KNOW YOUR HISTORY: A SERIES ABOUT US
POSTED OCT. 15TH, 2017 | BY RAMIRO ALEXANDER- DUCHESNE
On 9/21/17, Pomona College hosted the first event in their series titled “Know YOUR History.” I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend this event. I was also fortunate enough to interview Dr. Travis Brown who helped see this series through to fruition. This article will cover the first event in the Know YOUR History series and then will be followed by a transcription of my interview with Dr. Travis Brown.
An Evening Of James Baldwin
If you know anything about James Baldwin or are interested in his writing and/or speeches, then you can’t help but be intrigued by the flyer. So, what does an evening of James Baldwin consist of?
In the Rose Hills Theatre, which is part of the Smith Campus Center at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, the event begins promptly at eight o’clock. As you descend down the stairs toward the underground theatre, you see a lobby filled with people and refreshments. A few tables line the walls with a variety of snacks. Students, Faculty, and Staff mingle.
The doors open just before 8:00 P.M. and as the crowd of people rush in a young man hands each person a packet. The theatre is a nice size. There are about twenty rows and three columns of seats. The room probably seats well over one hundred people. Everyone takes a seat and waits for the event to begin.
At the head of the theatre sits a large stage and a giant screen. Off to the audience’s left, a podium with a microphone stands beside the stage. Dr. Travis Brown approaches the podium and introduces the Know YOUR History series.
Once at the podium, Dr. Brown begins the event by thanking everyone who came out to support the series. Dr. Brown states that he is neither a Baldwin Historian nor a Baldwin Apologist but that if he could choose to converse with any figure throughout history, he would choose Baldwin. Dr. Brown is well versed in Baldwin history as well as Black history in general, and therefore, hosts the event about James Baldwin.
The focal point of this particular event was a series of clips that Dr. Brown pieced together. Dr. Brown put together a number of speeches and debates that Baldwin was a part of. The first clip is titled “The Price of the Ticket, California Newsreel, 1990.” Anything that Baldwin wrote and/or said was powerful, but what he said in this clip was very sad.
Baldwin talks about his childhood in 1930s Harlem. He speaks about how he was the oldest of nine children so he had to take care of them. Baldwin speaks of the power that his father wanted. Baldwin’s father wanted Black people to do what he saw white people doing; owning their houses and building businesses. Baldwin then states that his father’s need for power is ultimately what killed him. “Because there was something in him that could not bend. He could only be broken.”
In this newsreel, Baldwin continues to talk about how the struggles that he faced as a member of the Black community and the struggles that his father faced were not unique to them. Books taught Baldwin that Black people throughout history had faced similar, if not identical, struggles.
The clips that Dr. Brown put together were intentionally placed in no particular order. Dr. Brown stated that he did not want to create a narrative, but he simply wanted to introduce Baldwin to an audience that might not have known about him, or recap Baldwin’s viewpoint for those who may be familiar with his work.
In the short video that was shown during this event, however, there were a couple of messages that hopefully the audience was able to pick up on. In the few clips that were shown to the audience as a means of giving us a glimpse into his mind, Baldwin emphasized the importance of knowing your history, understanding your place in this world, and realizing that you are not the cause of your oppression.
Although Baldwin was an expatriate, he still understood that he was an American. Baldwin states, “One of the most terrible things, or one of the most difficult things, because it’s something which one wants to resist...and also to use, is that whether like it or not, I am an American.” There was no pride in acknowledging his nationality, but there was a sense of belonging in his voice and statement. Baldwin knew that he was an American and that he belonged here just as much as his white counterparts. The reason he was living abroad at that time was because he was able to find a way out and he took advantage. He eventually returned to the States in order to continue fighting on the home front.
In terms of the third message as aforementioned, clip number eight speaks directly to this message. The clip is from a documentary titled “Take This Hammer.” With confidence, Baldwin addresses his oppressors via breaking the fourth wall and says that he is not a n****r. Baldwin speaks about how the embodiment of the n****r only exists because white people created that image. Baldwin recognized that the n****r was the invention produced out of the white man’s fears. He then states, “...I’ve always known that I am not a n****r. But if I am not the n****r, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the n****r?” In one statement, Baldwin rebukes all ownership of the N-word. It’s a very empowering interview that everyone should watch.
