Race & Social Movements in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Francoise Hamlin/N'Kosi Oates
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
N'Kosi Oates: Hi, I'm N'Kosi Oates. I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Africana Studies, and I'm speaking with Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, Francoise Hamlin, about the recent panel discussion on Race & Social Movements in America. Professor Hamlin, thank you for joining me.
Professor Françoise Hamlin: Thank you for having me.
N'Kosi Oates: A lot has happened since your panel. Chief among them, we know the results of the 2020 presidential election. In early January, we witnessed an insurrection on our nation's capital, specifically in the halls of Congress. And we have a new president and vice president. So I just want to begin with the same question posed by the moderator, which was, how are you thinking about this moment? How does your research inform your thoughts and your feelings about what we have just experienced?
Professor Françoise Hamlin: I almost would say that my answer would be the same, right? I always return to the phrase 'history matters.' And for the events that have happened since, thinking about this insurrection -- sort of a modern-day coup, so to speak -- I think what we see in the reactions to it is what happens when folks forget that we've done this before--right? And it didn't end well then.
And this kind of denial of losing an election because it flies against how the system is meant to work according to them -- which is to protect white supremacy at every cost, even if it means dismantling democracy -- we've seen that happen before: Wilmington, 1898, but also other elections. I mean, other elections also led to a civil war, right? So given that, I am not surprised. I'm not surprised at the, sort of, coup itself. Of course, I'm angry because [of] the level of under-education, because of the lack of historical knowledge or the depth of ramifications of what's happening. Because of that. It makes me angry because it's really hard to have conversations with people. It's really been divisive.
And I'm also worried. I'm a parent of a young child growing up in this country with this structure that hasn't shifted. And it's hard to see what kind of a future we're leaving for the next generation. Right? We always want, as parents, to leave the world a little better than when we started, when we brought them in, and at least sort of feel like there's a secure future. I'm not sure we can say that about American democracy. I think we're seeing a steady decline, definitely on the world stage. Whether or not Americans actually see it or not will come to pass at some point. At some point this pandemic will right itself or there'll be a new normal, and folks will travel and they'll see how the rest of the world's coping or not and the sort of blowback from the last four years, which has been pretty substantial, I think.
N'Kosi Oates: Right. And you said that history matters and I believe that there will be scholars writing about January 6, in addition to the pandemic and all that we have experienced over the summer [and], of course, the last four years, under the Trump administration. But one period that really comes to mind when you associate social movements is the Civil Rights Movement. And I think about one thing that you said during the panel [which] was "to think about the Civil Rights Movement as a nonviolent movement is erroneous." I think that people still have this romanticized understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that we tend to, or at least the public tends to, misremember the Movement. So can you just break down for us what are some key strategies that the Movement adopted? And how should we begin to demystify some of those thoughts around the Civil Rights Movement and, as you spoke to during the panel, around armed resistance or self-defense.
Professor Françoise Hamlin: I think it's sort of this misunderstanding that a nonviolent movement means the sort of 'kumbaya' image, right: folks marching arm in arm, completely unprotected. In many ways the image of the movement is crafted in a certain way -- photographers, speeches -- to evoke that image in order for it to be less threatening to the audiences who are viewing it and to kind of expand this idea of a moral movement. And it works. Right? I mean, you have Dr. King -- Martin Luther King -- doing this work as a pastor, as a minister, as a man of God, as a preacher, and really pushing nonviolence as a strategy for moral change. It's hard to ignore when unarmed people are being hit over the head because of where they choose to sit [at] a lunchroom counter. It's hard to figure out and to justify that kind of violence enacted on people sitting at a lunch counter.
For instance, I think I might step back from the "Civil Rights Movement as a nonviolent movement is erroneous" and sort of say that nonviolence isn't a passive act. You can be actively nonviolent, and that is more accurate. These are choices, they're strategies. People are trained to be nonviolent because it's very hard not to defend yourself, right, when you are being beaten over the head. So those images are real, but it doesn't show the whole story. It doesn't show how you really are fighting against the human spirit, which is to defend yourself. So there's an active element to nonviolence that we have to recognize as opposed to thinking about this as a passive sort of strategy. It's not at all. It is a strategy, which in itself means it's active.
