Last December, I attended a panel on the history of St. Louis activism. Robin Kelley joined Jamala Rogers, Kareem “Tef Poe” Jackson, and Percy Green, my hometown (s)heroes. During Q&A, I asked, “What is one piece of text, art, or media you would offer someone starting a political education journey?” Instead of offering Fanon or Coltrane, Kelley rejected the premise of my question. Rightly so: he said that political education happens when people determine what is relevant and necessary to the goals of their movement.
After the panel, I revealed my concerns about current student movements. Michael Brown was murdered about six blocks from where I lived before I left for college. Before driving twenty-two hours from Ferguson to Cambridge with my in-laws, husband, and six-month-old son, I was organizing and protesting in the streets.
“I don’t know if I should be spending time organizing on campus or be with people in my hood—who are not going to graduate from their problems,” I said. Kelley lobbied for my unique access to Harvard Law School. Organizers in the movement cannot influence or infiltrate the school in a way that I can, right now, as a student. I continued to organize.
As I read Kelley’s essay, I often asked myself, “What is he most afraid of?” He presents a clean dichotomy: campus organizers are either in the university or of it, seeking university inclusion or building their own institutions to challenge the university’s legitimacy. Cautioning black students against seeking affirmation within institutions that use black bodies to delegitimize black life, Kelley holds civil rights–era Freedom Schools and UCLA’s Undercommons as ideal models of student activism. He charges students to engage in “fugitive” political education from a place of love, rather than a narrative of trauma, and to recognize themselves as involuntary agents of white supremacy.
But student organizers must determine approaches to organizing that reflect the needs of their movement. During the civil rights era, the nation witnessed black students risk arrest, face jail time, endure violence, and suspend their university study to protest segregation in the South. The most recognizable forms of their organizing transcended university spaces. Freedom Rides, Freedom Schools, and lunch counter sit-ins facilitated a movement that was open to students, activists, and all community members.
Is it not possible for students to reject the ideology of inclusion and demand reform from their universities? Many black student activists today are blending methods of accountability both in and out of university spaces. While occupying university buildings, students at Brandeis created a syllabus and reading group accessible to members of the public who were interested in their activism. Law students at Harvard conducted a flash teach-in on critical race theory in their dean’s office and are developing a political education reading group. Activists in Johannesburg and Cape Town have developed reading groups, lecture series, and education task forces during their #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements. Each group partnered with university staff workers, but these demonstrations simultaneously put pressure on university administrations to eliminate their role in facilitating institutional and external oppression for marginalized groups.
Though Kelley’s dichotomy could read as a false one, still student activists should beg, borrow, and steal much from his reflections. First, we must regularly engage in serious political education. University movements should be about making all stakeholders more critical of their institutions, not just making marginalized students more comfortable. Consequently, we should become smarter as a result of our demonstrations. Otherwise, we risk becoming radical event planners. We should locate, debate, and ultimately subscribe to a particular set of politics that grounds our movements.
Kelley’s essay should also inspire us to consider multiple narratives to confront white supremacy. As we become politically educated, we must choose strategic yet honest narratives. For many black student demonstrators, returning to classrooms was extremely difficult after two years of unlawful arrests, tear gas, police assault, and vigilante armed resistance. Our professors chose to use the movement to debate policy, justify non-indictments of police officers, or play police shooting videos in class without trigger warnings or ways to opt out. Trauma is real. We are victims and agents of a deadly, odorless, and colorless dominance, too normal to create urgency, and too amorphous to deflate. Our collective trauma is indicative of a constant oppression that we must always name and fight.
Finally, student organizers must rally behind causes that genuinely transcend university spaces. Reclaiming spaces, reshaping curricula, renaming buildings, and replacing school crests serve as means to spark debates, not as ends in themselves. Additionally, colleges are not shielded from the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and ableism in society at large. We must therefore resist the thought of graduating from these problems. What are our commitments as graduate students? As alumni? How are we connecting to local communities? Activism ought not be a fling of our youth, but a lifelong practice committed to building black futures.