September 11, 2014
Imani Perry
The Fabric of Our Identity

Imani Perry is a scholar of law, culture, race — and hip hop. She acknowledges wise voices who say that we will never get to the promised land of racial equality. She writes, “That may very well be true, but it also true that extraordinary things have happened and keep happening in our history. The question is, how do we prepare for and precipitate them?” We took her up on this emboldening question at the Chautauqua Institution, on the cusp of yet a new collective reckoning with the racial fabric of American life.

The first in a four-part series, “The American Consciousness.”

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is a professor of African-American Studies and a faculty associate in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Her scholarly books on law, culture, race, and hip hop include Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop and More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

Transcript

September 11, 2014

IMANI PERRY: We are agents of our world, right? And so, you know, we encounter tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, and so then we can become sort of passive witnesses to all of these tragedies in our midst or we can be actively engaged. And I think that’s a process of liberating oneself, to be actively engaged in the world, and in the work of transforming it.

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: James Baldwin once said that: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” These words inspired Imani Perry when she wrote her scholarly book, More Beautiful and More Terrible: the Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

Imani Perry acknowledges wise voices who say that we will never get to the promised land of racial equality. She writes, “That may very well be true, but it also true that extraordinary things have happened and keep happening in our history. The question is, how do we prepare for and precipitate them?”

I took her up on this emboldening question at the Chautauqua Institution’s 2014 season, on the cusp of yet a new collective reckoning with the racial fabric of American life.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — in the first of a four-part conversation about “The American Consciousness.”

 

[Music: “Into the Trees” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Imani Perry is a professor at the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where her grandmother was a domestic servant. When she was 7, her mother matriculated at Harvard and took her to a Massachusetts world of privilege.

But Imani Perry also grew up spending summers in inner-city Chicago with her Jewish social activist father. Her upbringing was a joyful, disorienting merger, she’s written, of “interracial parentage yet salt of the earth Blackness; of multi-class identity; of Boursin cheese and watermelon, of starched Sunday dresses and holey jeans.” I spoke with Imani Perry in Chautauqua’s outdoor Hall of Philosophy. It was a day of intermittently dramatic rain, which you may hear.

MS. TIPPETT: So, Imani, I want to start, um, just by — I wonder if you’d tell us about the religious and spiritual background of your childhood. You know, however you would describe that now.

DR. PERRY: So, I am, um, what you would call a cradle Catholic, but emerging out of — so, my, um, grandmother’s home parish is the Josephite Parish, and Josephites went to minister specifically to African-Americans. Um, and so, I was baptized Catholic, but it was in the midst of a kind of radical liberation theology…

MS. TIPPETT: And this was in Alabama?

DR. PERRY: I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, nine years after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church just a couple of miles away from there. Um, reared in the kind of traditional black southern working class family. Um, but my grandmother was also — or and was also an extraordinary woman who, uh, made sure all 12 of her children went to college, read every single day, um, she was kind of an organic feminist. Um, deeply independent. And then, my mother was an intellectual. She was a philosopher, initially, and, uh, and an activist. She had been, um, a nun at first, so she…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, she had?

DR. PERRY: …joined the convent, and then realized that wasn’t the calling for her. That the movement was the calling for her. Um, and they continued to have, over the course of my life, give me a wide array of encounters and experiences. So I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lived there, um, in Old Cambridge, right near Harvard University.

MS. TIPPETT: And didn’t your mother go to Harvard then, at that point?

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm. She was a doctoral student at Harvard.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You — you went to, um, to the Concord Academy.

DR. PERRY: I did.

MS. TIPPETT: Which was a privileged place to be.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And one of the things you said is that you were the second generation of black children in elite white schools. But you said the knowledge of how to navigate such places had not been passed on to you.

DR. PERRY: Right. So, and I — I think, um, the knowledge of how to advocate in an elite prep school hadn’t been passed on to me in part because my parents hadn’t had that particular experience, although my mother had gone to Catholic schools. But it was a very different sort of southern black catholic experience.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Um, but also there wasn’t a kind of institutional knowledge. I think the numbers really increased post-1970s in these sort of elite New England prep schools. But they hadn’t yet really figured out how to embrace diversity, um, both in terms of academic content, but also in terms of helping us all develop a sense of ownership of the school.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

DR. PERRY: So, not just being a visitor, but it belonging to us.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is kind of what the entire, like, every institution, every American institution was going through at that point.

DR. PERRY: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, you know, you — you have this lovely phrase that you used about these contradictions. You talked about finding the sweet in the bitter.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Tell us what you mean by that.

