“How in the world are we going to fight for a more just future if we don’t even know what it’s going to look like?” asked Professor Megan Ming Francis to a packed room at the beginning of her talk on Wednesday, Feb. 19. Francis, a professor at the University of Washington, visited Drew University as part of the annual Law, Justice and Society lecture series to deliver her talk titled “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Justice.” The talk was co-sponsored by the Law, Justice, and Society minor, the Women’s and Gender Studies department, the Ewing Center for Public Service and the Black Students Union.
According to Professor Jinee Lokaneeta, the chair of the International Relations and Political Science Department, Francis is “the perfect LJS speaker.” The talk built on the conversations on campus regarding black and brown students and the community conversations sparked after the defacing of the Black Lives Matter sign in March 2018.
In addition to her lecture, in which she shared insights from her book “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State,” Francis held a workshop about activism on campus for student leaders and sat down for a conversation with The Drew Acorn. Thus, she accomplished a full day of knowledge production, a practice she thoroughly believes in.
Francis’s talk focused around the erroneous and narrow perception people often have of the Civil Rights movement. According to Francis, the way we learn about this movement in school and even college is an incomplete story. “This tradition of, dare I say, romantic narrative of civil rights misunderstands the movement,” Francis said. “Jim Crow wasn’t really focused on lunch counters and water fountains. It was a system that focused on black death by the state and private individuals and was meant to get every aspect of joy in black life.”
“I never thought about how we are taught to think of the [civil rights] movement as a linear trajectory that started in the 1950’s and ended in 1969,” said Yasmin Mustafa (‘20). “Professor Francis’ talk was eye opening.”
After recognizing that her talk was taking place during Black History Month, Francis proceeded to highlight the contributions of Ida B. Wells and Walter White to the Black Liberation Movement, two people that are often left out of the conversation about civil rights heroes and heroines. “No one in United States history did more to make racial violence and the fight for black lives a national issue than Ida B. Wells, no one,” argued Francis. Additionally, Francis shared the rarely told story of White, a white-presenting African American who undertook some extremely dangerous investigations in order to reveal the reality of lynching in the U.S. The overarching theme of White’s story, Francis argued, “is that we need to use our privilege in the service to others, always, at all times.”
Her talk included many slides with puzzling images that eventually made sense, including a Mr. Krabs meme, for example. When she talked about the power of imagination Francis spoke with an image from the book “Where the Wild Things Are” in the background. “There is a case that can be made for the reclaiming of a type of imagination as it relates to rights,” Francis said.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KASSEL FRANCO GARIBAY
During the Q&A portion of her talk, Kiera Husbands (‘21) asked a question about this radical imagination. “Would you argue it is fair or pure rationality that forces people to dream within a limited stance? Because it’s hard to envision or dream outside of these walls. And I am saying it’s hard, imagine what they thought,” Kiera pointed out, referring to the early NAACP and their dreaming of a more just society. “Not just for people of color in this country, but for so many of us, our experience and history with the political system have conditioned us to believe some things are possible and some other things are just not possible.”
During her conversation with The Acorn and the student workshop, Francis urged students to remember that they have power over the administration and faculty. When asked about her experience, both as a witness and as a part of movements, regarding for example the need for more diverse faculty members and curriculums, she pointed out the difference between good and strong arguments. “A strong argument is about the mission of the university. Not having diverse faculty and classes actually does a disservice to the entire university, not only the students of color.”
Bongiwe Bongwe (‘20), a founding member of the Feminist Intersection, was one of the students in attendance at the student leader workshop. “Professor Francis transformed my view on student activism with her suggestion that we approach the institution like we would the government, laying out a list of demands as we would to our politicians,” said Bongwe. “We are students and constituents whose happiness matters too.”
The four things Francis wanted to highlight at the end of her lecture were the importance of seeing ourselves in others, the need to reinvest in the process of knowledge production, being willing to sacrifice our privilege and the need for a new type of imagination. “Ultimately the goal is to listen to young people as they dream,” she said. “We who have power must do more... In other words, the doing must not come from black students or students of color. If we want to honor the courage of those who risked their lives in the civil rights movement, then all of us are called to possess their radical imagination of justice.”
For students that were left wanting more after Francis’ lecture, in addition to reading her book, she recommended reading “Black is a Country” by Nikhil Pal Singh, or any books by Yale professor Daniel HoSang.