“I guess if I’d had any sense I’d I’ve been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.” - Fannie Lou Hamer
Hey everyone!!! It surely is I, your new favorite blogger. Two weeks ago, Bree Newsome was on campus. She spoke at a Brown Bag at the Center for WMST and later that day had a larger discussion in Love Auditorium. She was amazing, of course, and spread revolutionary knowledge. Guess who got to interview after the Brown Bag? Just guess. Your new favorite blogger, Me! (Everyone should be proud of me because I did not faint or hyperventilate and my hairline is still intact.) At first, I was extremely nervous to be interviewing such an icon, but Newsome was refreshingly down-to-earth and was just as enthusiastic to share with us, as we were to listen to her.
|WMST and LGBTQ Interns meet with Bree Newsome. |
(Ashleandra is in the 2nd row, third from the left. Bree Newsome is to Ashleandra's left.)
Ashleandra Opoku: It seemed like the world got familiar with you this summer, but you were doing work prior to taking down the Confederate Flag. Could you speak more on the work you were doing prior?
Bree Newsome: I got really involved in activism full-time in 2013, starting off with Moral Monday, after NYU Tisch. I was at Tisch from 2003-2007, did a short film, traveled doing film circuits and everything. In 2012, before I was back in North Carolina, a friend down there that was an organizer went down to Florida when the Dream Defenders were occupying the State Capitol. An organizer is an activist that builds. I started doing freelance activism. When I started working for Ignite North Carolina, I became the western field organizer. Basically, you have an issue going on and I come in and help you organize to get what it is that you want. That has been since the summer of last year, so I’ve been an organizer for about a year.
AO: You spoke about how in your family there are things that aren’t spoken about. How was it to tell those stories right now during our Brown Bag and reliving the racist terrors that happened to your family?
BN: I knew I had an uncle that had been lynched, and what I found interesting is after I took down the Confederate Flag, all of the sudden, there were all these older Black people, not just in my family, but like my grandmother’s neighbors and all these other people from that generation, suddenly started telling me all these stories from the past that they had never shared before. I think it was something probably really liberating for them in that moment, seeing us go after that flag, because even though the action is symbolic, that flag has always represented you’re not welcome here; it’s a warning sign that represents all the violence that accompanies anyone who stepped out of line. My uncle’s son handed out papers on this corner and was making good money. There was a white man whose son wanted it and they refused to give up the spot, so the white man just came and shot my uncle. It’s kind of similar to Trayvon Martin where there is a murder and everyone knows who did it, but there is no follow up or anything. It was really interesting to me to see because you can be aware that there is silence, but it’s not until everyone starts speaking that you even become even aware fully of just how silent we’ve been. It’s like what went on with the protest; everyone knows that these issues are here, but when people really start speaking out about it, you become aware about how silent we are about the things that we know and see every day.
AO: I noticed that you work with young students and you recently visited Phelps High School. What got you interested in working with young students about activism?
BN: Growing up, both of my parents were educators, and my mom did a lot of work on closing the achievement gap. So when I look back on it, that probably had a much deeper impact on me than I realized at the time. Our dinner table would be conversations about the inequality students were facing, so I grew up seeing a lot of focus placed on young people and students. I probably internalized that value in a lot of ways. I think that a lot of times when we’re trying to change things it really does begin with the youth, honestly, because they’re the most open. Because they are young, they haven’t been fully indoctrinated or taught you must accept everything as is. They’re much more willing to question and challenge. So for that reason, I really like talking with young people.
AO: How do you take on the task of constantly educating yourself?
BN: You have to be a constant student. What’s really interesting if you look at any revolutionary leader, in their biographies, they all have some period of time where they just study ferociously. That’s really what I want to do, and I’ve been writing to other people to just give me a list of books that I need to read. As cliché as it is, knowledge is truly power; that’s the fact of the matter. That’s why any time you see any oppressive force come to power, one of the first things they do is they burn the books and attack the schools; they make it harder for you to be students. They come after professors. We see these same things happening right now with the attacks on education because it’s the access to knowledge itself. It’s not just because of what you learn; it’s the skill of thinking critically. Teaching you to think critically, to question, is in and of itself it a threat to the dominant power. Students are always targets, and universities are always a place of great political struggle.
