Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, a podcast star, activist, musician, and professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, spoke to an audience of Ursinus students and faculty on Thursday, Feb 8, on the importance of engaging in activist movements they are passionate about, and sharing those experiences. His talk, “The Call of Public Scholarship,” was co-sponsored by the English and Media and Communication departments, who had been working on bringing him to Ursinus since last fall.
In his talk, Kumanyika focused on these two main principles: “Go do interesting things and then make something out of them.”
Kumanyika shared his life’s journey from being a hip hop musician to becoming a professor and how he continually sought ways to work with social justice issues along the way.
Kumanyika began his talk by sharing his experiences of learning how to fuse hip hop and social movements. One example he gave was the artist Jasiri X, who was involved in the Occupy Movement and who showed the intersection of race and politics through his work. Jasiri also developed a program called 1Hood Media Academy, which teaches kids to think critically about media through music. Kumanyika used his experience with Jasiri as an example of how creating something you are passionate about can impact the world.
But that was only part of the lesson: the other half involved engaging in the world, which Kumanyika did while attending protests in places such as Ferguson and Charlottesville.
Kumanyika shared a story of what pushed him to go to Ferguson. He was at an academic conference and was discussing how to get people in urban conditions to rise up and get involved in protests. One of his colleagues challenged his ideas, and she said “These people are traumatized, they need services. They don’t need to be on the front lines. You know who needs to be on the front lines? You, me, because we can afford bail.” Immediately after that interaction, Kumanyika went upstairs and say a picture of protestors at Ferguson on a screen. He realized that “the most vulnerable people are out here and facing down the rubber bullets and tear gas,” and decided right then he needed to go to Ferguson.
“I wasn’t necessarily useful, but I knew it was important to be there,” said Kumanyika.
Kumanyika also told a story about when he went to a Trump rally in South Carolina wearing a keffiyeh, a headdress worn typically by Arab people. Although he did not speak to or disturb anyone, he was asked to leave and was escorted out by the police. After uploading the video of what happened, it immediately went viral.
Kumanyika explained, “I just had to put myself in a place where I thought it was important. And I didn’t do it out of a need to go viral. I did it out of a need . . . to stand up and address things I found important. So you’ve got to follow your own political sensibilities and curiosities in that way.”
He then encouraged the audience to think not just about the dialogue of societal issues, but the power struggle within the system. Although Kumanyika acknowledges personal bias has an impact on racist tendencies, he claims that the cultural patterns that exist in places such as Hollywood and the police force have a major impact on society’s view of different races. The best way Kumanyika sees of fighting these structures is through making something, and in particular, through sharing stories.
Kumanyika explained that when he was in Charlottesville during the protest in 2017, he was in a church and there were “white men with torches out front that came to the church . . . I’ve been to a lot of Klan rallies and I knew this was different than other Klan rallies, and I was like ‘hm, they have all kinds of weird ideas about race and history.’ And so when I thought about the kind of intervention that’s needed, in terms of public storytelling . . . one of the things we really need is to try to develop some real stories about how we got here.”
This realization led to his creation of the podcast “Uncivil,” which, according to Dr. Anthony Nadler of the Ursinus media & communications department, “tells powerful historical stories. It breaks open many of the cultural myths that shroud the U.S. Civil War and continue to this day to mystify contemporary understandings of race, gender, and class relations in the U.S.”
Through this podcast, as well as his earlier podcast, “Seeing White,” Kumanyika explained, “As a professor and as a journalist I saw an opportunity to create the kind of structural intervention I was talking about, to shift the conversation from the attitude or psychology of race into the power and structural relations of race.”
During the Q&A after the talk, Kumanyika explained that he places more blame on societal systems than individual people when it comes to racial inequality. As he put it, “I’m real easy on people and real hard on systems.”
Perhaps the overall takeaway from Kumanyika’s presentation is those principles, which he later expanded on, “You have to make it . . . you have to put your body into the struggle in some way to engage . . . you have to tell your story publicly.”
Kumanyika truly believes that everyone can make a difference, and assured Ursinus students that they were included in that: “I think about the ways you all can weigh in on this. I think [of] the importance of the long-form essays and writing . . . that opportunity is real for all of us, and something that . . . I can help you [with] to an extent. You already have professors that can help you and I know some of you already do it, so we can all help each other . . . this is a[n] . . . essential way to make an impact.”