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Penn professor Salamishah Tillet spoke at a panel discussion about racial relations on Tuesday.

Credit: Sophia Lee

Salamishah Tillet is an English and Africana Studies professor, but her expertise spans far past those subjects. When she is not in the classroom, Tillet works as an activist for feminism and racial equality.

Her perspectives focus on the equality of gender and race simultaneously. “It takes moral courage to see a community of people as equal,” Tillet said. She believes that the next step in the fight for equality is to make room for black women’s feminism to fit into the narrative of racial justice.

As of now, black feminism is seen as a marginal and radical issue, Tillet said. “Black women are oppressed through the state and the patriarchal narrative,” Tillet said at a panel discussion about racial relations on April 7. In other words, black girls are oppressed by the system of white supremacy and the system of patriarchy that exist in society.

Tillet has done anything but remain quiet. She is frequently a contributor on the MSNBC show “Melissa Harris-Perry,” where she talks about politics and racial issues. On the show, Tillet helps to answer some of the most difficult questions on race in America today.

Before her TV appearances and time at Penn, Tillet did not know that she would become a writer and activist. But she was quick to discover her passion for race and feminist issues during her freshman year of college after doing more community work in West Philadelphia. Originally, she came to Penn wanting to be a lawyer. However, her increased involvement combined with her exposure to African-American literature changed her academic path. Tillet graduated from the College in 1996 with an English degree. When she was offered a job here at Penn, she looked forward to engaging with Penn students and felt that the job was the perfect fit for her.

Tillet said that her favorite part of teaching is her students. “I’m always profoundly surprised by what can happen in a classroom,” Tillet said.

Students recognize Tillet’s passion for teaching.

“Any time she speaks it’s coming from the heart and that she is teaching as well as guiding you,” said College freshman Amari Mitchell, who is currently in Tillet’s class, “Feminism and Contemporary Black Women Writers.” Many of Tillet’s classes are open seminars and allow for free discussion of sensitive racial issues.

“She has so much wisdom, her advice is just so honest,” said College sophomore Abby Cacho, who is in the same class as Mitchell.

When she is not teaching, Tillet writes books to share her ideas with the rest of the world. A few years ago, Tillet wrote “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination.” This in-depth analysis of slavery in America digs into the legacy of American history that many like to pretend did not exist.

During her senior year in college, Tillet did an independent study looking at slave narratives from the 18th and 19th centuries. “I wanted to understand the original text that authors were responding to,” Tillet said. “For me, the book answers two questions: Why is it so hard for America, even now, to acknowledge the legacy of slavery on one hand, and, by not doing so for so much of its history, what has that meant for African-American citizens?”

Tillet grew up with an appreciation for the humanities. Her father encouraged her to think of the connections between politics, history and war. Her mother was a musician, which influenced Tillet to appreciate art through various mediums. This influence shows through her class on Nina Simone, a feminist and artist. Tillet admires how Simone has combined her talents and is now writing a book about her.

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