Honors Summer Series: Racial Justice in America

Author: Jade Ryerson

On June 25th, as part of it its summer Speaker Series, the Honors Program held its first webinar-style Zoom event for incoming freshmen. “Racial Justice in America” introduced new students to the Honors Program. By addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the country today, this event offered Honors students an opportunity to listen, learn, and consider how they can make a difference whether in the classroom, at the ballot box, or socially distancing in their pajamas. 

Professor Jennifer Conary, the new Honors Program Director, moderated the event and invited three distinguished Honors faculty members to present mini lectures. Professors Chernoh Sesay, Christina Rivers, and Francesca Royster shared their expertise about the pervasiveness of systemic and institutionalized racism and the dehumanization of Black people.

Dr. Sesay of the Religious Studies department kicked off the event by discussing how ideas powerfully shape and are shaped by society. Professor Sesay illustrated how the U.S. Constitution enshrines the United States as a place where freedom and opportunity are possible, yet it is simultaneously deeply oriented toward the marginalization of Black people by denying their autonomy and agency. There is an inherent contradiction between these ideas which challenge that the United States is a place where racial justice and equality can ever really be achieved. In this context, Professor Sesay explained why our ideas matter: they deeply shape the current political and historical moment. 

In her mini lecture, Political Science professor Dr. Christina Rivers discussed the denial of civic personhood through felony disenfranchisement and misinformation about voting rights and requirements. She explained that if African Americans are seen as societal threats, they more likely to be incarcerated and their political voices are more likely to be stifled. Additionally, when a person’s civic personhood is denied, they lose a fundamental power to control their political lives, as well as the influence of their political voice.

English and Critical Ethnic Studies professor Dr. Francesca Royster introduced the power of storytelling and imagining the past, present, and future. She stressed that we are here because our ancestors and predecessors imagined we could be. Drawing from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the recent movie Black Panther, and work by singer/actress Janelle Monae, Professor Royster explained how Afrofuturism provides a critical way to reimagine Black life and envision the future. When the complete humanity of Black people is denied by systemic violence and policing, there can be devastating costs to young people’s imaginations and psychological experience.

Within the context of their own disciplines, each speaker demonstrated the importance of recognizing the complete humanity of Black people. By engaging with these difficult issues, this event briefed students about something the Honors Program does best: encouraging students to explore their own interests, challenge long-held beliefs, and discover unfamiliar ideas.

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