Julia Putnam and Tim Wise discussed ways to resist oppressive systems, the misremembering of American history, and how education can help unravel injustice during their Keynote Memorial Lecture for U-M’s 33rd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
Putnam is the principal and co-founder of The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a K-8 Detroit school that emphasizes place-based education and community engagement. Wise is a prominent anti-racism writer and educator who has spoken to community groups and schools across the nation.
The event also featured a question-and-answer session moderated by Bridge Magazine reporter Chastity Pratt.
Referencing Vincent Harding’s book “There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America,” Putnam said a “struggle towards freedom” and against white supremacy began with the first slave ships. African slaves resisted oppression in various ways, from staying alive to developing insurrections and escape plans.
“It’s important to acknowledge that just like now, there were probably arguments amongst the people about the best methods of resistance, even on the ships,” Putnam said.
Wise noted one of the threads contributing to inequality and injustice is a “blinkered historical memory — an inherently flawed understanding of who we are as a nation and who we have always been.”
“At root, much of what ails us is an acute case of misremembering, selective amnesia,” Wise said. “What we remember, what we forget, and what we never learned as people has profound impact on how we celebrate this day and this man and this legacy of which he was such a central part, but also how we understand our current political crisis.”
President Mark Schlissel thanked members of the community for “unraveling the challenges we still face and leading the work yet to be done.”
“Our commitment to DEI will not waver,” Schlissel said. “Because while talent is everywhere in our society … opportunity most certainly is not.”
Putnam described how she and others questioned the current educational system, the one where “school feels as unfree as slavery” for some families.
Five years later, she helped the Boggs School open its doors, with a focus on critical thinking, civic engagement, sense of place and restorative justice.
When faced with the argument that “it’s ridiculous to unravel slowly,” Putnam said, she asks herself what would happen after a violent revolution.
“Who would have practiced how to create a post-revolutionary beloved community? Only those who would have practiced. And at the Boggs School, we enter the river by practicing that beloved community, by being our most human selves in the face of unyielding inhumanity.”
Wise discussed how the chronic “misremembering” of American history contributes to the divisions that plague society. He referenced several examples, from the failure to accurately remember the first European immigrants to the U.S. to the misremembering underlying the political slogan “Make America Great Again.”
“Only people of the lie could believe that this country was once great and has somehow been set low,” he said. “Only people of the lie could ignore how ‘ungreat’ this place was for most of its history for people of color, for LGBTQ folk, for women as women and for the poor.”
Regarding the first European immigrants to the United States, Wise reminded audience members that these immigrants “were the ones who could not make it and were starving.”
“And there’s no shame in that,” Wise continued. “In fact, there is something profoundly beautiful about the losers saying we have had enough of losing and we are going to start over.
“But there is something equally beautiful when folks do that in Mexico and when they do that in Honduras and when they do that in Guatemala and when they do that all around the world.”
During the moderated Q&A, Putnam and Wise discussed the necessity of uncomfortable conversations and conflict on the path to growth and progress, how the American ideals of rugged individualism contributes to discrimination and prejudice, and how the educational sector and young people can help unravel injustice in society.
Responding to a question about how the educational sector can work to “unravel” inequality, Putnam stressed the importance by starting with reading and listening.
Wise said K-12 and higher education institutions have to start with the foundational idea that educational work must be seen as revolutionary work.
“If you are not in the business of liberating people from systems of inequality and injustice, then you’re not really in the business of educating, whether that’s kindergarteners or graduate students.”