Every clip that Dr. Brown implemented into this brief video is worth the time spent watching it. The clips of Baldwin were compiled from a few different sources. The sources include. “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket”, “James Baldwin Interview With Kenneth Clark, 1963”, “James Baldwin and America’s Racial Problem, London, 1969” and many many more.
James Baldwin is a piece of Black history, but also American history, that everyone should be familiar with. Baldwin spoke knowledge with elegance and the first event in the Know YOUR History series gave an outstanding introduction to who Baldwin really was.
Interview With Dr. Travis Brown
Dr. Travis Brown was willing to do an exclusive interview with CSUITEMUSIC.com about the Know YOUR History series. Please read the transcription of the interview with Dr. Travis Brown below.
Interviewer: Can you please state your full name, your occupation and where you work.
Dr. Travis Brown: I’m Travis Brown. Director of the Quantitative Skills Center at Pomona College. I also direct the Academic Cohort Programs, also at Pomona. I’ve been here for about -- this is my fifth year, starting my fifth fall semester. And before that I was at Tusk University where I was the founding director for a center there for students who are underrepresented in engineering. Before that I was at UC Berkeley [got my] Ph.D. in Biology, and before that I was an undergrad. at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. Before that I was in Florida where I grew up.
I: Congratulations on the event last night. It was really great and going in, I didn’t know what to expect. But I love James Baldwin’s work, and it’s obvious you do too. I thought it was really well done.
TB: Thank you. This is the first time that we’ve done anything like this so we didn’t know how it was going to go. I had an idea in my head, and I would say 90% of that played out the way I wanted it to.
I: That’s good. And it was a great turnout too.
TB: Yeah that was one thing that, again, who’s going to come? We don’t know. But I will say that because I work with all these Cohort students, I get to know them really well they came out, they showed up for me, which is great. And then some folks from the community was there, we had faculty, we had staff, we had a good mix of people. It was a really diverse audience.
I: That’s really great. Can you tell me about the Know YOUR History event? Who started it? Whose idea was it?
TB: I’ll take credit for the name; the Know YOUR History and then the O.U.R. in a different color and font because it’s really about our history. But the idea overall of doing something came from Nicole Weeks. So, this was something that we were going to do last year, last Fall, but we just didn’t have time. We weren’t able to get it together and push it through to make it happen but that idea, and like I said yesterday,...our students are very smart, very capable, very hard working, very talented, the whole thing, but there’s a lot that are just gaps where I think that they should have filled in those gaps. They should know some things about their history, about their people, about wherever they’re from, right?
But if you go to school in this country...who knows? You might get a teacher that’s really awesome and teaches you about Baldwin, or about Ellison, or about Langston Hughes or whoever else, but you probably won’t. Right? And so, you get trapped into the “O.K., it’s February. We have to do something. Black History month. Martin, Malcolm, Rosa Parks,” you know, that sort of stuff. Students are coming here not really having a good sense of who are you? Where are you from? Who are your people? That sort of stuff. And we batted around some stuff as to how can we -- we can’t give them everything, but we have to give them a little something.
Initially we had a thought, maybe we could do something on the science of Indigenous cultures and talk about how you can look at the pyramids, not just in Egypt, but in South America. There are more pyramids in South America and Central America than there are in Egypt. You can look at people who sailed around the world and navigated the stars. You know all that kind of science...you can go back to Islam and the first real scientists were there, and a lot of what we do today and what we call things comes from things back then. That idea kind of went, you know. And then Nicole brought up the Baldwin/Buckley Debates. And so, the first iteration was, O.K. let’s show the Baldwin/Buckley Debates. We’ll do the whole screening of that and have some sort of panel discussion about it. But, then...if you sit down and watch the whole thing, it’s great, but it’s long. You have to sit through William F. Buckley, which...can be frustrating to say the least. So, I was like that’s not exciting we have to do something else, and there’s so much other good stuff about Baldwin that’s out there. I was like alright, I’ll just go ahead and take the time to search through what I can find online from things that I’ve seen before and try to pull that in and to try to piece some of that together. I’ll introduce it. We’ll play the video -- 20-30 minutes long, and then have some sort of response and thankfully, Professor Mayes agreed to do it. We also had an idea to do a spoken word thing in the middle too, but that didn’t play out. Students are really busy [laughs]. So we just weren’t able to get it together. So, Professor Mayes did it.
