Black History Month speaker talks race

By Emma WestRasmus

Braving a wintry weather nightmare that President Obama nicknamed “Snowmageddon,” Dr. Ray Winbush traveled from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. to deliver the Black History Month keynote address on Thursday, Feb. 11 in Kagin Commons as part of Macalester’s celebration of Black History Month. The Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State offered an engaging address entitled “Do We Really Want to Talk About Race?” followed by a lengthy question and answer session in which Winbush fielded nearly a dozen questions from Macalester students and community members.

In reference to the title and central theme of his talk, Dr. Winbush observed that, “we don’t actually want to talk about race, even if we say we do.”

“We love the sweet trumpet of Miles Davis ad the soulful sounds of Luther Vandross and Alicia Keys, but do we want to talk about racism in the music industry?” Winbush asked. “We love watching natives dance and talk about turquoise and Sitting Bull, but do we really want to talk about the Trail of Tears? Do we really want to talk about race?”

“Winbush’s address was appropriate because it touched on the reservations many have to truly and vulnerably discuss racism and the historical effects it has on us today as a people,” said Amanda Nelson ’10, who is an American Studies major and a member of the Black History Month Committee that organized Winbush’s visit to Macalester.

“The message he continuously stressed was that if we can’t honestly talk about race, then we have no hope for disrupting and destroying racist ideology,” she said. “We have to be willing to engage in a real dialogue about how race and racism is integral in this country’s history and how it affects the way we all operate.”

In his keynote Winbush cited several examples of racism in our society today, from the “thwarting” of Haitian-native Wyclef Jean’s fundraising efforts in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, to the number of death threats received by President Obama as compared to his predecessor President George W. Bush.

“We want to deny it, but Bush had 35 credible death threats, and Obama has already had 230-something,” said Winbush, who believes that many of Obama’s threats are largely race-based.

Winbush also referenced chants of “kill Obama” that surfaced at political rallies for Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin last year, and a recent controversial comment by John Mayer in an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he stated that his penis was “a white supremacist,” as evidence that the United States is not necessarily a global beacon in terms of the leading the conversation about race.

Turning the lens onto Macalester’s values, Winbush challenged Macalester to learn to “converse and think globally about race.”

“Macalester will be challenged over the next 20 years as the population gets younger and darker,” Winbush said, adding that a constructive ongoing dialogue is needed, not a “one-time thing.”

“If we do this, it will not be difficult to answer the question of ‘do we really want to talk about race,'” Winbush concluded.

Though most students found Winbush’s lecture compelling, some students voiced the wish that Winbush had addressed what ‘we’ he was referring to when he asked if ‘we’ want to talk about race.

“As an American Studies major, I was able to follow his speech, but I wonder if he assumed too much knowledge or histories amongst his audience,” Lesnick said. “People come to these events for all different reasons and I hope they all got something out of it.”

Dr. Winbush also attended an American Studies senior seminar while on campus, an experience Nelson described as very valuable.

“We appreciated his candor, boundless knowledge and entertaining anecdotes,” Nelson said.

Dr. Winbush shared stories during his keynote address as well, drawing laughs from the audience when recounting meeting Lil Wayne, who came to perform at the college where Winbush was teaching.

He also described meeting Barack Obama in his pre-politics days during the early 1990s. The recently married Obama had traveled from Chicago and ended up playing cards and talking with Dr. Winbush in Washington D.C.

“He told me ‘I’m gonna be president of the United States,'” Winbush said, describing a memorable conversation with the then-community organizer. A chuckling Winbush recounted how he had not taken Obama seriously, telling him: “You’re black. And your name is Barack Obama. Just deal the cards.”

“I will never again tell a young person what they can or can’t do,” Winbush told the audience.

Nelson hopes Winbush’s message will have an impact on campus that will last beyond his keynote or the 28 days of Black History Month.

“I think Ray’s words really stuck with people and he’s opened new avenues for people to talk about race and how they navigate certain spaces on campus based on their identities,” she said. “I think he’s right in that we really have to talk about race honestly and effectively and I am willing to really engage in this conversation, and I hope others are, too.