Anti-Racism Lecture Series Looks to History to "Dent the Wall of Injustice"

Anti-Racism Lecture Series Looks to History to "Dent the Wall of Injustice"

The Office of the Provost officially launched its inaugural lecture series and seminar, titled “The History of Anti-Racism in America,” on Aug. 26 with a lecture from Mary Frances Berry, a historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The series aims to educate interested members of the college community on the world of Black scholars and historians who have investigated such anti-Black racism in their work.  

The lecture series features four distinguished Black scholars, each of whom will give a lecture throughout the semester, and will discuss topics such as the resilience and power of various Black women throughout history and the war on crime. For members of the community who want to engage further with each lecture, the lecture series accompanies a non-credit seminar, consisting of post-lecture discussions and accompanying readings.

The series comes after Associate Professor of History Jen Manion reached out to Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein with the idea for the series following the wave of protests against anti-Black racism in light of the murder of George Floyd in late May. 

“Many news outlets turned to historians this summer to put the violence and ensuing protests in context,” Manion said. “I found these essays and interviews very powerful and thought the Amherst community could benefit from the opportunity to hear from these scholars. I shared this idea with Provost Epstein and she was enthusiastic about it … We compiled a list of historians who are very influential and well-respected scholars/advocates.” 

“Our criteria was to invite some of the most distinguished Black historians in the United States,” Epstein said. “In addition, we chose historians whose historical work offers insights into today’s contemporary world. I believe that all of our first-choice speakers agreed to speak in the series.” 

“Well, Jen Manion invited me, and she was one of my students at [the University of Pennsylvania] years ago in the ‘History of Law and Social Change’ course. I thought that [this lecture] would be good given this particular time, with Black women and men being killed by police and with the fact that we don’t seem to get any prosecutions or convictions in these cases.” said Berry. “I believe that injustice lasts and persists, but every generation has to make its own dent in the wall of injustice. I hope that Amherst is educating a generation to make the dent even deeper.” 

Facilitated by Manion, Berry gave the inaugural lecture in the series on Aug. 26 over livestream, titled “Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.” A freed slave, Callie House was an early proponent of reparations for slavery, advocating for them as early as the late 1800s. Berry explored both House’s life and the implications of her work on contemporary issues, particularly the current conversation around implementing reparations for descendents of slavery. The talk was attended by almost 300 people at its initial airing. 

Chair of History Ellen Boucher praised Berry’s speech for its emotive power and its actionable connection to contemporary movements. “She ended by asking us all to do more — to push our institutions to recruit more low-income students, to advocate for racial justice — but also, especially for white people like myself, simply to be kinder, to move beyond our preconceptions, to not be a Karen,” Boucher reflected. “Karen” is a pejorative term used to describe white women who are excessively rude, entitled and often racist.

William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art and Chair of Architectural Studies Nicola Courtright echoed Boucher’s sentiments, highlighting Berry’s message of opposing systemic racism in institutions built on the labor of slaves, including Amherst itself.

“She kept returning to how structural racism and white supremacy are built into the very core of our institutions and kept remarking — rather charitably, I felt — that people don’t know it because they just weren’t taught this history in school. An obvious conclusion is that all teachers — including Amherst professors — have a vital ethical role to play with our students by exploring exactly how racial inequality is not only deeply rooted in the history of our nation but also continues to this day,” Courtright said.

Contemplating on Berry’s assertion that all white people in the U.S. have benefitted and still benefit from the legacy of slavery, Virginia Ryan ’22 worried that the message wouldn’t resonate more widely. “After watching the talk together, my friend pointed out that the liberal media I consume and the people I surround myself with have likely tricked me into thinking that this language is more common and accepted than it actually is, seeing as most white people in the U.S. fail to recognize that our country is rooted in white supremacy. I want to believe that the majority of white people in the U.S. will soon accept Professor Berry’s answer so that reparations can soon become a reality, but I fear that I am forgetting — or willfully ignoring — the reality of our country,” said Ryan.

Manion is currently holding small one-hour seminars with interested members of the community discussing both Berry’s talk and related readings. Over 70 people ranging students, staff and faculty signed up for the seminars, including Epstein and President Biddy Martin.
“Everything we can do to educate students about the origins of this sinful situation and how it’s persisted no matter what, will help us to get rid of it. I’m hopeful that this lecture series will in fact educate some people to help solve these problems,” Berry said.