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History is Still Present

The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

Malcolm X, 1962

Can you have an elephant in a Zoom room? 

On Sept. 23, students in BKT Assistant Professor of History Sabrina Thomas’ class, “Malcolm, Martin, and Mandela,” were in a virtual class discussion with Clint Smith, critically-acclaimed poet and writer for The Atlantic.

It’s 12:15 p.m. 

Introductions are made, and the conversation begins. But Smith and many of the students were anxiously waiting for 1:15 p.m.

“In one hour, we’re going to find out what the grand jury decided in regards to Breonna Taylor,” Smith said. “But none of what’s happening right now is new.”

It’s 12:20 p.m.

Smith explains that the narrative surrounding the relationship between the police and Black Americans—between the entire criminal legal system and Black Americans—is something both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke about in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Among the most horrific things said to Black Americans back then, Smith said, were statements like:

This is your fault.

If you were just this kind of person…

If you just behaved this way…

“For Martin and Malcolm, even though they had fundamentally different dispositions, different approaches, and very different journeys, they both understood the danger of egregious claims like that.”

It’s 12:50 p.m.

Smith mentions that slavery was abolished in 1865—less than 200 years ago. The math is right, but it seems impossible. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it hadn’t even been 100 years since African Americans’ ancestors were enslaved—not even two generations. 

Apartheid in South Africa began in 1948, and negotiations to end the discriminatory system didn’t begin until the late 1990s. Nelson Mandela became president in 1994—only 26 years ago. 

“So many of the stories we tell ourselves happened a long time ago, weren’t that long ago,” Smith said.

One of the internal conflicts students share that they’re facing is figuring out where they fit—are they more like Malcolm, Martin or Mandela? 

Smith said he felt that same conflict when he was beginning to read their work and understand their philosophies. Then he realized he didn’t have to choose.

“It ends up being an overly-simplistic, binary conception of who these men were. I think you can say, ‘I appreciate this about what Martin was saying, this about what Malcolm was saying, and this about what Mandela was saying.’

“What I appreciate about all three of them is their immense and remarkable capacity for growth and evolution. More than anything, those are the lessons I carry from them. None of us should be static in our understanding of the world or how we engage with the world.”

It’s 1:05 p.m.

Smith shares that he was in his first week of graduate school at Harvard University when Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That incident, he said, changed his entire postgraduate experience.

“I started teaching and working in prisons,” Smith said. “All of the classes I took were to give me more language to better understand what I was seeing. I mean, much like what you guys are doing now. These classes, these books, these thinkers you are learning from are giving you a language to help you make sense of everything happening around you.”

It’s 1:10 p.m.

The conversation with Smith is over, but the class will reconvene in 10 minutes to debrief.

It’s 1:15 p.m.

A Jefferson County Circuit Judge reads the decision from the grand jury. One officer is indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment, but no officers faced charges related to Taylor’s death. 

Among the social media posts of heartbreak and outrage are comments that seem far too familiar.

What did you expect?

This is what happens when…

If only she hadn’t…

It’s 1:25 p.m.

Nothing specific about Breonna Taylor is spoken, but they know. The questions come quickly: How do we get people to understand? How do we talk about racism with people who may not agree with what we’re saying?

“History is still present,” one student said. “Maybe I should describe how certain things from the past still have influence today. Maybe that will make the past not seem so distant.”

“Knowledge is power,” another said. “He (Smith) made me think about small things I could be doing. Am I encouraging my friends back home to vote? And when conversations do happen, I really want to stop and ask myself if I understand what they’re saying. If I do, then I want to respond with facts. I want to be able to respond without seeming like I’m jumping on them. A lot of people don’t want to feel horrible about themselves, and I just want to educate them and share the knowledge that I have.” 

It’s 3 p.m.

Smith writes on Twitter: “For people who knew Breonna personally, it must feel like a double helix of grief. Mourning the small moments of love that have been stripped away from you and a recognition that what happened to Breonna is part of a much broader structural problem in our social and political systems. This is the grief that so many Black Americans experience in moments like these. The mourning of a person that we’ve lost … and the mourning over a system that allows these deaths to keep happening.”