Waldo Martin: The world that I grew up in was dismantled because black people fought and demanded that Jim Crow be dismantled. If we want a better world, we have to fight and organize for it. I don’t expect the 1% to do it. I don’t expect the billionaires to do it. I don’t expect the presidents and the government to do it, I expect the people who want the change, they have to organize and fight for it, and that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast by what used to be called the Haas Institute, and which is now called the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of this podcast. In this episode, we’re speaking with two guests about a year-long initiative on campus marking the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in North America. The initiative includes weekly events with scholars, activists, artists from around the country reflecting on the enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Looking at the civil rights era, our current era, and also trying to imagine a future based on justice, reconciliation and belonging.
Our two guests are Denise Herd and Waldo Martin. Denise is a professor in the School of Public Health here at UC Berkeley who is leading this campus initiative. She also happens to be our associate director here at the Othering and Belonging Institute. Waldo Martin is a professor of U.S. history here at Berkeley who is also involved in the organizing around this initiative.
Denise, maybe you can start us off by telling us a little bit about the initiative, the impetus for it and how you were able to bring it here to Berkeley.
Denise Herd: Well, the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of slavery, it’s part of a national initiative to recognize this long and really, really important time in our history. We brought it to Berkeley because it has been recognized nationally. There’s actually a commission on it, but I think a strong impetus for bringing it here was, it resonates with the goals of really understanding social inequality and addressing social inequality. Looking at the slavery experience is incredibly important for understanding that for African Americans, but not just for African Americans, I think extending to all people of color and many marginalized groups. So it resonated with the interest that I have as an anthropologist in my role in my teaching, but also in the role that I have with the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Waldo Martin: As a historian, 1619 is a benchmark. The coming of the first Africans to Virginia establishes an economic system that transforms the New World and makes the what comes to be the United States in a lot of ways the United States. And so, it seems to me only a natural to think through that moment and to think through the long history of that moment and the meanings and ramifications of that history. So when I was asked to be a part of this effort, I jumped at it because, it seems to me that this is a moment in our nation’s history that we need to reflect on and reflect deeply on.
Marc Abizeid: Denise, you had told me previously about what this initiative meant to you personally. You gave some stories about your family growing up as sharecroppers, your parents, and you told me some experiences in your classroom, too, with your students bringing in migrant workers and you making some of the connections. I was wondering if you could share some of those stories with our listeners.
Denise Herd: Yeah, sure. Well, I grew up hearing about stories from the South. I was raised in Chicago, but my mother was born and raised in Tennessee. They were a family of sharecroppers, so I just grew up hearing about their life in the South, which was really rough. There was a lot of poverty. The Jim Crow South had very, very little for black people, and so my mother was not able to finish school, for example. She talked about wearing flower sack dresses and things like that. So I grew up hearing about that legacy. She moved as a teenager, she, with her family, moved as a teenager to Chicago. I didn’t set foot into the South until I was way past grown. I think my parents wanted to protect us from some of the experiences they’d had in the South.
And, as someone teaching, I’m working with a lot of students of color, undocumented immigrants. As I’ve worked with them, I’ve realized that some of the stories that my mother shared about her lifestyle, about basically forced labor, working in the fields, working day in and day out, working as children, these are the same kind of stories that my students are sharing with me right now. There’s just a commonality in looking at that experience back, when my mother was a child, and current experiences of, say, agricultural workers right now. It’s given me some insights into what other people of color are going through. Similarly, with criminalization of black people in the post-reconstruction period, there’s a criminalization of immigration right now. And so, I think those are some common experiences that I explore in my teaching.
Marc Abizeid: Waldo, do you want to share a story?
Waldo Martin: Just one. I think, unlike Denise, I grew up in the Jim Crow South. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is considered to be a more enlightened sort of area of the South. I would question that, and I self-describe as a child of late Jim Crow. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and I experienced the dismantling of Jim Crow. I went to all-black schools, for example, until I was in college. I went to Duke as an undergraduate, but before then, my first 12 years, I was in all-black schools. Integration came to my hometown, Greensboro, four or five years after I had graduated high school.
So, the stories that Denise referred to are pervasive in African American folk history, in African American personal history and the narratives and experiences of people that in my own family and others. What I would say is that, as a historian, I’m really interested in how people struggle. How people persevere, how they transcend, how they make it, how they get over. What I really think is important is, some people like Denise’s a mother and her family, chose to leave. They, obviously, did the right thing. Some people chose to stay and struggle. My family chose to stay and struggle because they saw pathways forward. If you don’t see pathways forward then, what’s the point in staying?
So I think the experiences that I witnessed and talk a lot about in my scholarship is sort of why some people stay and what they do when they stay. I think one of the consequences of people staying is the modern civil rights movement, which is a Southern-based movement. It transforms the South, but it’s also a national movement. There’s an African American civil rights movement in Chicago. There’s an African American civil rights movement in the Bay Area, in the West. It’s all over the place, but the classic way in which we think about the movement is it’s a Southern movement and those are the people who decided to stay, for whatever reason, and they fought on that turf.
But I think it’s also important to understand that the people who moved to Chicago struggled, they fought. So, when I think about my own sort of personal struggle, I think a lot of it has to do with the ways in which African Americans and the people that I study a lot are strivers. They have faith, they have hope and they have invested in not only their own families, but in others, in communities and in neighborhoods and in not just sort of struggles that might benefit black people, but would benefit all people. I grew up in this world where, I mean, was largely black and we didn’t have a lot of interaction with a lot of other different kinds of people. But there was always this understanding that what you were doing was bigger than you, and that every time you stepped out of the house you not only represented the family, but you represented the race.
You had to be and represent. And so, my own sense is that, as I think back on my life, I grew up, born and raised in the projects, housing projects for the first 12 years of my life. So just coming out of that experience, moving to a middle-class neighborhood where my parents were able to pull together the money to move, and then sort of comparing and contrasting that project’s experience with sort of what happened when we moved to this other neighborhood, and thinking about class, how class influenced my experience, I’m really grateful for my experience. But also think in a lot of ways I’ve been blessed, and that a lot of people did not have the advantages, did not have a lot of things fall their away. A lot of these people, in my own experience, were my friends and their lives went in other directions.
Denise Herd: Yeah. Well, I think the perspective Waldo is sharing is really interesting and I want to point out that, when my parents moved to the North, I didn’t know life at all in the South, but I think it wasn’t that they cut ties from the South at all. Because, I think, they recreated a lot of the cultural forms that they had grown up within the South. Chicago was and is very heavily racially segregated, so I felt like the world that I was growing up in, especially the world that meant the most, in terms of family and church and community and neighborhood, those were all black, too. It’s just that we had access to institutions that were supposed not formally Jim Crow. We were able to go to integrated schools.
There was health care, and I think, healthcare in the South, my mother had mentioned that there were no doctors that black people could go to. There was access to some services in the North, but at the same time the culture that Waldo is talking about was alive in urban cities. The faith, the struggling, my mother, our education was primary, and so she put a high premium on her finishing her own education and striving for a good education for her kids. So I think that it was sort of, as Waldo mentioned, the struggle took place all over America. It started in the South and the people from the South brought the same culture, same lifestyle, same values, to those urban cities.
Marc Abizeid: Bringing the conversation back to the initiative here at Berkeley, if you look at our website, you see that there’s already been a couple of dozen events and in the next semester we have many more. They cover a wide range of areas, you’re looking at social issues, culture, even technology, health. We had the first Surgeon General of California, Nadine Burke, who gave a talk at your school, School of Public Health. Can you talk a little bit about that and what the idea was behind bringing the people from all kinds of different backgrounds?
Denise Herd: Well, we started off the year, and it was intentional, our kickoff was an all-day symposium. The purpose of that symposium was to get us grounded, in terms of slavery, the experience of slavery, the meaning of slavery, the aftermath of slavery. Then, as Waldo has talked about, the resistance and struggles that African Americans have initiated from the moment they stepped on American shores. We wanted it to be all day as a grounding experience and I think it was. People still talk about how momentous it was. I think it set the tone. The chancellor, the vice chancellor of equity and inclusion and a number of administrators were there, as well as, faculty, students and staff. I don’t know, Waldo, what were your thoughts?
Waldo Martin: For me, it was a beautiful moment. It was a very enlightening moment. I thought that the presentations were quite outstanding. The big takeaway that I had was just sort of sitting back thinking about how African American experiences, how African American histories, are really ground zero for thinking about the American experience. Oftentimes, there’s this sort of idea that when you’re talking about people of color, when you’re talking about workers, when you’re talking about people who don’t have a lot of the power, they aren’t necessarily the movers and the shakers at the top of the money tree or the political tree, but if you’re if you’re thinking about issues like freedom, equality, justice, you can’t even begin to talk about those unless you center the experiences of African Americans. Because, they’ve been at the forefront of freedom struggles, struggles about issues of justice, democracy, equality.
And the topics ranged, but it was just so wonderful to hear people coming from different points of view, different angles, reflect on how Africans became African Americans and African Americans have become not only crucial to thinking about what we are and who we are as Americans, but there’s also I think this sort of push to think about sort of a global world history. And I think, once again, African American experiences are crucial, and they do. If American experiences help shape world experiences, then, clearly, African American experiences have to be factored into any sort of global or world historical representation of what this country is about. What was also enlightening for me was to hear sort of the internationalist global range of the conversation. It wasn’t just sort of a narrow U.S. American-centered, but it ranged across centuries. It ranged across countries. I thought it was quite amazing.
Denise Herd: Yeah. We follow this symposium because, that was an all-day experience. I think it was very grounding and immersive. It wasn’t just scholarly talks, we also had poetry, we had music, we had dance. I mean, it was a cultural experience that I think a lot of people felt like, “Wow, this is a new facet of Berkeley.” The thing about education in history is, I think it’s pretty limited in California, so that most people don’t know that much about slavery. I mean, I’m a little bit self-taught. I’m not a historian, I’m an anthropologist, but I did research on the 19th century as a large part of my doctoral education. And so, I was self-taught on history, but I’ve just been learning a tremendous amount through this process.
We follow the symposium with, I think the very next week or a couple of weeks after that, we heard an incredible story about a woman who lives in this area and she is a descendant of the person that wrote the first fugitive slave narrative. She helped coauthor with a literary scholar a new annotated version of that slave narrative. Then they did a film about that slave narrative. They were absolutely incredible, it was so inspiring to see, this was somebody that was working as an administrator at UC, Berkeley for 13 years who also researched her ancestor and helped write this new version of the slave narrative. To see that experience and what that meant across time, across history, because the film was, it was as moving as anything you’ve seen in the theater. I think we did that like 11 days later, and then we followed that with Ibram Kendi who did a very contemporary talk on how to be an anti-racist.
And we had to move the venue to Zellerbach because of all the interest. That started a lot of conversation among people. People walk up to me and say, “I saw Ibram and it’s changed my life.” Then we’ve had other, as you mentioned, a range of other kinds of events that have hit on aspects of African American history I wasn’t aware of. We had a woman, Monica White. Monica has worked with Freedom Farmers, and she talked about the rural areas and farms as places of organizing, as places of respite for organizers who had lost their jobs, might’ve lost their … Didn’t have a way to eat, and so the role of farms in liberation was something that I hadn’t learned about. So, we’ve been able to bring amazing scholars talking about unique areas that are important parts of the African American experience.
Marc Abizeid: Denise, maybe you can talk a little bit about your own professional background and how you see contemporary issues of race inequity surfacing in the School of Public Health, how the school addresses that.
Denise Herd: As I mentioned, I started studying the 19th century when I was in graduate school because I was trying to understand the issues around alcohol and drug use in the African American population. As it turned out, the temperance movement and prohibition movement had enormous influence on cultural perceptions of alcohol in the African American population, and in the American population as a whole. The temperance movement was part of the abolition movement and there was an incredible black temperance movement that developed alongside the American temperance movement because of the close association of those two reform movements. However, Southern prohibition was associated with some of the worst periods of racial violence and also the taking away of the black vote.
And so, the black community left that as a major issue around which they publicly rallied. Anyway, that was what I was studying when I was a graduate student. I’d say, contemporarily, it was great to be in the initiative right now because I was able to use that as a framework for a class that I’m teaching right now on health inequalities. Some of the issues are so present. One of my students, we were just really recently talking about this that some of the concepts in the 18th century, for example, the belief that blacks feel no pain, the belief that black skin is thicker than white skin, or that black lung capacity is smaller than that of whites, appears right now in studies in the last two or three years of what medical students believed today. And so, that belief in the biological basis of race, in biological inferiority, still permeates scientific and medical thought.
In addition, the impact of something like segregation, I mean, I think many of us are aware that educational facilities were under Jim Crow, but hospital facilities were under Jim Crow as well. We’ve now reached a point after I think a brief period of integration where medical facilities have re-segregated. We’re actually dealing with some of the same issues in segregation of medical facilities, some of the beliefs that are holdovers from the thought that developed about African Americans during slavery, as well as, things like the mass incarceration of blacks in the aftermath of slavery. That’s a reality that we’re living with today, is mass incarceration. Not just incarceration, but heavy policing and surveillance of the black population that also developed in the post reconstruction South.
I mean, one of the things that I’ve learned about that I didn’t know much about before looking at the initiative, was how many black people lost their property through the ethnic cleansing. The burning down of towns, the lynchings and murders that drove people away from their property. That economic loss is tremendous, and so the historical wealth that whites have been able to build up, a lot of black people simply, they lost their property. So, if we look at the contemporary impact of those kinds of generational losses, not to mention historical trauma from that kind of violence. I mean, we’re seeing some of that now with the Black Lives Matter movement and how the police killings today are taking their toll. Well, people have been living with that kind of generational trauma from the lynchings for a number of years.
Marc Abizeid: Waldo, you participated in the initiative. You gave a talk and you also were one of the speakers at the opening symposium. You gave a couple talks around themes of resistance, so can you tell us a little bit about those presentations?
Waldo Martin: We’ve covered some of the material, and the thing that I think we have not talked about that I want to emphasize is sort of organized mass resistance, mass movements, social movements, how change actually happens. What might we do to make things better today? My studies, my scholarship and the evidence that I work with shows that, if you want change, you have to be the agent of the change that you want. Black people demanded change in the ’50s and ’60s, they fought and died for it. That’s why we got change. It seems to me that we often have this view of change that change is something that comes down from on-high, that the government does it, the president does it, the governor does it, or the city council does it.
No, people at the grassroots, ordinary people, organize and change. They fight for change, and that’s why we got change. That’s why we had an abolitionist movement. That’s why we had all kinds of social movements, workers movements, union movements, and I see the African American freedom struggle in that way. That one of the reasons it transforms the country is that it is indeed a grassroots, bottom-up movement. It’s people organizing for change. Then, it’s not what other people are doing for them, it’s what they are doing for themselves. That is how they become empowered, and that’s how they push the government to do what the government should do. So I’m a big advocate of social movements for change. I get asked a lot as a historian, “Well, what do we need to do?”
My idea is, wherever you are, you have to do in your own personal and social circle — what you think needs to be done. You need to connect up with people who are fighting for the similar kinds of things you’re fighting for. Then, you start at that level and then you connect outward. I mean, in my own life going back to my own personal narrative, the world that I grew up in was dismantled because black people fought and demanded that Jim Crow be dismantled. President Johnson, President Kennedy, responded to the pressure that black people and their allies put on the government. So, to me, if we want a better world, we have to fight and organize for it. I don’t expect the 1% to do it. I don’t expect the billionaires to do it. I don’t expect the presidents and the government to do it. I expect the people who want the change, they have to organize and fight for it. That’s that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
Marc Abizeid: What do you see today or you can draw parallels to some of the historical cases that you talked about?
Waldo Martin: I think Denise has already mentioned some of this material, some of this stuff. But to me, Black Lives Matter. The whole idea of trying to get us to think through sort of the, for me, unimaginable sort of horror of the everyday surveillance of just being black. Black while driving, black while shopping, black while stepping out of my house.
Denise Herd: Black while sleeping.
Waldo Martin: Black while sleeping. It’s hard sometimes to wrap your mind around it. I think the mass incarceration crisis, as Denise has already spoken to, there’s a whole history of this, and the organizing to abolish prisons as we know them I think is something that needs to be dealt with, because they are clearly not working. But then you can talk about a whole range of institutions that need to be radically reformed or revolutionized, public schools, which are failing us, inequality in housing and all these other kinds of things. So it seems to me that what we need is a revitalized social movement, a mass movement around these things. A lot of what I talked about was sort of thinking through moments in African American history where black people came together to fight. Some of which succeeded, some of which didn’t succeed at the moment, but laid the groundwork for subsequent struggles. That’s the other thing, you don’t always get what you want, but you won’t get anything if you don’t try, if you don’t fight. And so, it seems to me that fighting for the future is the name of the game.
Denise Herd: I just want to say, because actually Waldo and I met because I also work on social movements. I had studied the social movement in the 19th century around temperance because it was huge and it’s something that’s fairly little known, but I followed it up with a study of 1980s and ’90s of black communities who are again rising up about alcohol and drug issues in their neighborhoods. What Waldo was talking about, just in terms of the initiative, the persistence of neighbors, of people rising up. For example, right before the Rodney King riots in LA, there were a group of people that were concerned about liquor stores. With the riots, overnight, like over 200 of them were destroyed. Within weeks, that community had mounted a campaign, they had circulated petitions with 35,000 signatures, and they organized to prevent the rebuilding of these stores.
Yeah. That coalition went on, it’s called the Community Coalition in Los Angeles. They went on to work for, they have a campaign so that students would get college requirements in high school. They call it the A To G Campaign. Karen Bass, who was working with him at the time, Karen, is now a Congresswoman. I studied seven communities across the country, including one in North Carolina, that were doing, they were doing movements around legislation. They were boycotting, they were doing the same kind of social action. I think communities are capable of doing that, they can’t and will do that.
