Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. revealed the power of  “moving forward while looking backward” as she honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Quick Center for the Arts on Feb. 9, 2023, as part of Fairfield’s Annual MLK Convocation.

Much of Whitehead’s work looks at race, gender and class unity in America, and surrounds the idea of moving toward improvement while looking back at our origins and ancestry. Throughout her lecture, she urged her audience to simply do more in the name of social justice. 

“We are supposed to move forward, but pull those who are behind us, and reach towards those who are in front of us,” she declared.

Whitehead is an Associate Professor of Communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland, the host of the award-winning radio show “Today With Dr. K,” and the recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence. She is also the founding director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice, an organization dedicated to sharing the narratives of the racially oppressed.

In her point of acknowledging one’s beginning before moving towards one’s end, she further relayed a quote from her father–a token of authentic support and hope throughout her life. He said that when you stand before people, you are standing on the shoulders of those who are trailblazers and have dug the path before you.

For Whitehead, those trailblazers are people like Harriet Tubman and Mary Church Terrell, which she announced with great pride and a moving aspiration.

Whitehead began her talk with a prominent recognition of Dr. King. While she highlighted the significance of his efforts, she also explained the vitality of their relevance today.

Whitehead scolds society for quoting Dr. King when it is popular or convenient for them, without properly studying and appreciating his work. In order to achieve this change demanded of us, his work must not only be studied but replicated as well. 

“That’s the Dr. King that I lean into, not just the Dr. King of ‘I have a dream,’ but the Dr. King who said ‘we have to tear down the system if we want to move forward.’”

Fairfield University’s Annual Convocation is part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. The theme of this year’s celebration was “Social Justice Now,” invoking Dr. King’s concept of acting “now.” 

Whitehead was awarded the Lafarge Award, which “recognizes an individual who establishes coalitions to advance positive change, initiates difficult dialogues, and embodies activism in support of the long, blessed freedom struggle,” delivered by Provost Christine Siegel, Ph.D.

An extensive takeaway from Whitehead’s lecture reminded us that the term “stay woke” is not new. In fact, Dr. King utilized its meaning throughout his own period of social and racial activism. Whitehead believes that being woke in the moment, or having knowledge about the things happening around you, is one of the most important steps towards change. 

She asked her audience, “Who are we called to be in this moment? How do we go about the business of doing the work that we have been called to do?” 

The aspect of fighting an issue larger than ourselves, and using the stories of yesterday and today to do so, remained another key element throughout her discussion and for actions of the future.

Undeniable passion spilled out of the night’s speaker. She deeply cared about the issues she spoke about, and her goal of extending that passion to her audience could not have been more clear. Furthermore, she managed to bring her audience to a state of critical thought, which introduced issues otherwise undiscussed, or not cared about. 

Sophomore student Jacqueline Pozzulo expressed how she personally was inspired by the convocation.

“I think it was a good choice to have [Whitehead] present, especially since we are mostly an all-white campus. It reminds us that there is still so much to do and that it all starts with us.”

Whitehead smoothly shifted her lecture to the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically in contrast to the notion of Black values. She brought to attention the period of slavery, in which Black bodies were traded for resources and currency, yet still not respected as human beings. 

“Black lives have always been valued, even if they do not matter,” she said. America spends more money on jails to hold them in than on schools to educate them. Black folks are continuously being neglected, and the time has arrived when a decision to push back must be made.

Whitehead wrapped up her speech by examining the three simple reparations that Black people have historically requested. These three things were proposed by the freed slaves in 1865, then again in 1998 and again in 2018.

Educational opportunities for their children, a remedied wage gap and fixed-up neighborhood conditions compose these three desires. Each time they have been requested, however, they have also been rejected. 

How can we erase this gap, this disparity, this double consciousness that is unfortunately all too common? What are we called to be?

Whitehead underscored persistence, courage, and the belief that “the end is something bigger than ourselves,” to establish meaningful change. 

“Are you willing to push until change happens? Are you willing to look around at what is happening right where you are and be the change?” she asked. “I argue that we don’t need any more Dr. Kings, we don’t need any more Ghandis …we need to have leaders in every community.”

The courage to stand up for something when nobody else will is crucial. The desire to take the next step even if you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel is also crucial. Whitehead pleaded with her audience to see themselves beyond this moment, a moment not only where change is possible but exists.

After her lecture, the event transitioned into a question-and-answer session which encouraged live questions from the audience. Topics of racial conversation and reparations were touched upon in-depth, particularly those regarding the aspect of “how”.

When asked how to encourage enough conversations outside of a college campus, Whitehead emphasized the need for facilitation. 

“It’s about taking students out beyond the campus, into the deep, ethnographic world, connecting with the community,” she said. She urged campuses to pull their students out from within the borders of what they know, and into the communities of what they do not.

Another question concerned the facets and layers of reparations, in which Whitehead declared that we must look at the specific places where we can begin to help, such as educational opportunities, picking up trash or developing after-school programs for Black students. Through these small steps, we can bridge a long-term transformation. 

This issue is no longer about a “quick fix.” Whitehead pushed the vitality of systemic change.

A particular question, however, sparked a discussion on white responsibility. How can a white person make true, honest work in closing these apparent disparities?

For Whitehead, the answer is simple: “Bend your privilege!” 

She prompts white folks to open spaces for the oppressed, and then “get out of the way.”

“It means giving up the power so that other people can step into the light,” she said. Essentially, those with white privilege are called to take the power and attention they command but use it to call attention to more deep-rooted problems.

Whitehead is the type of leader in which she discussed. In the path carved by Dr. King, she bends herself toward justice. 

Fairfield University’s President Mark Nemec Ph.D. initially welcomed the night’s audience via video, and Associate Professor of History Sunil Purushotham followed him, both with words about the campus’ duty to “infinite hope and truth,” as well as to challenge power.

“We are committed to greater good,” conveyed Nemec.

And, Whitehead is confident that our society can someday reach that change. Through looking towards her past counterparts of Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass, justice can be found. 

“I believe that that place exists,” she said. “Even if we don’t get there, somebody is coming after us as we lift and climb–are you ready to step into that tomorrow with me?”

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