DR. PERRY: Well, I, um, it’s actually a phrase that I shared with a lot of younger students of color who came through prep schools. Because I, you know, they could be in embittering experiences being in those places and often times not just hostility from classmates. And I went to a progressive school that, um, where people loved me and embraced me, and I loved my school as well. But also, there was hostility in the town. You know, we got called a lot of unpleasant names when we walked down the street in town.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

DR. PERRY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know there’s this — this image that the south is the worst place for that, but, uh, Massachusetts can be pretty bad with that. Um, and then there was also, you know, there were some teachers who were very hostile to the idea of diversifying the curriculum. And so, when you’d have a book by an African-American author, I had — there was one teacher who said, well, we’re not going to talk about this in class. You know, so there was — there were multiple ways that, even in a school that had committed itself to diversity was — was struggling. And so for me it was finding the sweet and the bitter was not to dismiss the reality that, um, there were a number of painful experiences associated with being at school, but also to not allow that to prevent me from finding joy.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. PERRY: Right, and building meaningful relationships and also taking possession of the school. So, uh, you know, when I ran for senior class president, I wasn’t saying to myself, well, they’ve never had someone who looks like me as senior class president. Now, I knew that, you know, not everybody was going to be enthusiastic about that, but, um, but I also knew that I belonged in the institution.

MS. TIPPETT: You also tell this great story about taking an aerobics class, which was the thing people did back then. It was like the ’70s…

DR. PERRY: The ’80s.

MS. TIPPETT: Yoga. Yeah, the ’80s. Um, and the music that accompanied it which was not your music but then that you tuned in to these late night shows, you discovered hip hop, and you say, “I listened in on the generation to which I belonged.”

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So tell us about what hip hop means to you and meant to you.

DR. PERRY: Oh, wow. So there’s this sense, and I think this is particularly true for the children of ’60s and ’70s activists, but I think it can be a more generalized sense that, um, we sort of came to the party late. You know, we missed the revolution. We missed the excitement. We missed the activism. We missed the movement. Um, and there’s a sense, I think, that we lived with a nostalgia for a time that wasn’t our own. You know, what hip hop gave to me was, and this is before it was on the radio, and actually — and before it was the way it is now, frankly. Um, it was much — had  much stronger political content, much more social commentary. I mean, it felt like an eruption in — into um, the world of, uh, Reaganomics, and um, the industrialization, and all of the suffering that was being felt, I think, throughout — across the country, and particularly in urban centers. And here was a music that was articulating a voice that was challenging the world, right? Listen to me, listen to us, raise questions, all those sorts of things. And so, um, you know, for me it felt like this is my moment, right? I, you know, I thought I had missed it, and here, um, here was something, that emerged, in my time. And it was incredibly nourishing, and it also, you know, the love of language, the play with language for someone who is a voracious reader, really captivated me…

MS. TIPPETT: Hm.

DR. PERRY: … you know, it was exciting to hear popular culture embracing the kinds of words that I was trying to, you know, figure out in school as well, so. Um, it was very, very important for my development.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in a public conversation with scholar of race, culture, law, and hip hop, Imani Perry. We’re speaking as part of the Chautauqua Institution’s week on the American Consciousness.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I think we’ll — we’ll come back to hip hop in a moment. Um, you went to — arrived at Harvard in 1994. And you — you got a JD and a Ph.D., which was unusual and probably still is unusual. And it was also, as you note, in the ’90s that scholarship, was really becoming alert to the fact that as you say we were failing in our equality mission.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, enough years had passed after that heyday of the civil rights movement, and, um, you know, the promised land had not been reached.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, I want to talk about your — I don’t want to call it an argument. I want, you know, your — your thesis, your — an idea that you have proposed, um, that we think of ourselves in a time of post-intent racism, or that we are in post-intent times. So describe you know, what you’re defining there. What that is coming in over against.

DR. PERRY: Right. So, OK, so —  the — my book starts with this premise that on the one hand we’re a society where everybody is committed to racial equality. You know, it’s — it’s generally considered bad taste, bad form…

MS. TIPPETT: And you really do — and you really do take that seriously.

DR. PERRY: I absolutely take it seriously.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

DR. PERRY: And yet, you know, in every area that you measure, you see not just the evidence of the persistence of inequality, but that people act in ways that disadvantage certain groups on the basis of race.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. PERRY: Right, and most heavily, this is directed towards black people, black Americans, um, in the United States. And so, um, so for me, the question is well, what’s happening? Why — why this disjuncture between our stated purposes and our behavior? Um, and rather than saying I think people are disingenuous, I’m actually — I actually spent time trying to figure out what was actually motivating the behavior to disadvantage. And I think it has a lot to do with, um, not just racial stereotypes, but narratives, um, and, uh, categories and ways that we describe different spatial relationships. And I, you know, I get this…

MS. TIPPETT: Well, what do you mean by that, spatial relationships?

DR. PERRY: So, for example, well, just the simple term bad neighborhood.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh.

DR. PERRY: Or, ghetto. Right? And, um, the lesson to avoid those places. The way that they’re described as, um, in — in really sensationalistic terms, dangerous, disordered, chaotic. Um, and how that is connected to deep disinvestment, right? It has economic consequences.

MS. TIPPETT: And do you think that, um, that our use of that language itself then makes those things more true…

DR. PERRY: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …to the extent there’s a reality behind it, it intensifies that reality?

DR. PERRY: Yes. And it also dictates behavior. Um, for me this is such a powerful example, because you always hear this and politicians say this frequently. There’s this image that, um, black youth believe that doing well in school is acting white. And people say this all the time. And it’s simply not true. And so anyone who does comprehensive research on the subject says, that’s not, in fact, true. And in fact, there’s the same kind of value for education, so really, the different outcomes has to do with inequality of opportunity or resources. And yet, this myth is so powerful that it gets trotted out again and again, and so I think the consequences of the kind of mythology are that then people interact with these youth in ways where they presume that they’re not invested in education. Right? So, you know, these — these narratives, these images, these — they dictate behavior. They guide us. And I say “us” because it’s a cultural problem. Right? It’s not a kind of binary problem, this race, and that race, it’s a cultural practice that we all learn, um, living in this society.

MS. TIPPETT: And I find this so much more helpful language. I mean, you are talking about structural racism…

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? That’s one label to put on this. But that also makes it abstract.

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, you’re taking out this motive, you know, you’re — you’re saying — I mean, you’re — you’re explaining on a very human level how one can not experience oneself to be racist, be against racism, and yet behave in ways that support that lack of opportunity, and that belittlement of other human beings.

DR. PERRY: Right. And I think, you know, I say post-intent, also, because for me, um, I also want to get away from concentrating so much about on what’s in people’s hearts. You know, because I want to focus instead on the consequences for those who are subject to inequality. So, I say post-intent, meaning that that’s not really what we want to focus on, whether or not someone meant it. We want to focus on how people behave. How can we help people behave in — in better ways, in more generous ways, in more equitable fashion. Um, and, you see, because we see, you know, there’s both intentional and unintentional.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

DR. PERRY: But the point is the consequence, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

DR. PERRY: And yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s what we’ve — and what this also gets at for me, I mean, something I think about a lot, as a journalist, as a person in media, is, um, we so rarely hear the whole story about anything.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, about anything, because of the way we’ve defined news in the last 100 years, we hear about the extraordinarily bad part of politics, economics, education or other kinds of people. I mean, another example you’ve used in your writing is the South Bronx, right?

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that’s you know, just the South Bronx, I think, many of us will have associations that come to mind with how, you know, what kinds of statistics or — or bad news stories that are associated with the South Bronx. But I mean, you know, you’ve — talk about like the two stories of the South Bronx that are both true…

DR. PERRY: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …for you.

DR. PERRY: Right. So, the South Bronx is also, I mean, it’s the site for the creation of hip hop, but it’s this incredible cosmopolitan space. There are people from all over the world who come together, right? There’s a — there are beautiful landscapes or were — created by graffiti and — and the like. So there’s, you know, there’s — it was and is a kind of rich, vibrant cultural space. Um, and yet, that’s not part of the conversation.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: About what the South Bronx is. Um, and the choice to describe in one way or the other, of course, has policy consequences, because if you say, well, there’s nothing there, so we can raze those buildings. Or there’s nothing, you know, this has happened all across the United States. There’s nothing there, so we can build a highway through that community, right? To talk about spaces in — in — in a diminishing way actually means that you devalue the people there, and it becomes very easy to treat them and their neighborhoods as fungible.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Spaces which human beings inhabit.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And also, the South Bronx is a real crucible of hip hop movement, isn’t it?

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Of this musical force, which is so much bigger now than it was when you first discovered it. And I want to talk about that because you know you — you used the word nourishing a minute ago.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: In talking about hip hop. And that is not an adjective that would come to mind probably for most of the people in this room…

DR. PERRY: Right. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …when they heard about hip hop. I mean, you know, and I just — here’s another thing that you pointed out. You know, you said, “Most Americans today have internalized Ms. King’s belief that racism is immoral. But the problem remains, when King said, ‘Let us be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character,’ he was not prepared for the widespread impugning of black character in the 21st century.” And I think this matter of hip hop, which is just such a potent image now, especially that we associate perhaps with black young men.

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Is a good example of associations made with black character.

