Walidah Imarisha and a call to action

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Walidah Imarisha was the keynote speaker at Portland State University’s annual MLK Jr. Tribute on Jan. 22, 2018.

Last summer I got the chance to meet Walidah Imarisha, a Black Studies scholar and author, at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards.

A friend invited me to attend the event and we chatted with Walidah in the lobby as she received congratulations from well-wishers. I left with an autographed copy of the book, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the hope that I would have a chance to run into her again.

That opportunity came Monday night at Portland State University. Walidah was the keynote speaker at the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, an event that filled a ballroom on Jan. 22, one week after the holiday commemorating King’s birthday.

Walidah did not disappoint.

During an hourlong speech titled “Afrofuturism & Possibilities for Oregon,” Walidah mixed elements of history, science fiction, humor and seriousness. Along with references to civil rights icons Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Dr. King, there was a mention of Ursula LeGuin, the celebrated author of socially conscious fantasy and science fiction novels. (Oddly, LeGuin died at her Portland home on the same day of the speech. She was 88, the same age Dr. King would be today had he had not been assassinated 50 years earlier.)

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Walidah Imarisha weaved several references to science fiction into her Jan. 22 speech at Portland State.

With an elegant Afro reminiscent of Angela Davis, Walidah alternated between the language of academia (“postcolonialism”) and everyday expressions (“nerding out” and “y’all”).  Mix everything together and the product was an entertaining, informative speech that made me glad I had read her book beforehand.

***

“Angels with Dirty Faces” is an eloquent critique of the U.S. criminal justice system. Ten years in the making, it’s a nonfiction book that begins with an array of statistics that paint a depressing picture – that of a country that incarcerates its citizens, particularly its black and brown ones, at a rate far greater than any other nation.

  • 70 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.
  • The majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses.
  • The vast majority were never tried in front of a judge.
  • Over 90 percent of people in prison took a plea bargain.

But the book doesn’t dwell on policy recommendations or offer a magic bullet. Rather, its aim is to get readers to begin to see “those people who do harm” as human. “Flawed, damaged, and culpable, but still human.”

angels with dirty facesAnd so the book is presented as “three stories of crime, punishment and redemption,” with chapters devoted to a black inmate, a white inmate and the author herself.

One inmate, Kakamia, is Walidah’s adopted brother, serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for being involved in a murder when he was 15.  The other is Mac, an aging Irish mobster who worked as a hit man for the Gambino family in New York. Turns out the two men befriended each other while doing time together in a California prison.

Walidah tells their stories with empathy, not to excuse their criminal acts, but within the context of a bureaucratic system that dehumanizes the men and women who populate our nation’s prisons while also needlessly erecting petty barriers that make it next to impossible for visiting family members to connect meaningfully with their incarcerated spouses, children, parents and siblings.

It’s not a pretty picture. Walidah attacks the institutional racism that drives incarceration at starkly different rates for white and black Americans.

In telling her own story, Walidah recounts her childhood as the daughter of a black father and white mother, growing up on military bases overseas and eventually, at age 13, settling in Springfield, a conservative blue-collar town adjacent to liberal Eugene, home of the University of Oregon.

The overall approach – to put three faces on the criminal justice system – works well in driving the narrative. What could have been another academic treatise on a broken system instead becomes a compelling tale of two men – one black, one white – and a woman who is at once a scholar, an activist and a prisoner’s family member.

It helps that Walidah is a talented writer. She concludes:

“The pieces of the larger whole I hope to bring are the stories of angels with dirty faces. The capriciousness of fate. The idea that every person has the capacity to salvage their tattered humanity even in the moment before they take their last breath.”

***

Knowing Walidah’s personal story and worldview ahead of time made it easier to ponder the provocative questions that she raised in her MLK speech: What is the kind of world we want to live in? How do we go about building that kind of world?

The questions, she said, arose from an appreciation of Ursula LeGuin’s body of work in creating fictional worlds that turn convention on its head. Imarisha, in fact, is co-editor of the anthology “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.”

“Science fiction is not about escapism,” Walidah said. It is about envisioning a world of new possibilities free of militarism, capitalism and racism, she said. As I am not a fan of the fantasy genre, I had never thought of science fiction as a way to frame the idea of imagining a different, better world, especially when it comes to race relations.

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Walidah Imarisha invoked the words of the late fantasy fiction author Ursula LeGuin in challenging her audience to envision a more just world.

Walidah pointed out that the United States was founded as something of a utopia in the sense of ordinary people rebelling against an oppressive system in England. In turn, the Oregon Territory, encompassing the entire Pacific Northwest, was settled as a “racist white utopia.” Oregon, she pointed out, entered the Union in 1857 as a free state but also with a state constitution that excluded blacks.

The state’s racist beginnings led, perhaps predictably, to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and any number of policies and practices intended to perpetuate economic, social and political inequalities.

More than 160 years later, the question remains of how to build a more just society.

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Last fall, the Portland African American Leadership Forum unveiled the People’s Plan, a 130-page document that addresses the needs of the city’s African American population.

***

Walidah is an impressive figure, and not just because of her tall stature. As a public speaker, she seems comfortable in her own body and totally in command of her subject.

I wish I’d started teaching at Portland State when Walidah was still there herself in the Black Studies Department. More recently, she has been teaching at Stanford University while immersing herself in a variety of writing and research projects.

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Walidah Imarisha’s image is projected on a screen in an overflow room at the Smith Memorial Union Ballroom at Portland State University.

Putting a nice cap on the evening, I took my daughter out for drinks and appetizers after the speech. Simone is as socially conscious as they come and over the years she has gifted me several books that have exposed me to different authors and perspectives.

What better way to close out the night than with mi hija, recalling different parts of the speech and catching up in general?

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