VSB Goes To Harvard


Over this past weekend, Damon and I had the privilege and honor to speak at the Harvard Black Law Students Association's Spring Conference on a panel entitled "Black Media Matters" where we discussed Black representation in the media, Black media in the context of the larger media picture, and way that new media has allowed for different forms of activism, amongst other things. We sat on a panel with Kimberly Foster from ForHarriet.com and Dr. Brittany Cooper from the Crunk Feminist Collective and Salon. (It was moderated by Licia Harper of the Hip-Hop Entertainment Law Project.) Our panel was very interesting. But I also had quite a few thoughts about the trip overall, so I'm going to share them here.


1. I actually really like Boston as a city. I even like Cambridge. They both give good skyline. I used to date a woman from Boston. <—- That sounds like an epic opening line from a book, right? This woman I used to date from Boston (who lived in Boston, and then New York City [NEW YORK CITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!]) while we were dating used to refer to Cambridge as Lame-bridge. Pretty standard fare I presume for people from the city-proper talking about folks from near in suburbs. But I like both. I like cities with a lot of history and Boston is one of those cities. I opened with this bullet because folks' perception of Boston is a bit skewed but it's also how I felt before I got there the very first time. I view Boston as a kind of white Atlanta. If you're young and white, Boston is your spot. I also viewed it as ground zero for racist cities in America. And while it's one of the few cities where I felt acutely aware of my Blackness, I also was surprised at just how many minorities lived in Boston. While I'd never live there, I just want to say that I really like Boston.

2. While out eating, Damon remarked about how it's interesting to be in a place that is literally known as the landing space for the best of the best. To be around so many people who were the absolute best wherever they were and made it to the top is pretty cool. Boston has tons of colleges, but MIT (shouts to Liz!) and Harvard are pretty universally renowned. Everybody's heard of them and everybody pretty much views them as some of the top universities in the world (except possibly people who went to other Ivy League schools or whatever league or association MIT is apart of). And I agree with him. It is an interesting feeling to be around those folks who for whatever reason, made it to a "top spot". I think I'm pretty brilliant, but as I drove by MIT I felt like, there's somebody in one of these dorm rooms right now who is half my age but knows three times more than I do. And that's okay. Clap for 'em. I mean, I went to Morehouse so you know how that goes. It's just different #doe.


3. That snow in Boston right now is real. It's one thing to see it on TV, it's a whole different thing to drive by a 6 foot snow all. It's how I feel like KKK rally's would feel if I was standing in the middle of a circle. Not that Boston is a KKK rally or anything. I'm talking about the snow, which just so happens to be mostly white (sometimes its yellow…ewww), so you know, six feet tall…a lot of white….never mind.

4. So, you know how natural hair vs relaxed hair, and light skint vs dark skint (sorry brown, you get very little country here), and Beyonce are some of the most contentious topics in the Black community? I don't think we give reality shows enough credit for being as polarizing as they are. And maybe it's because you mostly get folks on Twitter (and me) who love them, and folks who are supposed to "know better" who hate them and perhaps those worlds don't collide enough. Or maybe they do and I just don't realize it. But our panel entered into the world of reality shows and Black representation on television and that is one SERIOUSLY divisive topic. It seems like folks either believe they're damaging the Black community or that they're just entertainment.

5. I'm going to say this, and its going to be a bit contentious but, I always find it puzzling that the people that "ratchet" television LEAST affects are the most offended by their mere existence and potential for Black destruction while doing the absolute least to change shit about it. Except Sorority Sisters, because that fucked with Black sacred institutions. And possibly because VH1 over-estimated the audience for that show. It's entirely possible that a huge segment of ratchet world doesn't give two shits about a sorority so they weren't really watching so it was easy to get it pulled once the entire groundswell of opinion was that the show as terrible and needed to go. But folks created campaigns about that. Yet, I feel like SO many folks think anything associated with Mona Scott-Young is destructive to the community - it's basically crack - and needs to go, but I don't feel like short of the groan-and-mumble are folks THAT hell-bent on doing much to change that landscape. And I say least affects because the convo about reality shows was pretty contentious at the panel, but it was also folks who probably aren't going to be that affected by whatever destruction we deem is associated with the shows. Unless it's how white people view us because of those shows and that I couldn't really care less about.

6. Dr. Brittney Cooper is a force. The ability to be ratchet, articulate, and speak in the entrenched language of the academic elite is a special skill set. It is the stuff of legend. I feel like they could have a panel with just her speaking and it would be as interesting as the discussion we all had together.