And that around all of these people there are armed...you know, there [are] guns everywhere. And there've been many books and articles that have explained this. Dr. King had armed men protecting his home because it had been bombed. And in the South, gun culture is more prevalent than it is anywhere else in the country, I would assume. And so the guns are everywhere, but you have to actively not use them, actively keep them out of sight. And then it becomes...you know, you do that in order to not provoke those who would use that as an excuse to be violent. So that's how I would explain it to students, that the idea of nonviolence is an active strategy, not a passive strategy.
N'Kosi Oates: That is such a critical point, Professor Hamlin. I have one last question that I want to ask before we go. 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. And I can't help but to think about women's role [in] democracy and with social movements. Right? In particular, I think about Black women. I think about Black women who voted overwhelmingly in the 2020 presidential election for the Democratic ticket. I also think about Black women who organized, registered people to vote. Particularly [people] like Stacey Abrams and Latosha Brown around the Georgia Senate races, on which hinged whether or not the Democrats would take over the Senate. And with that, I think about this long history of Black women's organizing in the genealogy of Black women. So when I see those Black women that are organizing, I think about Septima Clark. I think about Annell Ponder. I think about Vera Pigee who you write [about] in your work. So before we go, can you just discuss the history of Black women's organizing?
Professor Françoise Hamlin: I mean, you've really laid it out. This is a long history. It even goes before the folks in the mid-century -- Septima Clark, Vera Pigee, Annell Ponder -- the three that you mentioned, but there are thousands of them at the local level. Even at the point of the 100th anniversary, there's a way in which it's seen as the 'women's vote,' but it really is the 'white women's vote,' which is why... You know, Black women don't get that opportunity until 65. But they are actively working to encourage their menfolk to vote, and sort of engaging in political consciousness and political action and activity and organizing from the moment of Reconstruction, when that became an option with the Reconstruction amendments, even though it really granted those powers to men.
Women have always been influential in electoral politics, even when they weren't allowed to vote. So we have great historians doing this work, tracing how Black women influence the political landscape in certain ways through sort of the work they do in their homes, the work they do in their churches to elevate [these] community and community needs as sort of voting places, touchpoints for electoral politics to focus on in order to secure the Black vote.
So I think about it that way, too. And then once women are able to get the vote and are able to exercise it more freely, you see them doing the groundwork using the networks in the community. This is about community and networking and understanding their communities, understanding how Black folk operate and work and learn and support each other. And using those networks, which are very gendered, they're able to manipulate them in ways to make things happen.
Women like Stacey Abrams -- and I love the fact that she is so open to giv[ing] credit to the hundreds of other people who were working with her, alongside her, right next to her -- they're working on the same networks as their predecessors, which is why she's been so successful. Yet, she would say and she does say, I'm sure -- actually, I think I've heard her say --"this is a 10-year project." This is not the kind of thing that you just go and canvass and knock on people's door and have one conversation. These are relationships she's been fostering in Georgia for 10 years. This is the result of 10 years worth of work. So I think that's sort of really important to know. You have to be invested beyond the electoral cycle for this to work. And Black women are because they see how this is a lifelong struggle and that these communities need that constant pressure. It's a kind of politics [that] is not as reactive as electoral politics.
So again, this is when history matters, right. And I really appreciate how Stacey Abrams...and we're seeing some very good think pieces coming out on social media from historians and political scientists. But mainly Black women historians and political scientists are laying out this reality as real. And Stacey Abrams is, when she's doing her press circuit, is doing this work, too. So, yeah, history matters, right? It goes back to where we started: history matters.
N'Kosi Oates: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Professor Hamlin, for this great conversation.
Professor Françoise Hamlin: Thank you.
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