DR. PERRY: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, and, you know, one of the things that’s really, um, difficult in terms of talking about hip hop, because on the one hand, and I, you know, earlier it was much easier for me, where I could say, well, this music gets scapegoated, because all of the ills that we see in hip hop, we see in other forms. Right? And that’s sort of the position I had in the ’90s and the early 2000s. And really, um, in — in intervening 14 years or so, right, it has become — what you get on the radio are the most popular artists.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: The content has become more and more narrow. It’s about conspicuous consumption. It’s about, um, having lots of women. It’s about, um, kind of masculinist violence, power. That kind of thing. And it actually is, I think, in some ways the most extreme popular cultural forms of those things, with the exception of action movies right now. Um, there is a much broader landscape of the music, but those artists, by and large, don’t get signed to major labels.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. PERRY: So I think one of the questions is why — and — and the — the vast majority of the audience for hip hop is no longer black. Um, so one question would be to ask, you know, why is this so desirable, right? And I do think on some level it’s selling fantasies of what ghetto life is like, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Kind of prurient fantasies, things that are, you know, verboten, and exciting. And so, um, but the circulation of that fantasy absolutely has social consequences.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. PERRY: Um, and I think that this something that both people who do — who have done scholarship on hip hop, but also, I think people in communities across the country are just struggling with, you know. How do we push back against what we are seeing in the music, even if it’s the music that we love?

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I have a 16-year-old white son who loves hip hop.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: But what I notice more than anything else, you know, he’ll sometimes say, um, I’ll try to listen, and he’ll say no mom, you’re too innocent. That’s not appropriate for you.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Right? But — but what I — what I see that’s magic about that music is how I watch that music go all the way through his body…

DR. PERRY: Oh, oh yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …and yes, it’s popular music, but it’s poetic.

DR. PERRY: It absolutely — right, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: You know what I mean ? There’s something in it that transcends — and I really don’t spend a lot of time listening to the most inflammatory lyrics…

DR. PERRY: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …but I don’t worry about it, because there’s something in it that’s powerful, that transcends whatever, you know, the things that you could get upset about on the surface as well.

DR. PERRY: I think that’s true of some of the music. And I do think that increasingly sound is more important than text. I think there was an earlier era in which the words mattered more…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: …and I think with the rise of southern hip hop in particular — even when someone is speaking, the sound and the vocalization and what the artist is doing with the voice, it oftentimes is more important than what they’re saying.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Um, so I do think that’s absolutely the case and, um, the play with language is always exciting irrespective…

MS. TIPPETT: Yes.

DR. PERRY: …of the content. But I do think there is this — this question, though that — that I think many artists are going to be increasingly challenged to push. So if the words don’t matter that much, then might you consider other words?

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Right? I mean, you know, if — if — if the — particularly, I think for — for women, for me, this is a particular concern for women in poor, urban communities, and what the message is about their value I think is um, somewhat alarming.

MS. TIPPETT: But you, I mean, one of your books is about hip hop…

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …and, um, you struggle with the music, with what’s hard — challenging in the music to women, but you also really find a place for strong…

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …women in that music. And how — you have two sons. Is that right?

DR. PERRY: I do.

MS. TIPPETT: And how old are they?

DR. PERRY: 8 and 11.

MS. TIPPETT: OK.

DR. PERRY: Yes. Um, and I — I regulate their music quite a bit.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Um, you know, yesterday here, Roberto Unger, who used to be your professor…

DR. PERRY: He was my prof. — he taught me Jurisprudence.

MS. TIPPETT: …told us that schools should be raising our children to be prophets. And the title of your book on hip hop — hip hop was Prophets of the Hood.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Interesting allusion.

DR. PERRY: That is interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Yeah, um, you know, and I don’t know. I — I think that’s an interesting challenge, and I’ve never thought about whether schools can do that. I see what he’s saying in — in — about sort of raising young people to be prophetic in the sense of there’s a kind of preparation that will illuminate them, um, in ways that can move us towards a better place.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: I think the — the way that I was using, um, prophetic was about a kind of illumination of ideas and arguments that are in places in the society that were invisible to the larger society and so, in the sense that a — that a prophetic voice, um, can emerge from a place that has been invisibilized, that has been obscured, um, that’s what I was seeing in the music.

[Music: “Love Is” by Common]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Imani  Perry through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

 

[Music: “Love Is” by Common]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the first in a four-part series of public conversations on “The American Consciousness.” Imani Perry is a scholar of law, culture and race and a professor at the Center for African-American Studies of Princeton University.

I spoke with her in front of a live audience at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York just a few weeks before the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri reawakened questions lingering from incidents like the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — and the acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman. Imani Perry has written searchingly about what such events continue to mean, especially to the generation of her young sons.

MS. TIPPETT: So, ever since we elected an African-American president, it seems that we, continue to revisit the problem that we still don’t know how to talk about race.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: But, and we end up talking about it then in moments of crisis. And I’ve — I’ve wondered, you know, something like the Trayvon Martin shooting.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve wondered if, you know, it seems to me that the — the moments when we then talk about it are so anguished and they seem like imperfect moments, but having that said that, I started reading some of what you wrote around those events and all the way through the trial and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. And I — I questioned myself, whether that really was an imperfect moment, or whether it’s as good a moment as any.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I wonder if you would talk about, you know, what does that particular event or an event like that, say to you about the American consciousness, that it’s worth all of us continuing to reflect on after the fact.

