Thursday, April 29, 2010

Turning Drum Majors into a Band

Below is the text to a talk I gave last night at Fordham University. Please feel free to leave comments and thoughts. M.P.

April 28, 2010

Turning Drum Majors into a Band: Engaged Scholarship, Community Focus, and Praxis
Michael Partis

Presented at the Fordham University (Rose Hill) 2010 African American Studies Department/Urban Studies Thesis Dinner

I first want to thank Dr. Naison for inviting me to speak here tonight. It is an honor and privilege to share the podium with the outstanding student/scholars that will speak after me. This is also a special occasion for me personally, as I have the opportunity to speak at this dinner as a Fordham graduate; only a few years removed from me being here as an undergraduate student, presenting my own research.

In one of his most noted public statements against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Dr. King once said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscious leaves me no other choice.” This quote spoke to me when I heard it again a few weeks ago; I felt it was speaking to what I should talk to you all about tonight. I want to talk a bit about consciousness; about having a “moral compass;” about how important it is.

My time at Fordham was formational for the development of my social consciousness. I’m sure my readings of Kant and my lessons on utilitarianism had something to do with it. But unequivocally, a major factor was my academic and intellectual engagement. There are certain moments that keenly stand out. I remember once Dr. James Marsh, who recently retired from the Philosophy department, telling my class: “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.” I vividly remember the October 2007 morning when I sat in Dr. Judith Green’s classroom and listen to her read aloud James Baldwin’s "A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation," a text that changed my life, and my view of family, race, and history.

But I can sincerely say the deepest academic impact I felt was from my coursework as an African American Studies major. One of the first lessons I learned was from Dr. Mangum, when he had us read the first two chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That small snippet of what is no doubt an immensely popular book, changed my historical lens. To me it wasn’t “revisionist history.” It was literally the story of the untold; something slightly akin to what anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls Silencing the Past. But the whole discussion in that class planted those first seeds of intellectual curiosity in my mind: recognition that there are many stories, many histories untold. The importance not being that there are many stories, and not to be overwhelmed with the task of uncovering them, but to think of history in the way Baldwin once said: "History is not a procession of illustrious people. It's about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about."

For those of us in Black Studies and Urban Studies, we know all too well how many of the “anonymous” are Black folks and how they are often in urban areas. While the Census may find them difficult to count, those of us doing the work, those who are engaged and entrenched in those communities, are very familiar. This is something I learned through my senior thesis on public housing residents in the South Bronx; through interviewing and interacting with people; through recognizing one of the most important “methods” you need is the ability to listen. It is also something I learned about through my relationship with the Bronx African American History Project. The Project taught me that not only does your work matter; but the people you interact with…they matter even more so. How to allow them to speak for themselves, and to authentically capture the context of their lives; the environment, conditions, and ethos of where they’re at and where they come from--this is the task. As Sly and the Family Stone tell us, it’s about the “Everyday People.” I developed a consciousness about these folks, and wanted my academic background to tell me more about them.

Of course the irony is that there is no shortage of academic literature on Blacks in the U.S. or U.S. urban cities. My coursework with the Urban Studies and the African-American Studies department faculty taught me that the hard way. It also taught me that to truly understand American democracy, American history, the conventional stories that are told, and the people (all the people) who make it up, you have to dig deep; you have to read vociferously; your intellectual appetite has to be ferocious. I have to thank scholars like Dr. Naison and Dr. Purnell who not only showed me these requirements but forced me to practice these traits. To be a urban U.S. scholar or to study Blacks in the U.S. you have to understand that it is a deeply complicated, nuanced history. That there are complex historical processes with profound contemporary meaning-- and to study them in graduate school, or to become a policy maker, or to do local level community work, you have to have deep knowledge about these places and about their people. You must be steeped in social reality.

I want to end my talk tonight with a bit about social reality, and why this is so important to consciousness. Because social reality is what we live in right?

The reading, the writing, the scholarship we seek to produce (and that you tremendous seniors have produced for tonight) has to be grounded in social reality. It is important that we engage in praxis, even in its simplest form: combining theory with practice; trying to understand how the world works processually and historically, and attempting to make a world build on justice, equity, and dignity. Our study of people and places teach us that this is not some esoteric, abstract idea, something that we are removed from. But rather it is something that is intrinsic, engrained in the U.S. experience. It’s as real as the race riots in Tulsa and East St. Louis in 1917 and 1918. It’s as real as the great flood that hit New Orleans in 1927. It’s as real as the community organizing and political engagement in places like Harlem by Garvey, Clayton Powell Jr., and Arturo Schomburg in the 1920’s and 30’s. It’s as real as the multi-racial organizing done by groups like CORE during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s as real as the urban rebellions of the 1960’s. We’ve studied and continued to promote just how real this history is; to make the struggles of people and peoples not anonymous, not silent; but to continually raise their voices collectively with ours--to keep this history in the consciousness of the public.

