Confronting Double Consciousness

Detail of a May, 1968 cover of Ebony magazine featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. An exhibit on the history of the magazine is part of the 2017 symposium.

Detail of a May, 1968 cover of Ebony magazine featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. An exhibit on the history of the magazine is part of the 2017 symposium.

MLK symposium explores respectability politics

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

How do African-Americans discover and express a true sense of self in a country with a contentious racial history? It’s not a new question, but it found intensified resonance during the Obama administration, as many questioned the compromises and sacrifices black Americans make in order to access certain spaces, and the racialized scripts for African-Americans that persist.

As we enter a new presidency, a Dickinson symposium examines this issue of respectability politics from multigenerational views. The 2017 MLK Jr. & Black History Month Symposium: R-E-S-P-E-C-T will be held Feb. 6 in the Stern Center Great Room, 6-8 p.m. Admission is free.

Tammy Owens and Kimberly Thomas McNair, post-doctoral fellows in Africana studies; Naila Smith, assistant professor of psychology; and D’Andre Battle ’18, an American-studies major, will be part of an hourlong panel discussion on the ways respectability politics play out in the 21st century, both from cultural and historical standpoints, and in their own lives. A Q&A will follow.

The symposium also includes an exhibit outlining the theory and history of respectability politics and reading lists for those who wish to learn more. Lucy Richman ’17, an American-studies major and student-worker in the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity, organized a part of the exhibit, which focuses on the evolution of Ebony magazine from its founding in 1945 through today. She also created a poster demonstrating the magazine’s reporting on, and role in, significant moments in social history during the last 25 years, including the end of the apartheid movement in South Africa, the election of President Obama, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Noting that these most recent events signify “parallel questions about the terms of social acceptance,” Vincent Stephens, director of the Popel Shaw Center, emphasizes the complexities of respectability politics in contemporary African-American life, and the importance of sparking conversation on the issue. “It is especially pertinent in relation to systematic injustice in the criminal justice system, ongoing issues of economic and access gaps and concerns about national governance in the Trump era,” he adds.

The campuswide discussion will continue during a salon, Friday, Feb. 10, co-sponsored by the Popel Shaw Center, the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues, Phi Beta Kappa and the Office of Academic Advising on respectability politics. The salon will be co-moderated by Battle, Stephens and Linda Brindeau, assistant professor of French.

"I believe it is important for members of the Dickinson community to attend these kinds of events so that we, as a community, can think deeply about our different identities and how they function in certain spaces in our society," Battle says.

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Published February 1, 2017