The panel, moderated by Ellison, centered on the the alumni’s experiences at Tufts as minorities, as well as community action, the work that each of them does today, the importance of keeping social movements alive and the impact that Gill had on them, according to first-year Noah Harris, who attended the symposium.
The second panel was a roundtable discussion on “Social Media and Movements” with Maxwell and Ferentz Lafargue, the director of the Davis Center at Williams College. This panel was moderated by Orly Clergé, a professor of sociology and Africana studies. According to Harris, the panel discussion included topics such as using social media to not only promote social movements, but also to fact-check news media.
After a short refreshment break, three alumni joined for a panel on “Black Intellectual Traditions.” This panel, moderated by Field, focused on the historical connection between scholarship and social movements, and the significance of intellectual work in tying the two together.
The final event of the symposium was the keynote address by Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of American history and the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States History at UCLA, who gave a speech titled “Lessons from the Damned: Punditry vs. a Philosophy of Practice.” Kelley covered several topics in his address, explaining the significance of being well-read and well-versed before participating in social movements, since they require a deep understanding of history. He also spoke about the intersection of academic work and social movements, and the importance of collaboration among people working in these areas, as well as about his relationship with Gill.
Kelley drew on themes from his 2002 novel “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” which also served as inspiration for the symposium as a whole.
“The most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do,” Kelley wrote in his book. “Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge. Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.”
Field said that many students and staff traveled from neighboring universities, such as Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, University of Connecticut and Trinity College, to attend the keynote lecture. She added that she felt that the symposium as a whole was effective in several ways, particularly in allowing Tufts alumni to express how Robinson and Gill, as well as Africana studies professors Jeanne Penvenne, an associate professor of history, and Modhumita Roy, an associate professor of English, had helped them throughout their time at and after Tufts.
“It was moving to hear first-hand all that they had done to support this incredibly committed group of Tufts alums, turned scholar-activists, over the years,” Field said. “We saw bits and pieces of these faculty in so much of what was said and felt on Friday. I think the gathering helped to model and develop a sense of inter-generational community and perspective on social movements and engaged intellectual work.”