By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer
This week the Department of English at Howard University Presented its 67th Annual Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture. Acclaimed author and scholar Dr. Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D., gave the lecture to a standing room only crowd in the Browsing Room of the University’s Founder’s Library. Her theme was “Black Studies In The Tradition, For The Future.”
Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of several books including “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop” (2004), “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States” (2011), “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry: (2018), “Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation” (2018), and “May We Forever Stand: A History of the National Black Anthem” (2018).
Dr. Charles Eaton Burch was a faculty member of Howard’s Department of English for twenty seven years. He was chair of the department from 1933 to 1948. He was a 17th and 18th century literature scholar. In honor of his work and legacy the memorial lecture was established in 1948.
As the Burch lecturer, Perry did an in-depth break down of Black studies.
“We are living in a season of anniversaries,” Perry stated, noting several anniversaries from 400th anniversary of arrival of Africans in the first permanent English Colony in North America, to the anniversaries of Black studies in general. And while dates can be debated “we don’t really celebrate for precision but rather for commemoration.”
Perry went on to interrogate the ritual commemorations in the U.S. saying, “so often the ritual commemoration is an empty ceremony- a retelling of history in the most superficial of ways to reaffirm the myths and at times the blatant lives of our national narrative which proclaims life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while practicing imprisonment, violence, empire and the production of misery.”
“Black people know these lies intimately and tell on them,” Perry said.
“We know that the idea of freedom in this country has always rested on domination and displacement either here or elsewhere.”
But Perry made the case that Black people have created a more robust and complex method of commemoration saying, “But we also come from a people that have done commemoration differently than the standard American practice. From Emancipation Day Ceremonies, to Juneteenth, to Negro History Week and Black History Month and Founder’s Day, our commemorative practices are traditionally not mythological indications of a nation we cannot recognize. Instead, they have entailed both the appreciation of the ancestors and the act of calling them up to seek guidance and to remind ourselves of the work that is yet to be done.”
Perry broke down her definition of what Black studies is, explaining that, “Black studies is not simply work about Black people.” She pulled the coattails of historically racist sociology studies that try to paint Black people as inferior. She made mention of the way some sociologists have made an industry of studying Black people in areas like the southside of Chicago.
Perry went on to explain what Black Studies is. “It’s work done about Black people in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade, European empire, conquest and colonialism and systems of knowledge developed in ways to justify these evils.”
“These are the conditions of Black studies, but Black studies is not reducible to these conditions.”
Black studies insists on different and more rigorous methods than those used in many of the mainstream disciplines, Perry said. She mentioned that culture plays a huge part in unpacking our story, as well as looking just beyond documents.