Last year around this time, Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, was in the midst of hosting a series of brunches for each of the four undergraduate classes at Penn. This was part of our strategy for creating a more intimate and intentional spring semester open house experience by speaking with each class about concerns that would be of interest to them — balancing their first Penn spring, getting ready for graduation and life after college, networking on and off campus, revisiting purpose and passion. Little did we know that our world would shift so much in the days to come, with Penn adding a second week of spring break in March before moving to a virtual campus to close out the year.
We also had no idea that the spring and summer would introduce us to names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and that the nation would erupt in waves of protest unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times. Ideas such as abolishing policing and prisons, instituting meaningful anti-racist measures, and seriously engaging in reparation strategies moved from the margins to the mainstream. But just a few months later, former President Donald Trump received the second highest number of popular votes in history, with a portion of his supporters going as far as to violently occupy the nation’s capitol to demonstrate their dissatisfaction.
As we close out the 2021 edition of Black History Month, I often find myself far too drained by all of the uncertainty in our day-to-day world to think about issues like white angst and racial injustice, but I know that we must press forward. For a few years now, perhaps since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I’ve continually asked myself what does it mean for me — a Black man, a Black father, a director of a Black cultural center — to press forward if the broader communities and institutions that I operate within do not express any tangible awareness about the structural mechanisms that sustain inequities, or lack the fortitude to push with me. Will I always be moving the wrong way on the great American escalator, which privileges the few under the guise of freedom for all? How do we change the systems that normalize this social toxicity?
What’s become clearer to me as I’ve lived and learned is that people care about what’s in it for them. Racial injustice, or more specifically anti-Blackness, is not simply a Black issue. It’s a human issue. This sentiment fueled the summer’s discontent. When we fail to adequately invest in all of us, we weaken our collective potential, and we destroy lives and possibilities in the process. White supremacist ideologies have historically restricted what a “true American” collective can look like. Pressing forward requires us to tear through these barriers and critique the fragile psyches that rely on the suppression of “others” who do not look like them. The American Dream should not be framed as an individualistic and divisive battle over smaller portions of pie. It’s a collaborative endeavor to imagine and enjoy a world that has more than it needs. This shouldn’t be too difficult to see, but it does in fact take the courage to look.
We have a unique opportunity at Penn to bring together people from varied backgrounds — undergraduate and graduate students from all over the globe, campus and community partners, exceptional faculty in virtually every field, and a massive alumni base — and access a plethora of ideas and resources that can quite literally reshape life trajectories. I hope that each of us reading these words keeps this in mind as we move through the remaining unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and the restoration of physical gatherings. Take this time to engage in meaningful research and exploration to blueprint what the world could be. This is what you came to Penn to do, on some level. The student activities and internship possibilities may not be accessible now in the ways that we would want, so, if you are able, channel that energy in other directions. Ask the tough questions and take a long and hard look at the answers. Then make a plan for us to do things differently.
If the summer of 2020 taught me nothing else, it’s that we get to decide what’s next. It certainly won’t be easy, but this is the work. I’m looking forward to engaging you all virtually at Makuu for as long as we need, and in person when it becomes safe again to do so. We want to hear about your visions for the future, and work with you to make it so.
BRIAN PETERSON is the director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center. He is a 1993 Engineering graduate and received his doctorate in 2013 from the Graduate School of Education. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.