DR. PERRY: So, part of what, um, the murder of Trayvon Martin immediately registered for me is that this is, um, the sort of ultimate fear of the mother of any black boy in this country. OK? Um, and I think that isn’t necessarily widely understood. I mean, even in the midst of the trial, um, that the concept that someone might murder your child with utter impunity and there not be a remedy is real and has been real for — and — and it’s not just mothers, it’s fathers, it’s aunts and uncles, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: But that there’s some particular, I think, for me…

MS. TIPPETT: As a mother of two sons, yeah.

DR. PERRY: As a mother of two boys.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: And also, trying to explain it to them in a way that would not have them walking through life constantly terrified.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Right? Because then my older son once said to me, you know, and this was in relationship to several other incidents, where do I go if there’s trouble if the police might even kill me? Right? You know. When I’m innocent, right? And so, um, so I think that that you know, that is, I think, a — a racial divide. I think that we have other ones with respect to the lives of undocumented children. You know there are…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: …there are multiple, um, divides in that way, where we are not fully cognizant of the experiences that other people in our midst are having. Um, I think the moment was instructive, though devastating, um, in a number of ways. One, this need — this discourse around Trayvon’s innocence was really instructive, because I think Americans are — are unhealthily obsessed with the idea of innocence. I mean, I think that’s part of the impediment that we have in general with talking about race.

MS. TIPPETT: The idea of innocence?

DR. PERRY: Because we want to be — I want to be innocent. I’m not — I’m not this.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. PERRY: Right? So, but I also think there was this conversation about is he innocent, is he not? Well, he skipped school once, he smoked marijuana. I mean, this — all of these things, which are fully human, and normal for young boys, be — suddenly become ways of suggesting that he might have merited being…

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

DR. PERRY: …murdered. Even that he might have fought back. Right? So that there’s this, you know, there’s this image that what is required to be acceptable, um, as a black boy, is the sort of image of perfection, no failure, no mistake, no error ever.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

DR. PERRY: But otherwise, uh, you can’t be given the benefit of the doubt. I mean, for me, that is illustrative of one of the most powerful racial discourses, right? This idea that always being suspect, right? Always being likely to be guilty, and how that sort of acts as a kind of sort of hangs over, um, one’s shoulders everywhere you go.

MS. TIPPETT: I read, um, in what you wrote, and this is really heartbreaking, you know that your son’s wept when they heard that George Zimmerman had been acquitted.

DR. PERRY: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Um…

DR. PERRY: Absolutely. Um…

MS. TIPPETT: And also what I found, I don’t know, comforting in a way, or you — helpful — was you — one of the things you talked to them about was that you attended a rally afterward, and…

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …and you said look at all these people who are around us. And again, the reason I think that’s important just to note something very practical like that is that it’s worth showing up at a rally.

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: For your sons.

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm. And I think for all of us, because I think that particularly with what you — we talked about this idea of, um, kind of structural racism, or the abstraction or institutional racism or inequality and the like, I mean, we — we are agents of our world, right? And so, you know, we — we encounter tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, and so then we can become sort of passive witnesses to all of these tragedies in our midst or we can be actively engaged. And I think that’s a process of liberating oneself, to be actively engaged in the world, and — and — and in the work of transforming it.

Uh, I mean, so it was meaningful for them, I think, for the other people to be around, but I also think it’s meaningful for them for, um, kind of growing up, becoming adults, becoming people who have some sense of civic and social responsibility, because you know one could also say in some ways I can protect them from so much, they are privileged children. Right? But they — and so they have these fears, but they’re also relatively privileged, and yet, my sense is that whether it has something to do directly with them or not, you know, they have a responsibility in this world.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Actually want to read — I — I think we’ll do — we’ll open this conversation up. Before we do that, um, or as you might be coming up to the microphone, I — I just want to dwell for a minute on this beautiful blog post.

MS. TIPPETT: You use this image — you started it by saying have you ever seen a small plant that has a splint holding it up? Would you — would you illuminate that image?

DR. PERRY: You know, I — I, um, I guess I think that, you know, the work of nurturing development is always requires us to lean on someone else, or to be there for someone to lean on, to facilitate, to, uh, to nurture it. And I, you know, and I think that that’s how we should think about not just our families, but as a — our cities, our states, our nation. Um, we are in a moment where we are being socialized into the — an intense competition. I mean, I think that’s everything is marketized. Every aspect of our lives is marketized. And it creates a lot of anxiety. Right? Because we don’t want to be left behind and left out. But I think the — the — the other side of that anxiety is that it really isolates us from a sense of responsibility to each other. So for me, the image, uh,  you know, of kind of holding up a — a sprout is, um, powerful because that’s what it takes. You know, sometimes we pretend like that’s not what it took for us, but that’s what it takes for everyone.

