December 13, 2009


Last Thursday (December 11), I attended a panel organized by a working group at the University of Illinois called Ubuntu. Computer scientists kind of colonized the word by using it to describe a Debian-based Linux distribution. But in any case, Ubuntu is a Xhosa and Zulu word describing a philosophy of community and sharing. And the UI Ubuntu has come together in the aftermath of the shooting death of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington of Champaign. Kiwane died after being shot by a police officer in October 2009 at close range, as he was trying to enter a house where he had been staying. His friend who was with him, Jeshaun Manning-Carter, has been charged with aggravated resisting arrest (a felony) for trying to avoid the police. Jeshaun just turned 16, and will be on trial in early 2010. There has been a lot of news coverage (in several publications and online), so I won’t repeat what is covered elsewhere.

Ubuntu participants want to reclaim the Black Studies tradition of scholar-activism, and I applaud them! Historian Clarence Lang talked about the continuum between academic excellence and social responsibility; campus and community; study and struggle. Historian Sundiata Cha-Jua spoke about reviving a Black United Front that would bring about an annual report issued on the police use of force; a petition to Congress to make the police use of excessive force a federal crime; and a citizen’s police review board in Champaign, among other ideas. Imani Bazzell, who wears many hats, mentioned her program, “At Promise…of Success,” which sees youth as promising success rather than “at risk” of failure. She advocated for workshops for public school teachers to increase their knowledge of the black intellectual tradition. Sociologist Ruby Mendenhall spoke about the oral histories that she has been gathering with her students. County Board member Carol Ammons spoke movingly about her anguish and her frustration with teen-police relationships. I cannot even begin to do justice to the powerful words she voiced. Other speakers included Brendeesha Tynes, Ken Salo, Kerry Pimblott, Barbara Kessel, William Kyles and Pastor Nash. Barbara Kessel spoke about her research into “domestic rendition,” the removal of prisoners from Cook County Jail to Kankakee in order to use tasers on these men. Taser use in Cook County is illegal.

The room was packed. There is such a need for coordinated effort and continued conversation. Thanks to Ubuntu for taking up the challenge. I hope we can build a strong wall, with varied bricks and stones, that will collectively support each other and resist disunity in the face of inevitable differences.

June 30, 2009

Confrontations Do Not Conversations Make

Walking on the sidewalk with “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs under my arm, I am on my way to deliver them in east Urbana.

Man on porch whistles, then yells at me: “Let me see those signs!”

Retracing my steps, I stand in his driveway and say that the signs are in support of Heap of Birds’ work on campus.

Man, now standing, cigarette in hand: “I was just curious to see the signs. You ever been to Allerton?”

Me: “Yes.”

Man: “I went to 4-H camp there and the cabins were named after Indian tribes.”

Me: “Well, we live on their land now.”

Man, loudly: “No we don’t!”

Me: “How so?”

Man, swearing even more loudly and then: “It’s ours now. Get over it! Get out of here!”

Me: “OK!” Retreating, the man continues to yell, telling me to get over it, calling me a moron, and other rude nouns with adjectives that I am sure you can imagine.

I kept thinking of Charlene Teters, standing all alone in front of Assembly Hall almost 20 years ago, protesting the racist mascot, chief Illiniwek, and the abuse she endured. Some of the story is told by Jay Rosenstein’s documentary “In Whose Honor?” It is very difficult, maybe impossible in this evening’s case, to respectfully engage with someone who vehemently disagrees with me. I felt kind of bad walking away, but I also felt a little scared. Then I ran into a couple walking with their children and they greeted me with the comment that they already had a sign in their yard, and were glad to have one. So, on balance, one and one!