“Why do each of you care?”
This was perhaps the most direct and powerful question asked by a student during a pop-up teach-in event I organized for faculty, staff and students to raise awareness and build excitement leading up to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ visit to campus Oct. 23.
We learned from one another at the teach-in by sharing our perspectives on race relations, profiling, imprisonment, and asking tough questions about our own strategies for challenging prejudice and dismantling institutional racism and other legacies of slavery. Three undergraduate students, a graduate student member of the IU Ethics bowl, and two faculty members gave flash talks that spoke to their individual reaction to different aspects of Coates’ published work, and affirmed our shared commitment to IU’s Culture of Care via mutual respect.
His visit to campus was made possible through the collaborative efforts of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), The Media School, the College Arts and Humanities Institute (CAHI), and the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, & Multicultural Affairs (DEMA). Thanks to DEMA and its public support of #BlackLivesMatter, we distributed free copies of Coates’ book “Between the World and Me” so students could engage with Coates’ text first-hand.
Coates frames “Between the World and Me” as a father’s attempt to share the wisdom of his lived experience with his teenage son, a communication made necessary by the recent failures of white grand juries to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men and women during interactions with police.
At once an intimate glimpse of a black father’s concern and worry about “the question of how one should live within a black body,” and a public statement against the enduring racial profiling that pervades policing practices across the United States, Coates’ book raises the issue of intergenerational communication about the threat of violence against black bodies as an urgent matter of our time.
Just as Coates uses his skills as a professional writer to create a document that will have a deep and lasting impact upon his son’s life, my own reading of “Between the World and Me” was influenced by the overlap of my personal and professional roles as a parent who is a professor. Like Coates, I am the parent of a fifteen-year-old, so my first reaction to his book was to wonder how my students would respond to his sobering view of the world they are just entering into.
As a professor of English and American studies, I firmly believe in the power of the written word to spur dialogue and debate. The university offers a unique space within American society where the open and respectful exchange of ideas has the power to motivate action that will change the course of our lives. But the sense of an intellectual and social community has to be consciously built, fostered, and maintained.
During his talk, Coates reminded the audience to “challenge assumptions of inevitable progress” since “[g]etting rid of white supremacy requires a generation that is willing to act against its own immediate interests.”
The students, staff, and faculty who gathered for the pop-up teach-in event proved their willingness to examine the history of exploitation upon which our freedom and democracy was built, and to start working to bring change long-term, in generations to come.