Pictured: Interactive art installation dedicated to Mali Watkins and Black Lives Matter. Photo courtesy of Walter Wallace.
“DANCING WHILE BLACK” read the flyer that my friend sent to our group chat in June. I clicked the Facebook link. My friend, Azibuike Akaba, co-organized the Dancing While Black event in Alameda, California in support of Mali Watkins, a Black man who had been arrested for dancing during his exercise routine. His arrest occurred on May 23rd, exactly three months after Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white domestic terrorists when running while Black; about two months after Breonna Taylor was murdered by police when sleeping while Black; and two days before George Floyd would be murdered by police for what every ‘[fill in the blank]-ing while Black’ comes down to…being Black. The very reason that exactly three months later, Jacob Blake would almost be murdered by police.
The Dancing While Black event evoked the same spirit of the annual BBQ’ing While Black festival in Oakland, California, which was created in response to BBQ Becky calling the police on two Black men while grilling at Lake Merritt. I immediately passed the event flyer along to friends in another group chat, adding the caption, “I miss Oakland.”
You see, I wouldn’t be able to attend this event. Or any other demonstration in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was messaging my friends in the Bay Area from my apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
After completing my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in August 2019, I moved to Ann Arbor to work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan. In moving from the Bay Area, I left behind a community that I had built over six years, a community of friends, colleagues, mentees, and organizers, a community with whom I had participated in protests and environmental justice organizing work. Additionally, I left behind my car (it would not survive a Michigan winter).
Only a few months after my move, the coronavirus pandemic hit. While in the midst of it, my Twitter and news feeds started to fill with images and videos of Black death, the result of COVID-19 disproportionately killing Black folks and police and white vigilante killings. I became enraged at the violent and hypervisible death. With each new post showing anti-Black racism and racial violence, I became more and more enraged.
From my apartment in Ann Arbor, I talked with friends and family through angry tears. From my apartment, I shared upcoming actions with my two young, Black brothers. From my apartment, I watched the demonstrations in nearby Detroit.
My friends and I do not have cars, so I did not have a ride to the protests in Detroit. On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic had shut down the activities I typically turned to for joy and self-care, such as going out dancing. So, I was stuck in my apartment, literally sitting in my rage.
Rage is powerful and overwhelming. For my emotional and mental well-being, I had to channel it into some form of action. At the time, universities across the nation were issuing solidarity statements and holding meetings. However, these read like empty words given that the ivory tower is itself an institution rooted in white supremacy and anti-Black racism. This has been most recently highlighted on Twitter with #BlackintheIvory. I soon realized that there was one space I could still access from my apartment: the academy.
I soon realized that there was one space I could still access from my apartment: the academy.
I had already laid the foundations for creating change at the University of Michigan. When I first began my postdoctoral fellowship, I noticed the lack of Black postdocs on campus. Additionally, I found that postdocs do not have the same institutional structures to facilitate community building. In December 2019, I emailed the few Black postdocs I was aware of and asked if they were interested in having regular meetups to build community. The response was an emphatic yes. In January 2020, we started holding events. Then, coronavirus (in Cardi B’s voice).
In June, with the statements being issued from the university, I recognized the opportunity to advocate for institutional support of Black postdocs. It was perfect timing because the University of Michigan Postdoctoral Association (UMPDA) was holding its board elections. The day after the election results were announced, I sent an introductory email to the newly elected DEI Chair that articulated my interest in working with the UMPDA and Rackham Graduate School (Rackham) to better support Black postdocs. Fortunately, I received a positive reply, and we scheduled a meeting. To help inform that meeting, I asked my fellow Black postdocs to complete a survey on how the UMPDA, Rackham, and our informal group could improve their experience. Based on their responses, I had my directives.
After email exchanges and online forms, our group is now the newest UMPDA postdoc circle, the Black Postdocs Circle. The group is featured on the UMPDA website and included in the UMPDA and Rackham email announcements. It even has a little funding. Most importantly, though, the Black Postdocs Circle membership is growing, which means more Black postdocs are in community. This is a start. There is still more the university can do to support Black postdocs. So, the advocacy work continues…from my apartment.
I may not have a ride to the protest, but as the late John Lewis implored, “You must do something.” I decided to channel my rage into advocacy on behalf of Black postdocs at my academic institution. Structural racism is embedded in every institution. We must all look at the ones in which we operate, and ask ourselves what we will do to make a difference. In the words of Too $hort, “get in where you fit in.”