Black Studies hosts ‘Black Lives Matter: Rhetoric or Reality’

Members of the Portland State Black Studies faculty will host a discussion titled “Black Lives Matter: Rhetoric or Reality” on Tuesday, Oct. 18 from 4:30–6 p.m. as part of Portland State of Mind, a 10-day event of concerts, movies, talks and community discussion.

“As scholars we have an obligation to interrogate, and look at any group critically. Right?” said Winston Grady-Willis, inaugural director of the school of Gender, Race and Nations. “This is an obligation we have in the university setting, to think critically, even to think critically of groups and movements which we may be in solidarity with or support.”

The event has been organized by Black Studies Department Chair Dr. Shirley Jackson, who is a panelist along with four other PSU Professors including Turiya Autry, Winston Grady-Willis, Derrais Carter, and Ethan Johnson. They will discuss the BLM movement from an academic lens.

The School of Gender, Race and Nations is an umbrella containing Black Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Jackson hopes that by looking at BLM from an academic standpoint, potential pitfalls to the movement can be recognized and discussed.

“What lessons can we learn so that we don’t repeat those things that did not work well?” Jackson asked. “How might we look at this movement in the future?”

Jackson plans to discuss a historical view of social justice movements. She will be looking at BLM from a sociology background, and may also address topics of how these types of movements are formed, changed, presented, perceived, what they are asking for, and how they can be infiltrated by organizations or individuals.

Another potential topic is how BLM is a nationwide movement with local chapters that sometimes work autonomously, which affects how the overall group is perceived in the media and by the public.

Grady-Willis may address present and past grassroots level activism—or the boundaries of street level and scholarly activism.

“Black Lives Matter is a mantra, and the thing that a group is pursuing rather than a thing that is the name of the group,” said Donald Thompson Jr. III, a PSU student and voting member of the ASPSU Senate. “[The name is] less important than the statement itself.”

As a street level activist, Thompson was recently pepper sprayed at a Don’t Shoot PDX protest at Portland City Hall. Don’t Shoot PDX and BLM are separate organizations, but there is sometimes overlap in membership and goals.

“I’m really hoping, more than anything else, that all areas represented there will be very transparent about what they believe,” Thompson said. “Because I feel like a lot of this conversation is obfuscated by rhetoric, by the idea that we have to be balanced, we have to be deliberate, but nothing about someone being shot to death is balanced.”

“It’s because of this activism,” Grady-Willis said, “that we have this moment to really try to lean into some discomfort around some issues in order to really move forward. So I would argue it’s not just the actual loss of black life, or the loss of brown life, because that’s been happening for decades, but it’s that certain groups have been able to call attention to it in some really creative ways.”

“This is an opportunity to talk about this on a broad scale where everyone has some input as to what is going on with this movement, how we see the movement,” Jackson said. “It’s not about activist versus scholars, scholars versus activists. It’s certainly not that. There is no ownership of this movement.”

“I hope that we’ll be able to keep this conversation going,” Grady-Willis said, referring to activists and scholars having a dialogue. “I’m setting this up as if there are these polar opposites when there’s really this incredible area in between.”

“We have to have these conversations in the public, for the public’s sake,” Thompson said. “For us to get outside of that echo chamber and tell people what we really feel, and allow them to take that in and analyze it for themselves, and so this sort of event is really important because it’s, if it goes the way I hope it does, it’s beliefs made manifest, and explored, and that’s necessary to convince someone.”

The event will be held in the Smith Memorial Student Union building rooms 327/328/329. It is free and open to the public.