AO: How do you deal with tensions that happen within social movement, such as respectability politics?
BN: I’ve seen a lot of tension go on between social movements. I really try to remind people that disagreements amongst allies does not make them your opposition. Disagreement in the movement is not the same as opposition, but I think it feels like opposition because we are around each other the most; we interact with each other the most, and the debates can feel very intense. But when opposition shows up you’re going to know very quickly the difference between your disagreement with allies and your opposition. I do work with NAACP, and we absolutely bump heads on a lot of things. There are a lot of groups out here that are allies that I work with, and we don’t agree on everything. We don’t always agree on tactics or on approach, but what I try to remember is that we are still moving in the same direction, and we can’t afford to tear each other apart.
AO: Women and LGBTQ people have been in movements since the beginning of time, but they are often denied credit and erased from history because they don’t fit into the dominant narrative. How does your gender plays a role in your activism?
BN: I’m so accustomed to being in spaces where I am a minority that I don’t always think about it. I am just so adjusted to it, but to the extent I am aware of it, I do recognize the importance of Black women seeing a Black women be the one to take down the Confederate Flag. That is why I volunteered to do it. I recognize the importance of being a woman in a position of leadership within the movement. That in and of itself is a form of activism.
There is still a lot of tension within the Black community of not recognizing patriarchy as a thing. I don’t get to wake up and say, “I’m going to deal with sexism or racism this morning.” I don’t get that option, it is just something I constantly have to do in all these spaces I go into. I’m just going where I want to go, even with film I didn’t say “Film is not diverse enough, so I’m going to be a filmmaker.” I did not want to be a filmmaker to help it be diverse; I just said this is where I want to be. This is the space that I feel natural to be in and I’m going to demand space in there.
AO: What do you do to de-stress?
BN: I have to completely unplug sometimes from this movement, and it is hard. I had to delete twitter off of everything because it was such a habit. I didn’t even realize how automatic it was. I would go on my phone, see what’s going on in the news, be stressed out, and repeat. I really had to learn it’s okay to take a step back for a number of reasons. First of all, for my own health, and also I like to step back and see where everyone that’s not in this movement is at. The movement can become very insular, and sometimes it’s important to step back and say, “Oh, they are speaking about a rat eating a pizza.” It’s okay to have fun, enjoy yourself, and enjoy life. I know it’s fucked up, but you can still have joy in life. My pattern typically had been going, going, going until I burn. I’m realizing I need to take time, all the time, in between.
What I loved about Bree’s visit was how she focused everything around a cause. During a part of the interview she spoke to how she had to prepare herself to face death for this action and how she became okay with that because she knew if she died she would’ve died for a just reason. She stressed that to her it was important to take down the flag because that specific flag had been created during the Civil Rights Movement as a way to terrorize Black people. This flag was not left over from the Confederacy but rather was specifically raised during the 1960’s as a terrorist symbol. She was also very honest and real about the work she has done and is recently doing. One thing she said that stuck out to me in the Brown Bag is that she would never ask anyone to do anything she would not do. Newsome mentioned this in reference to activism because she did not participate in activist work when she was a student at NYU and did not want students to feel as if they had to be a certain type of activist, especially while in school. Newsome also stressed on the essence of teamwork. In a video about her group called Tribe, I saw the other people involved in making sure that she retrieved the flag safely. I was able to see the planning and coordination that had to be done to achieve such a goal and realize that this fight for justice and equality is an effort we all have to make together. It is not singular or isolated but connected and can only be accomplished if we all keep our hearts and minds and spirits focused on our goal.
With that said, considering that Newsome’s demonstration was done after the Charleston shooting, I am going to leave you the names of those that lost their lives that day. Because it is important to remember them and remember why as activists, in every shape and form, we must push back against systems of oppression.
Ethel Lee Lance
Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Reverend Daniel L. Simmons
Reverend Depayne Middleton- Doctor
Rest in Power.
- Ashleandra Opoku '17, Multicultural and LGBTQ Affairs Intern