MS. TIPPETT: But it — I also like the image because it’s — this sprout has its vitality. Right?

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s not…

DR. PERRY: No, it’s not passive.

MS. TIPPETT: …compensating for something, even.

DR. PERRY: No. It’s…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s just allowing it to come into its own and…

DR. PERRY: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: …vitality. OK um, yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Um, in your article, uh, for the Washington Post about the five myths of, uh, Brown versus the Board of Education, you wrote about how some African-Americans, were — not exactly against it, but were — one of the cost of it was giving up the professional, institution of the black schools.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Would you expand on that?

DR. PERRY: Sure. So, one of the things, you know, that when we talk about desegregation and Brown versus Board of Education that is often times lost out in the story, uh, is that there was incredible loss of institutions. You know, schools in, um, in the segregated south were community institutions, um, they had, uh, body — they — the teachers and principals comprised a large portion of the black professional class.

Um, so, and the dominant narrative is that the schools were just terrible. Well, they were underfunded, and there weren’t enough of them, but many of the schools were extraordinary. And what happened with desegregation, which was a very long process, was that rather than integrating facult(ies) — you know, teachers and integrating what is that — there was massive, uh, loss of black professionals. Teachers who lost their jobs. Principals who lost their jobs. And schools remained segregated. Right? Because of, um, white flight, or private academies, and the like. And so, um, and there were people who were concerned that this was what was going to happen. They were correct.

Now, I think that most people think well, this was a sacrifice, that was made by the community in order to transform the nation. Um, I think they took out that sentence in the Washington Post, but that’s really how I conceive of it. And so, while schools were not integrated, and while much of the — many of most important schools in many communities were lost, um, the other side is that all of the public facilities were — were integra — all kinds, you know, it led to the integration of higher education.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That point you made that it — that wasn’t just about schools.

DR. PERRY: Right, no, it wasn’t just about schools, no.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s an example of how, um, we have too shallow a memory 50 years on of a lot of things about the — the civil rights movement.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: We have just a few names we know.

DR. PERRY: Right. And even the — the — to focus on the charismatic leaders as opposed…

MS. TIPPETT: Yes.

DR. PERRY: …to communities.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes.

DR. PERRY: I mean, it was really communities and that they pushed the leaders, um, to become what they were. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in a public conversation with scholar of race, culture, law, and hip hop, Imani Perry. We’re speaking as part of the Chautauqua Institution’s week on the American Consciousness.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Thank you so much for such a wonderful talk. I want to return to your point about the importance of language in shaping consciousness and even framing a reality. You mentioned how concerned you were about the devaluation of space, for example, the South Bronx, and the role that language plays, but it seems to me perhaps you’re not as concerned about the devaluation of women in hip hop lyrics. And I feel like I’m missing something. Could you clarify, please?

DR. PERRY: Oh, that’s what I — part of what I was talking about was absolutely the sexism and even misogyny in the lyrics. That’s what I was referring to when I was talking about what is happening today in the music.

Um, you have conspicuous consumption, you have the — I — the treating of women as possessions, exploitation of women, and the like, absolutely. Now, I will say again, though, that is not characteristic of all of the music. That’s who’s getting signed to major labels. Right? And so the responsibility doesn’t just lie on hip hop. The major responsibility lies on the corporations, and also the consumers of the music. And so, for me, the question is, why do people want to buy music that communicates those messages? I think that that’s an important question for us to ask ourselves.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: The first, uh, questioner stole my question so I’m going to ask you if you could elaborate on what you feel the, um, future of for-profit education, for-profit schools, charter schools, magnet schools, all of those things, is going to have in the black community and, especially the lower-income areas of the country in the future.

DR. PERRY: Thank you. Um, for me, this is, uh, I think a really important question as we’re see — we’re witnessing the privatization of public education across the country. The push to charters, um, an entire system becoming charter systems as is the case now in New Orleans. Um, much of the conversation around it, which I think is really interesting, is around African-American and Latino children. Much of that conversation’s about the achievement gap. And by that they mean a racial achievement gap.