What are today’s social realities? A few events can illuminate some things. The deaths of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and Officer Omar Edwards tell us something about police interaction with Blacks today. Earlier this month, Newark, NJ celebrated its first homicide free month in over 40 years. This year, Chicago's only public all-male, all-African-American high school has 100 percent of its first senior class (107 students) accepted to four-year colleges. On Easter Sunday this year at New York’s Times Square, 33 were arrested and 4 people shot--the arrestees being mostly Black and Latino, with the alleged impetus being some gang ritual that has become commonplace every Easter Sunday. In Chicago there was the tragic death of Derrion Albert in 2009, and earlier this April a rash of violence in Black neighborhoods in the city’s South Side that resulted in 41 people being shot in 50 hours. On April 15 and April 16, during one 12 hour period, seven people were killed and 15 others were wounded in a wave of shootings across Chicago. Incidents such as these, and the rising rates of murder in the city, have lead some city politicians to call for the National Guard to come help control the violence.

I think the recent events in Chicago give us an important moment to pause, and to think about a urban city with tremendous historical significance for understanding the journey of Blacks in the U.S.; and about the issues people dealing in the urban context should consider. I want to share a small bit of a reflection from a young man who is currently volunteering with City Year, and is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s South Side:

“Chicago has become a war zone, and it will not change anytime soon. The past 3-4 years have gotten progressively worse because each year, the people doing the most crime are getting younger. Its not even gangs recruiting younger people or all that, but these kids have nothing to fear, no one to influence them enough not to do these things, and have no value for life. And when these issues and feelings are felt, these kids in Chicago are not going to hesitate to shoot yo ass. They know the camera lights in their neighborhood don't work, and they will not get caught, and if they do, are too young to go to jail anyway.

I was listening to a kid on the train and it was SOOOOO sad to hear his lack of value for life (his or anyone elses). For 20 minutes he said he's happy to have made it to 21, but since nobody loved him growing up he just doesn't care; he's gonna sell drugs forever; so all he has is drugs, robbing, shooting, jail, and rap. He said he would kill anybody for any reason they gave him. And he wasn't one of those mad teenagers venting, the boy was talking normal to somebody he was on the train with. Boy said he doesn't care whether he goes to heaven or hell. A bunch of things, and it was so sad because he's one of many that feel the same way. To hear the boy talk was so sad I wanted to reach out to him...but I didn't.”

What struck me most about what my friend said was not what he wasn’t doing, or what others were doing…but what was I doing. My Senior Thesis; my academic research; my background; the vast amount of knowledge I’ve built; and the ridiculous amount of work I’ve done in graduate school so far. Those are a part of praxis. How am I enacting the other part?

And so I thought back over the work I’ve done the past few years: going to Selma, Alabama and symbolically crossing the Edmund Petitus Bridge; doing relief-work and community organizing in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans; creating and directing a mentorship program for young Black and Latino high school males in New York; working on college prep and college awareness workshops for poor and low income students; sitting in on BAAHP interviews and traveling across the Bronx with Dr. Naison to hear the stories and see the work of incredible “everyday people.” I realized this was my consciousness: my personal experiences, and how they interact and share with others; the stories; the actual, physical people; and how they connect with what I’ve read and what I’ve debated in the Black Student Union or in classrooms. That’s the consciousness that propels us to really think critically about the world, and to act on what we know, and build on what others have done. Like Barack said in his famous “Joshua Generation” speech in Selma a few years ago: “I’m here because somebody marched.”

I close with one last word from Dr. King. Shortly before he passed he gave his “Drum Major” sermon, talking about the inclination to lead out of desire for recognition and glory. He said we should take that inclination, that desire to lead, to be “drum majors,” and orientate it towards a higher moral commitment. Rev. King said, “if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”

As a fellow thesis presenter, I say let your scholarship, your hard study, let that help build your consciousness and don’t forget to share it. Let your interaction with folks, your engagement with community, let that guide your moral compasses. Allow your work to enable you to be “drum majors” for the important issues faced by people of African descent and in urban areas. I hope we can become a band that marches towards scholarship, service, and work that is in the name of justice.

Thank you.

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