7. Here's another interesting tidbit, there were 4 panels on Saturday. One of them was entitled "Our Brother's Keeper/Our Sister's Keeper" except it was split with the "brothas" in one room and the "sistas" in another room. Damon and I attended the "Our Sister's Keeper" panel. I can't speak for Damon, but for me, I went because I have a daughter. And having a daughter has opened my heart up to a whole slew of curiosities and interests and empathies that I did not know until I had a little girl and started thinking about the world she will grow up in…but also, my place in the world I left for her to grow up in. I'm far from the worst dude on the planet, but there's a luxury of not having to concern yourself with many of the micro-aggressions women have to deal with constantly. Obviously, as African-Americans we deal with them too, but the sexism angle is one I don't know. So I wanted to hear more what these formidable and established women had to say. There were also only three men in the room. Which is telling, but again, the panels were scheduled at the same time and separated.

8. On a simlar note though, when I was trying to find that panel to go to, I asked one of the organizers of the conference and she assumed I was looking for the men's panel. Which I suppose is understandable. It's telling though. I know women want us to be at these things, but they also don't even think we'd even think to come to those panels. There's a there there. I wonder if any women thought any men would be in there. Yo no se.


9. I realy enjoy doing panels. What I don't enjoy is panels about relationships. But if you want me to talk about pop culture, society, media, pretty much anything related to the Black experience I'm all in. But I'm so over the relationship angle at this point in my life. Interestingly enough, I've spoken at Harvard, Princeton, FAMU, Delaware State, Howard, American, the University of Maryland (to this point…there are a few others but those come immediately to mind), and I've not once been asked to speak about relationships at any of them. Manhood, Blackness, hip-hop, media, health and awareness….all at those places. I need to be doing university tours.

10. Shouts to the folks from the Harvard Black Law Students Association for having us to speak. It was a great experience. And it was fun being around a bunch of folks JUST like you who were kickin' ass and takin' names.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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Damon Young

More takeaways:

1. Harvard is…Harvard

I've been to New York City maybe 15 times — enough to "get over" going to and being in New York City — but the surreality of it still hasn't worn off. It's a place that's been both the setting and focus of so much of American history and culture that when I visit it just feels big. Not big size-wise — although it is that too — but big in terms of "Damn. This is New York Fucking City."

Harvard conjured the same feeling. It looked like any other university. I didn't see the entire campus, but what I did see wasn't as visually impressive as Princeton or even Penn State is. Still, everything just felt…big.

Even speaking to the students felt a little different. Not because of the students — who looked, talked, and acted like every other group of mid-to-late 20s Black grad students I've met and spoken to — themselves, but because of where they were. Let me put it this way: A few months ago, I spoke to a friend's AAU basketball team and said something about how one of them could be president one day. Although technically true, it's a bit of a boilerplate cliche often used when speaking to kids to remind them to think and dream bigger. Basically, "perhaps you won't be president, but there are a million other great things you can be besides an NBA player." But, when speaking to a group of Black men and women who will have Harvard law degrees in the near future, there might actually be a future president (or two) listening to you.

2. Our panel lasted 90 minutes. It could have lasted 900.

We started off speaking about the role of Black media today and how it connects to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, topics which kept the audience engaged and entertained. But once it segued into representation — basically, are shows like Empire and Love and Hip-Hop bad for us — it became a full-fledged argument. Not a bad argument. But a heated and healthy debate where we (the panelists) all basically had the same opinion ("No. Empire isn't "bad" for Black people. Was is bad is respectability politics and thinking that "better" representation will have any tangible effect on how Black people are treated.") while some of the students very passionately disagreed. Even after the panel ended, the conversations continued into the hallway, in the walk back to the hotel for dinner, and before (and after) dinner.

Three more takeways from the panel:

A) You don't want to argue with Brittney Cooper about anything. Ever. Because you will lose. She is amazing.

B) You know who else is amazing? Your boy Panama. He definitely represented for VSB, bringing that same insightful ridiculousness he does here on a weekly basis.

C) Before the panel, Licia (the moderator) asked if any of us were in NABJ (the national association of Black journalists). We (Brittney, Panama, and I) all reacted as if she asked if any of us had four legs. It's something none of us ever even considered doing because 1) we're not journalists and 2) we all (kim included) chose untraditional paths. None of us went to J school or anything like that — and none of us have any aspirations of being a traditional journalist — so being a part of NABJ just doesn't seem like something that would be that beneficial. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen anything to convince me otherwise.