Um, and as opposed to, well, we can set that aside for a moment and say, we could talk about an opportunity gap instead of an achievement gap. It might be talking about something that’s actually more meaningful. But, that said, um, one of the things that we’re seeing is that any problems that we see in public education are worse when there’s less regulation. And so, I think that, um, the consequence of this move towards privatization is going to be devastating, uh, for the poorest children and for, um, um, black and Latino children in general, even though there are some, you know, remarkable examples of successful individual schools when we look at the picture overall. Um, I think that all of us need to be concerned with what’s happening to public education.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Um,  I guess my question is maybe two parts. Um, one, if — if you could see one structural thing that you’d like to see changed, what would it be? And — that would make the biggest difference for African-Americans right now. And, on the second part of it is, you know, nobody wants to think of themselves as racist, but a lot of people who are white have no idea, like, how to be better allies. So, if you could kind of magically transform our, you know, people’s consciousness and, like, you know, something that would help people be, a better ally, what would that be?

DR. PERRY: You know, I — I almost — I’m going to not really answer your question, because I think that it is the process — it is in the process that people are transformed, right? So, um, I talked about this a couple of days ago in a talk that, I think, in terms of our, sort of, organizing efforts, um, to the extent that we can be devoted to power sharing along lines of race, along lines of class, right? That we can be committed to actually assuming that every person at the table has meaningful contribution, who has meaningful knowledge, right? That those sorts of things, I think, allow for multiracial, multiclass, multi — what able bodied, disabled, that kind of — kind of community that allows us to be transformed and also to transform the world we live in.

So, I — I have such, um, hesitation for any kind of magic wand solution, because I think that the way that we change is in the doing. Right? Uh, doing things in a different way. I think, really out of school learning communities, that are multigenerational, that, um, would be an incredibly important movement, I think. And there are examples of them, but in all sorts of communities, right? So, communities of values, I mean, I think this is a wonderful example. But if we could really devote ourselves to creating many of those, um, I think that also would lead to great transformation.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Hello, and thank you very much. I’m from Rochester, New York. We’re working on a facing race, embracing equity effort that gets at the structural racial bias that exists. Is there any other community or communities that you are aware of that have actually made the structural changes to reduce the racism in their particular community? And then the second question I have for you is how does your spiritual life affect how you go on from day to day?

DR. PERRY: That’s a fantastic question. So the first, I mean, I think there are — there are, many examples, although not — the ones that immediately come to mind are not necessarily non-profit organizations. I mean, I think that, you know, the way — so I can think of various, you know, activist movements, so, um, for me, uh, wonderful example would be there’s sort of three-three moments of the Rainbow Coalition. Most of us just know that Jesse Jackson, 1988 Rainbow Coalition. But in Boston, Mel King had a Rainbow Coalition where he created alliances between workers, between LGBT communities, um, women’s rights, class issues, et cetera, et cetera, and race. And so, it was a model of actually doing organizing that allowed these different communities to come together on equal footing. And I think that that’s — that’s the the way to do it.

And I think actually institutional structures that follow from that type of organizing, tend to be able to, um, uh, maintain that. And then there’s — the first Rainbow Coalition was actually Fred Hampton, who doesn’t — who isn’t imagined as someone who has that kind of vision, because he emerged out of the Black Panther party. But he actually advocated a Rainbow Coalition of — of working people, of various, uh, race before he was murdered. And so, um, so I think there are — there are models, and I also think, um, John McKnight’s asset-based community development model of organizing suggests that — that approach as well. Um…

MS. TIPPETT: And what’s  — where’s that based? Or what…

DR. PERRY: It teaches an approach to community organizing that assumes that everybody has assets and skills. It actually reminds me of Ella Baker’s organizing in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where the thought was we’re not going to go to this, you know, these, uh, communities in — in the Mississippi Delta and tell them what to do. We’re going to facilitate the emergence of local leadership. We’re going to listen to who amongst — who in this community has which sorts of skills, and then let that emerge, you know, that kind of leadership emerge, um, somewhat organically.

Um, and so it’s — it’s — in some ways, it’s similar to that. It’s sort of let’s take inventories, opposed to assuming these — certain communities are filled with deficit, what can people do? What do they know? What skills they have. How, you know, how are they connected to this person? Or that person? And so, um, I think those sorts of models are almost — are really — um, it’s hard to just say — well, let me see how I want to say this. I think that can be more effective than also than simply saying, we’re going to be less racist by having different leadership. Right? Because I — I do think that we have to change the way we think, how we examine the people we encounter. What assumptions we make. And so, actually doing the work of sort of drawing that out, I think is helpful in that regard.

Um, in terms of my spiritual life, um, and the work that I do, I — I think of all the work that I do as being one, sort of guided by a higher purpose, I think, being, I think the principles of being humane, and kind, and loving, and against domination, and against brutality, are what const… — you know, it’s a big part of what it means to be a good person and so, all of my work is emerging from that place. And it’s also, um, in many ways, emerging from wanting to continue the work of the people who came before me.

So, um, I think of my grandmother, who read every single day, who was one of the most brilliant people I ever knew, and who — for whom there wasn’t really much opportunity besides being a domestic laborer. And that there are many people in the world similarly situated today. And so, um, I’ve — I mean, I could go through the book. Every idea connects to something she said to me, every single one.

