By Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
It was twenty-five years ago this year that I stood outside of the Elmina Castle in Ghana with a small group of friends and made a joint commitment to fight to help to co-create the type of world that we believe that we needed to live in. We were all HBCU-graduates to be, and we had spent the last four years being spoon-fed stories about Black resilience and Black love, about Black joy and Black pain. We learned our history from professors who understood that Black History is American History and that the story of this country is a roadmap of our tears, blood, sweat, and deep-rooted laughter. I remember that someone started singing Lift Every Voice and Sing and while we stood there in the Castle, after having walked through the rooms that stank of blood, tears, and sorrow; we knew for sure that we had come over a way that with tears had been watered and that we had come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. At that moment, I understood why my father always said that we could go to any college we wanted, but he was only paying for HBCUs. I graduated from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, my sister from Howard, and my brother from North Carolina Central. There is something to be said about learning on the same ground where our enslaved ancestors once walked and lived and, at least in my case, at Lincoln, learned.
We sat down outside the Castle and spent hours talking about how we were committed to fighting for a world where the very ideas of peace and social justice and equality and wholeness would be commonplace and widespread. We argued about the work of Baldwin and Sanchez, Lorde and Hughes, Berlin and Marx. I now see how we never asked if we knew the theories or the writers; we just assumed that everyone knew.
We laughed that night and talked about how we did not want to hide our work in an ivory tower, and we wanted to stay engaged. We said we would-be radicals, no matter the cost or where it took us. We wanted to be Black public intellectual radicals, even if we did not know at the time what that meant. Back then, it meant that while our peers were starting their careers, we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and walking through the last place that captured Africans saw before they were kidnapped from their land. It meant writing and publishing our work in newspapers and chapbooks, compiling our books at the local Kinkos, and selling them out of our trunks. It meant wearing our hair natural, listening to The Last Poets, and trying not to sell out and get a job where we had to sell pieces of our soul to stay alive.
It was about the show and not the substance, the flash and not the back-breaking work, immediate gratification, and not the slow walk to justice. It was about overthrowing the system from the outside and not trying to reform it from within. Today, 25 years later, it means something else. Mychal Denzel Smith wrote that the role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. That work delves deep into questions around white supremacy, white nationalism, and White racism for Black public intellectuals. It means that I allow my activism to expand into every facet of who I am because, as Audre Lorde once wrote, the personal is always political.
In a 2015 essay for The New Republic, Michael Eric Dyson described a Black digital intelligentsia as a community of Black writers and activists engaging in critical thinking work online. He said that they worked to “contend with the issues of the day, online, on television, wherever they can.” I wrestle with this today as I work to reconcile the radical, I was back then with the radical academic I am right now. I am working within the system, still struggling, still fighting but bending my life a little bit every day to fit my job. I still wonder what the role of a Black public intellectual is. Is it to speak to White people about race, or is it about profoundly engaging with the questions that have plagued Black people since we first arrived in this country? Questions like: Who are we? Who do we want to become? Why are we here? And what does freedom look like when it is defined by us and applied to us?
As a Black public intellectual, I know that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me—Ida B. Wells, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Audre Lorde, and Lucille Clifton, Black women who loved Black people and challenged whiteness in their writing and their lives. I stand taller, knowing that I stand on truth as much as I can. I stand side by side with justice as often as I can. I stand up to questions about equality when I can. And I stand ready to lift as I climb, knowing that the view on the top is better if the space is shared with all who desire to see. I stand here because—Harriet ran, Ella organized, Ida wrote, Bessie flew, Dorothy knitted, Mary taught, Fannie got tired, Sweet Honey sang, Assata resisted, Barbara spoke up, Rosa and Claudette didn’t get up, Angela couldn’t be stopped, Coretta picked up the dream, Shirley brought her chair, Constance argued and changed the law, Harris and Abrams and Brown Jackson are now moving this country forward—and because I am a descendant of enslaved and freed Black women who chose to survive who decided to go forward rather than backward.
On the last day of my history class, my favorite professor, Dr. Jane Bond Moore (the daughter of Horace Mann Bond, the first African American president of Lincoln University, and the sister of Julian Bond), told us that when America catches a cold, Black people catch pneumonia and that it was our duty and responsibility as HBCU graduates to use everything that we have and that we have learned to ensure that catching pneumonia is not the end of our story. We were the ones they had been waiting for, and we were responsible for moving our story forward and preparing the way for the next generation of graduates. She laughed and said, you’re standing on our shoulders; get ready because someday someone will stand on yours. Now that I have been a professor for the last 13 years, teaching and pushing and encouraging the next generation and having two sons in college, I finally get it.
I recognize my privilege, and I embrace the complications that come with seeking and demanding and claiming space in this country at this time. Twenty-five years later, one thing remains the same: I still believe that this country is a beautiful place and that we, collectively, can change it, shape it, coax it, and cajole it to be a better place. We can be the ones that we have been waiting for, and we must be the ones who take back our country piece by piece, vote by vote, without ever stopping, relenting, giving up, or giving in. America is not Elmina Castle, but I stand here like I stood there, ready to commit, fight, and engage because our children, history, and legacy are all worth fighting for.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Executive Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award- winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is a graduate of Lincoln University, PA and lives in Baltimore City with her family.
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