We wanted to do it like, this isn’t a panel discussion or anything. This really is like, here’s James Baldwin. Here’s a person you should know. He’s talking about things that you should have thought about, or you probably have thought about, but maybe you didn’t have the language or the words that really make it coherent in your mind, but look at this person who has...and look at how they present themselves. That’s the other piece of it too. It’s not only, like I said, what they are saying, it’s how James Baldwin is saying it. And so, again, having someone who is so, just interesting to look at, and...I can’t get over that, the Baldwin/Buckley Debates, like [Baldwin’s] got the room spellbound and he’s just dropping knowledge...and then there’s a quick zoom out...and you see the podium in front of him, the small, table and there are no notes on the table. There’s nothing there, he’s just going off the top of his head, right? And so you watch that and you’re like, wow. Not that I’m necessarily going to be able to do that, but at least I have something to shoot for, maybe. Like, I can take a little bit of that and I can try to be confident, and stand up tall, and be heard. So, yes, it’s what he was saying, how he was saying it, and so that’s sort of where the idea came from.
The other part is that it’s supposed to be part of a series. We just started with a sort of African American experience because it was Nicole it was me and that’s what we’re most familiar with, but the idea is that, let’s talk about the Asian American experience, let’s talk about the Indigenous experience, let’s talk about Latin-X experience or let’s talk about a certain policy, maybe immigration, maybe something else. Shoot, rise of the alt right, maybe we could do something about that and tie that to the historical context where it helps you make sense of things.
So, the other things I see with students [are], not knowing something is...fine. None of us know everything...But when you don’t know certain things about your past or how the past has affected you when you look at the present day situation, you don’t know how to put that into a framework, into a context that you can understand so that when things happen you’re not just lost, you don’t what to do. Why did that happen? Is it because of me? Did I cause this? No. You need to understand that...the way this country works, the way this world works, it’s because of things that happened in the past. It’s not your fault that a certain policy was passed. It’s because this is how it works. It’s not (Sighs) I’m not even going to say his name, but the 45th President. The fact that that could happen. For some people, that was a huge slap. And there were events, and there were rallies and there was all this stuff that happened and that’s fine and that’s good to get those feelings out, but if it’s a matter of, “How could this happen?” I can tell you how it happened. Look at this country. We’ve got 400 years of “how it happened.” But if you don’t know this stuff, then it doesn’t make sense. If you have some history, if you have some context, then you can say, “Oh, I see why that person did that. I see why that person tried to touch my hair. I understand. I don’t like it, but O.K. But I’m moving on from that.”
And also the other thing that I love about Baldwin in relation to all this stuff is that you can’t take this on personally. Baldwin says in the video, “I give you your problem back. This is not on me. This is on you.” Right? I don’t have time for this. If I can get students to think that way, have some more confidence, learn something about their past. Where they’re from and the context of where they fit in this country? That’s what we’re trying to do. So we did this event. And hopefully students will be interested to learn more about Baldwin or other people.
Wrapping Up The Interview
Dr. Brown and I continued to converse about Baldwin and the current states of America. Dr. Brown suggested that the next event in the Know YOUR History series will focus on immigration reform where Trump’s decision to abolish DACA will be at the forefront of the discussion.
With the discussion about DACA, Dr. Brown hopes to teach students that certain reforms that are put into place succeed because of things that happened throughout history. Throughout American history, immigration has always been an issue, be it the Italian immigrants, Polish immigrants, etc.
Dr. Brown wants to empower students with the knowledge that unfortunate things may happen in this world, but at least you know why it happened from a historical standpoint. This sentiment seems to build on the saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you’re going?” My interview with Dr. Brown continues.
Closing The Event
The first event of the Know YOUR History series concluded most appropriately. Professor April Mayes approached the podium and decided to close by elaborating on what Baldwin had touched on. Like Baldwin, Professor Mayes stressed the fact that we are all Americans and we belong here.
As long as we are endowed with citizenship, then America is just as much our home as it is anyone else’s Baldwin left the country to live in Europe because it was the best thing to do at that time. Like Dr. Brown said during our interview, we have a little bit more mobility in the world today.
No one should leave their home or be made to feel as though they don’t belong. No doubt, this country needs a lot of work. We still have some more progress to make but will get there one day. One day we will be great, not again, but for the first time in our history.
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