MS. TIPPETT: Hm.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, I want — I want to come back just to this question of the guidance you might offer to people here. There were some small things that I found really use — helpful in your writing. Um, and this very much gets at the idea of the American consciousness, that we are free not from but for.

DR. PERRY: Freedom to instead of freedom from.

MS. TIPPETT: Freedom to, yeah.

DR. PERRY: Yeah. Because I think that freedom, you know, there’s a kind of traditional libertarian conception of freedom which is like everybody leave me alone, don’t bother me. And then I think a freedom to, is a — is a kind of, I think, a liberation approach, which is really about how can we undo domination that gets in the way of us living healthy lives. How can we actually create things that are meaningful and joyful? And I — that’s what I think of as freedom to. Um, you know, if you have a conception of freedom that — it always sees other people reaching out to you as an incursion…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: Then I think that’s a very limited and narrow conception of freedom. Right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That we are free to create the world we want to live in.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, and the other thing — the other small story, um, you — you talked about in your own life, and with your sons, that there are — that you even have found yourself ignored in a checkout line. Or just moments where you have felt this racial gap. And that there — there have been people who, you know, committed simple acts of grace, right?

DR. PERRY: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Somebody who said something.

DR. PERRY: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Somebody who stepped in.

DR. PERRY: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And that that really is powerful and important.

DR. PERRY: It’s powerful and important, and I think we discount the significance of those acts. But I’ll give you an example. We were in, um, Mississippi taking — this was this summer, me and my sons, taking a bus to Alabama. And a young man — we’re in line getting food, and a young man — and he, uh, was Honduran. And actually was not, um, not fluent in English, steps in front of us in line. And I said, excuse me, um, we’re here and — and he laughed and turned his back. And, you know, this is not unfam — I mean, learning the codes of American racism happens very quickly. And I get a little enraged at things like that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. PERRY: So I pushed his food down and stepped back in front of him in line. And — and my sons are now accustomed to that from me. Um, and they said, well, why did he do that? And, sort of was trying to explain. And then, when we got on the bus, um, I sat next to a Honduran woman who was in the same group. Um, and we had the most beautiful, loving conversation. She gave my children her blanket. She talked about, um, trying to help and get her daughter to stay in high school. And — and when I told them, I said, you know, if you read that single incident as reflective of the entire community, then you shut off the possibility of this lovely time that we had. Right?

And also, um, you know, there’s potential that he might be transformed by witnessing her relationship with us, right? On  — on that — on that ride. And so, I mean, I think those, you know, we think that these things are so small because the problems are so big, uh, but I think they matter. They matter.

MS. TIPPETT: Thank you for that. And, I want you to read some of your own words. And this was from that blog post that you wrote.

DR. PERRY: OK.

MS. TIPPETT: I believe it was a blog post, or an article about after the Trayvon Martin events and I think this is the one that started with the question have you ever seen a small plant that has a splint holding it up? So, would you just read this and I’m going to let…

DR. PERRY: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: We’re going to close with you reading yourself.

DR. PERRY: “Because while on the one hand I am training my sons to develop resilience in the face of the racial injustice they will encounter, I am also training them to approach the world with full recognition and appreciation of the wide spectrum of human beings, some of whom are quite different from them. They know that they have an ethical responsibility to humanity, animal life, and nature, to care beyond their immediate experiences. We talk about gender and sexual orientation and disability and mental health, along with race, ethnicity, and language. They are encouraged to be critical and analytical, to use those enormous imaginations to journey into the interior lives of others. Together we create gardens of possibility in the parched earth. If we grow the babies up right, they just might redeem us all.”

[Music: “Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill”]

MS. TIPPETT: Imani Perry is a professor at the Center for African-American Studies of Princeton University and a faculty associate in the law and public affairs program there. Her scholarly works include: Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, and More Beautiful and More Terrible: the Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

 

[Music: “Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill”]

 

MS. TIPPETT: This is Lauryn Hill, one of Imani Perry’s favorite artists with a hip hop reworking of the Sound of Music song “My Favorite Things.” It’s called “Black Rage” and you can find the lyrics at onbeing.org. There you can also listen again or share this episode and join in our ongoing conversation in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. We’ve had a profound response to Courtney Martin’s column, “To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown”. Find all that and much more at onbeing.org.

 

[Music: “Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill”]

 

MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Bekah Johnson.

Special thanks this week to Robert Franklin and Maureen Rovegno at Chautauqua Institution, and to Mitch Hanley.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Imani Perry
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Binding: Paperback, (248)Pages
Author: Imani Perry
Publisher: New York University Press
Binding: Paperback, (263)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Artist: Common
Label: Geffen

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