“8 minutes and 46 seconds. Kumbaya mama. Someone pleading. Someone crying. Someone not breathing.”
Before reading her poem 8 minutes and 46 seconds, FIU associate professor of English Aza Weir-Soley made a disclaimer.
“This poem is not supposed to make anybody comfortable,” Weir-Soley said. “I think we’ve been comfortable for long enough. I hope that we’re finally realizing that our comfort isn’t solving anything.”
For the next 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Weir-Soley read without pause — her poem carrying an urgent rhythm. She read for 8 minutes and 48 seconds — the amount of time an officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him and sparking protests for justice and against systemic racism across the United States.
“Black Humanity Matters,” a teach-in hosted by FIU’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment, was a first step in learning how to embrace discomfort and participate in uncomfortable, but important, conversations about racism in America. More than 1,000 people in South Florida and other parts of the U.S. tuned in to listen to and learn from a panel of renowned scholars, artists and experts on race, racism, Black identity and culture.
“In truth, none of the guests presenting will say anything on this panel that they haven’t already said a thousand times before over many years, and in some cases, over several decades,” said Phillip Carter, director of FIU’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment. “The problem is that our culture has not listened. And that problem — hearing, but refusing to listen; hearing and then denying; pretending to not have heard in the first place; and hearing but then deliberately misunderstanding — is itself racism.”
As Carter pointed out, racism is ingrained into virtually every facet of society including the criminal justice system, the prison system and educational system. A broken system cannot be reimagined, though, if it’s ignored.
The teach-in was separated into eight brief lectures. Kimberly Moffitt, associate professor and affiliate associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explored racialized media narratives. Former NFL player, advocate and writer Ryan Russell discussed race, racism and protest in professional sports. Valerie Patterson, FIU clinical associate professor of public administration, traced the history of anti-Blackness in Miami through her own family’s history in Coconut Grove. Shawn Christian, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, explored what it means to stand witness to acts of racial violence. Andrea Queeley, associate professor of anthropology and African and African Diaspora Studies, broke down the dehumanization of black people and the anti-quarantine protests. Renée Blake, associate professor of Linguistics and Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU, emphasized the importance of the body in Black language and its ties to understanding Black humanity. Ana Luszczynska, chair of FIU’s English department, provided information on how to practice antiracism and be an ally.
While the topics varied, one common thread was woven throughout the discussions — Black humanity.
“We are certainly chanting “Black Lives Matter” at the appropriate time, but we are also talking about, we are human beings. And why are we still having that damn debate in 2020, I have to ask,” Christian said. “And so much of this conversation is about the complexity of our experience that still doesn’t help people, who aren’t black in many cases, understand that we’re human beings — just like them.”
To listen and learn, see the full conversation below: