Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, “Striving to Build the Beloved Community: From Dr. King to Black Lives Matter,” held its annual commemoration on Monday, Feb. 22. Professor Cristina Beltran of New York University served as the event’s guest speaker.
“Now, as we move into this post-vaccinated world, it’s a fitting moment to have this convocation, to think about where we’ve been and who we want to be,” Beltran said.
The central focus of Beltran’s lecture was what she called the idea of political imagination, specifically in its relation to racial justice.
“Calls for gender, racial and social justice are calls for a future we have never seen,” explained Beltran. “King asks us to treat one another in ways that human beings have never treated each other before.”
A world where Dr. King’s goals of living together as brothers and sisters depend on people’s ability to not defeat each other, but to defeat racism as an entity.
“It’s often easier to scare people into thinking that change will make things worse, but if [what] we have is America’s past as a model for our future, then our story is already defined by too much violence and exclusion,” continued Beltran.
Political imaginaries will help the country move forward to new places, but if America never confronts its past, these ideas remain meaningless.
“Until we talk about what we have done to each other and what we do to each other, we’ll be stuck in a state of imagination,” said Beltran.
She expanded on her idea by explaining how whiteness as a political ideology represents domination over other humans. This prominent part of America’s history does not even register as abnormal to many people, for the same reasons that appearing white does not register as an innate privilege.
“The real challenge for us is that our very understanding of freedom, equality and democracy have actually been constituted through white supremacy,” explained Beltran. “Our experience of these civic ideals cannot be completely detached from the political project of whiteness itself.”
She cites the head of militia-terrorist group Proud Boys, a man of Afro-Cuban ethnicity, as an example of how the ideals of domination and exclusion do not pertain solely to race, but to an ideology. Whiteness, as a product of capitalism and national exclusivity, has historically functioned as a means to yield and exceed the law. In this sense, Beltran illustrates clearly how white supremacy has popularized the scarcity logic thinking.
“It assumes that my having enough means that you have to have less,” she noted. “It tries to scare us into turning away from other communities or minorities in self-defense.”
The fact that many Americans would naturally yearn for an idealized past, full of domination and fear, rather than imagine a new future of joy and dignity is something Beltran acknowledges fully.
Every generation has a responsibility to fight for the causes of that moment. Beltran insisted that the college students to which she spoke on this night share the responsibility of exercising their political imaginaries in order to continue their predecessors’ legacy of fighting the abhorrent injustices in front of them.
“We have to imagine the world in new ways, trying to imagine a world that’s not shaped by those scarcity logics is a little bit weird,” remarked Beltran.
Luckario Alcide ‘21, co-host of the event’s question and answer session, asked Beltran who in today’s society she would deem a political imaginary, and who college students should strive to emulate.
“People are organizing on Zoom everyday for things they believe in,” responded Beltran. “One of the exciting things about imagination is that you can say ‘I know this won’t happen tomorrow, but I want this to happen in the future.’”
Remaining dedicated to everyday, practical work, while still keeping long-term dreams alive, is something that Beltran reiterated throughout the event. In doing so, she echoed a lot of Dr. King’s most famous words.
Her final thoughts on the evening pertained to how learning, and the value that a deep, civic education offers, can have on creating a better society.
“Being able to understand our national history in all its beauty and its tragedy is to understand what we’ve done with each other and to each other,” said Beltran.
The Convocation served as the culmination of Fairfield’s 21-Day Ignatian Racial Equity Challenge, a three-week endeavor consisting of drop-in sessions and Instagram posts about action steps, reflection and education. Pejay Lucky, co-chair of the MLK Convocation committee and director of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, stated that amongst the numerous events scheduled for the two weeks following the Convocation, this pre-show helps highlight the great work being done here at Fairfield.
“We wanted to talk about what we are doing, even now, to build our beloved community, especially on campus and in our beloved communities,” explained Lucky. “The pre-show to the Convocation is a celebration of activism where student clubs and organizations pre-recorded speeches about their activism and how they are advocating for their fellow students on campus.”
Andrea Canuel, Janie Leatherman, Ph.D. and Nya Jones ‘23 all received Vision Awards at the beginning of this webinar for their activist work in the community.
Fairfield University, the United States as a whole and every other community in between, still has a long way to go before reaching the political imaginaries discussed by Beltran. However, Fairfield’s Celebration of MLK’s memory and life’s work’s message both celebrates strides of progress made so far and reminds everyone of the importance of persistence when striving for this better community.
“We can make changes right now, but we can’t get so caught up in the pragmatic, that we forget what could be a better, more emancipatory future,” declared Beltran.