40th Anniversary Marion Thompson Wright Lecture
February 15, 2020
Black Futures: What Seems to Be, Need Not Be
Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor
Thank you, Jack, Chief Mann, Shane, Salamishah, and of course our fearless leader, Mayor Baraka – who said this year in a tribute to his father, “He was a serious academic but believed in active struggle. Unity and struggle he would say.” That commitment to study and to action, and to doing it together, is what we all admire about the set of Newark icons whose spirits guide us, as our dear Clem Price and Giles Wright did in starting the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture 40 years ago today. Wisely, and very much I believe in the spirit of these icons, this year’s lecture looks forward – boldly, not fearfully, imaginatively, not blinded to what has come before and landed us here, but yet with a searching eye, thrusting mind, heart, and body forward for more, for change, for determination, for strength – for “a more just and inclusive future,” as this year’s program reads.
What I love about embedding this MTW anniversary year’s forward thrust in the spectacular vision of Afrofuturism – sci-fi, music, technology, science – is that it forces open in techno-color for all to see both the persistent whitewashing, closing down, covering over of the ever-resistant power of African Diaspora culture, history, legacy, and simultaneously frees it with unstoppably bold light, sound, words – another virtual reality to be actualized based precisely on the strength of the very culture and its imaginative dreams that they tried so hard to wipe out, shut down, use and yet never recognize. The future holds that culture, those traditions, which have always persisted and cumulated strength and richness of voice, bursting forth, breaking out, taking over, as we will see and hear and witness from our remarkable speakers today.
I want to note here that the “freedom dreams” of Afrofuturism, imaginative and virtual and inspirational as they are, somewhat ironically but purposefully force in their take-over, a reckoning with the fundamental hypocrisy of our so-called founding principles – liberty for all (easy to say when you build a nation on the backs of slavery, as the New York Times’ recent 1619 Project details), equal protection under the law (easy to say when for the last 40 years we’ve had so-called colorblind policies that have anything but a colorblind intention or effect – re-segregating schools, dismantling fair housing in the service of an architecture of segregation, leveraging mass incarceration to keep the people in their place), E Pluribus Unum (easy to say when the expectation is assimilation to a pre-ordained unity faith, or else go home where you came from). The hypocrisy of this past 40 years, claiming to be colorblind, to fulfill the freedom dreams of Marion Thompson Wright’s civil rights movement, but never relinquishing control or taking down the walls to opportunity, have left us with a mighty task – as Khalil Muhammed writes, “No Racial Barrier Left to Break (Except All of Them).”
And so, we return to Black Futures: What Seems to Be, Need Not Be. We do so at a time when the hypocrisy couldn’t be more damaging and damning, yet also at a time when the demography works in our favor for real collective change. As someone who has worked for decades in higher education on resetting the table of diversity I can finally look at those in search of the “exceptional child,” since they only expect a few to “rise above adversity,” and say that the exception is now the rule, if not yet the ruler – look around, there is black and Latinx and Native American talent everywhere – where it always was – but now in numbers that you best not ignore. As Newark Public Schools Superintendent (and Newark native) Roger Leon can tell you: in Newark, that talent is bursting into a generation of change-makers – and we proudly learn from them at Rutgers-Newark where our home-grown students have increased by 100% over the last six years to 14.5% of our student body – and as the Newark City of Learning Collaborative documents, Newark residents (25 and older) with post-secondary degrees are moving up, from 17% in 2015 to 21.8% now. So too are the number of Newark residents working in our various anchor institutions here (with the Mayor’s collective action initiative Newark 2020 reaching our hiring goal early!), and the number of local businesses getting procurement contracts with these same anchors. And while numbers aren’t everything by any means, I do want to argue that for the bold future imagined by the artists and writers and historians and culturists of this gathering to take hold, sustainable, inter-generational critical mass in all of our institutions – universities, corporations, hospitals, cultural anchors, community-based organizations, government agencies – matters – actually, it matters a lot.
Critical mass, especially when it can be outspoken and spoken out, as in the visions of Afrofuturism, will turn the hypocrisy of colorblind identity sublimation on its head – no, Ben Carson, “poverty is not a state of mind,” the barriers of structural racism don’t just crumble naturally in the face of individual hard work, and no, Silicon Valley, technology will not free people from their bodies and identities, it will free their bodies and identities to be seen, in a networked mass that has to be reckoned with as who they are, not as faceless, formless, colorless individuals. I look to critical mass, in collectives within and across institutions and sectors, gaining access and using the tools of our techno-driven knowledge economy, infused with a long-standing cultural legacy of traditions of humanity, to upend the orthodoxies of durable inequalities hidden under pieties of E Pluribus Unum, and therein to shake things up from what they are to what they can be.
And as much as the wonders of science and technology, and the imaginative brilliance of Afrofuturism in the arts and fiction, often have another-worldliness to them, they are also inherently and inspirationally undergirded by people engaged with each other in place and space – right here, right now – as we look to this different future. I see the future differently when I listen to the collaborative university-community lessons of our publicly-engaged scholars, next generation students, and frontline community partners with whom they team – artists like Salamishah Tillet looking at war monuments in Military Park as a “Call to Peace,” lawyers like David Troutt helping to craft policies to protect Newarkers from displacement as we welcome capital investments in our city, scientists like Ashaki Rouff digging for soil pollutants in our neighborhoods, education scholars like Charles Payne engaging parents as literacy tutors in 13th Avenue School, and Poets like Rigoberto Gonzalez teaming with jazz artists like Stefon Harris and the NJPAC team for Jazz/Poetry in the stacks of local Newark Public Libraries. All of it is team work, all of it is place-based, ground-up, but with that other worldly vision in mind of equitable growth; a vision that our collaborators in the Newark Community Development Network have worked on for decades, one owned by, infused with the body, soul and identity of Newark and Newarkers. So, here’s to a future that truly includes and represents, not one that holds back and colors over, one that feels real and dreamy all at once – perhaps a slightly different rendering of climate change, as climate justice.
Finally, as we look to that future and listen to its dreams, I want to specially thank and acknowledge two amazing colleagues – Mark Krasovic and Laura Troiano – who dreamed with Clem and kept his dreams very much alive, repeatedly in MTW and beyond. They will keep at it in some new roles at the Honors Living Learning Community and the Honors College, respectively, but of course will intertwine their work with the Price Institute always. Thanks to you both – big screen heroes and sheroes for sure.