Waldo Martin: The other point that I would emphasize, because I teach young people, is that youth, young adults, even in the movement, children, make a difference. They put their lives on the line, and a lot of the activism is actually youth activism. I’m always asked by young people, “Well, what can I do?” I just point to the fact that the Black Panther Party founded and run by young people, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founded and run by young people. If we go through our history, there are all these moments where it’s not just the middle aged and the older people, but young people taking up the struggle and pushing the struggle forward.
So I think we have to empower our youth, empower them and give them the tools to make a difference in their own lives and those around them. The other term that I’d like to throw out that I think is important is human rights. In any way in which I think about and understand human rights, people who have been dispossessed on their rights are often at the forefront of defining and making real those rights. So the traditional ways in which we often talk about human rights are through organizations like the United Nations or organizations that are founded to protect or promote that kind of understanding.
But it seems to me that the history of human rights also has to encompass the global struggles of dispossessed peoples for their own freedom. One of the things that I’m currently working on is sort of a project trying to think through the relationship between sort of a global history of human rights and the on-the-ground struggles of people throughout sort of the 20th century that shaped our understanding of human rights, but don’t often enter into how we think about human rights, because we have sort of a very top-down, elite view of what human rights are. But human rights have to start with the people who are fighting for those rights.
Marc Abizeid: Finally, I just want to know if you can talk a little bit about what you have in store for the rest of the academic year, spring semester, and also what you hope that this initiative will have accomplished by the end of the year, how you view success.
Denise Herd: Well, we have a full plate for this spring. I know that we will be having I think a half-day symposium on reparations. We’ll be having talks on slavery in various areas related to some of the Othering and Belonging faculty clusters, such as slavery and disability, slavery and LGTBQ experience, slavery and religion and scientific thought. Yes, and some things are still coming together. We’re also planning to screen additional films. I think, toward the end of the semester we’re going to be thinking about the next 400 years. I don’t want to say too much about what our culminating symposium might be, but I think we will be looking forward to, how do we want to see the next 400 years?
Waldo Martin: If you’re thinking about success to me, is pushing forward sort of academic sort of Berkeley-based conversations, but community conversations. Sort of the local conversation, the national conversation, and engaging in that and pushing it forward. I think this initiative, in concert with similar and related kinds of initiatives, I think is actually doing that. And so, it seems to me that this is an important moment, national and international, and in terms of success if we can just enhance understanding and promote positive programs and positive sort of ways to alleviate the problems that we continue to struggle with, then … As long as we are engaged in struggle, as long as we are trying to fight the good fight, then I feel that this effort will be a successful one. Thus far, and in what we anticipate in the spring, I think it will be part of that larger struggle.
Denise Herd: Yeah. I think echoing some of what Waldo is saying about success, I think we have already heard some real direction for places where we need to go. Paul Butler was here, that was sponsored by graduate division, but Paul talked about prison abolition, and it was very powerful. I think that’s one of the directions we might need to think about. We will be thinking about screening films that that make the case for reparations, and we’re going to have a symposium thinking about, what do reparations, what should they look like? Because, my experience in delving more into this history has convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that reparations are necessary.
I recently looked at incarceration experiences in one of my classes and we found that every group had been incarcerated. And some, like the Japanese Americans, there were reparations provided to them for loss of land, loss of housing, loss of income. And so, I think, as Waldo said, success will be defined in us stimulating the conversations and providing some directions for, where do we go from here to really uplift the African American population? And as he mentioned that that is part of the general uplift that we need to see for marginalized people and that we’ve been at the forefront, African Americans have been at the forefront of that. So, this initiative will help carry the country forward and help heal some of the problems.
Marc Abizeid: That wraps up this episode of Who Belongs? I’d like to thank our guests, Denise Herd and Waldo Martin, who are organizing this yearlong initiative here at Berkeley looking at 400 years of black history in the U.S. Denise is a professor in the School of Public Health and the Associate Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC, Berkeley. Waldo is professor of U.S. history also here at Berkeley. The initiative is also being organized by the African American studies and history departments, the African American Student Development Center and the Black Staff and Faculty Organization, all here at Berkeley.
To learn more about this initiative and to see upcoming events, videos from past events, news and other resources related to the initiative, visit 400years.berkeley.edu. For a transcript of this episode and other episodes of Who Belongs?, visit us online at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.