In front of hundreds of students and community members of all races and ages—in a hall lined by portraits of Boston College’s 24 white Jesuit presidents—MacArthur Genius Grant winner and prominent journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed brutality, violence, and race relations in the United States. Once Coates was finished speaking about the motivations behind his book, one student walked to the podium and spoke for about 10 minutes about the inherent racial hypocrisy at Boston College. The student, sociology Ph.D. candidate Cedrick-Michael Simmons, was part of a planned protest by activist group Eradicate Boston College Racism.
After Coates’ talk, James Smith, a professor in the English department and the director of the Lowell Humanities Series, opened up the microphone to the audience for questions. About 300 people stood and sat in Gasson 100, another 200 were in an overflow room next door, and nearly 500 were turned away, one organizer said. Coates authored the critically-acclaimed Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” and The New York Times best-selling book Between the World and Me.
When the audience stood up to applaud him after his initial talk, about 30 people in Gasson 100 remained standing, holding banners and covering their mouths with duct tape. They also held up sheets with the words “Thank you, Ta-Nehisi Coates,” “Eradicate,” and “#BostonCollegeRacism.”
“I have no other choice. That’s what keeps me going.”
Simmons began to speak with urgency, but was quickly interrupted by Smith and redirected to the middle of the room. He spoke for several minutes about the men and women around Gasson 100 who were wearing the tape over their mouths to symbolize BC’s censorship of students on racial issues. Coates did not know what was happening, he said.
“I don’t know what’s going on but … in my days as a student, speaking up was very important, resistance was very important,” Coates said.
In his talk, Simmons insisted that BC does a very good job of “setting the world aflame elsewhere,” but that the community is not working nearly hard enough to do that on its own campus. Smith attempted several times to interrupt Simmons and ask if he had a question, but he raised his voice each time.
“Although we’re really good at saying we need to address inequality elsewhere, as soon as we turn the mirror to BC they stop saying that,” he said. “When you’re doing this work and feeling this pain, how do you keep going, what keeps you going?”
“I have no other choice,” Coates said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
— Bobby Wengronowitz (@bobbywego) October 21, 2015
The members of Eradicate Boston College Racism feel that BC, a university that prides itself on its ideals of social justice, is hypocritical by punishing and disciplining students who engage in protest while promoting social justice. Eradicate Boston College Racism leaders Sriya Bhattacharyya, GLSOE ’16, and Kimberly Ashby, GSLOE ’16, explained that tape that has been used to demonstrate censorship and silencing, especially on college campuses, for years.
Eradicate Boston College Racism’s end goal is for students of color to have the ability to become involved in redesigning how the University treats incidents of bias. Resources such as the 2013 campus climate data, a survey completed by 3,330 undergraduate students on how to respond to racial climate on campus, have been stifled by the university before, and Eradicate Boston College Racism wants to publish that data.
Broader goals include educational reform, the development of a more culturally inclusive curriculum that includes more than just a Eurocentric perspective, the creation of a more diverse environment for students, faculty, board of trustee members of color, international status, and female and/or gender nonconforming.
Bhattacharyya and Ashby were pleased with the large interest in the protest. When looking back at their time at BC, they said, it is their actions that will make them the most proud.
“If people know, will they therefore do the right thing?” Coates said in the Q&A portion of the night, expressing doubt that even if people are aware there is racism, they may not fix it.
Before the event was opened up for questions, Coates delved into his motivations for writing his book, Between the World and Me, which is addressed to his teenage son. He began by expressing the emotions he experienced as he took on a paternal role at a fairly young age after his son was born.
“I felt incredibly, incredibly needed,” Coates said. “At the same time, I felt really scared.”
The writer spoke about his love for his son and his overwhelming desire to protect him. He recognized that all parents feel this way, but said that it is a much deeper concern for him because of his dark skin.
“If you are a black parent in America, that is a totally different kind of fear,” he said.
After presenting this natural need to protect his child as one incentive to write, he brought up another subject that motivated him—the loss of a friend. In 2000, a friend from Howard University was shot by a policeman.
Coates explained that for the first three days after Prince Carmen Jr. was killed, he read about the story, but only knew that the victim was a young, unarmed man of color who attended Howard. It was not until later on that he made the connection to realize the man was, in fact, his friend.
“I don’t know that it changes anything,” Coates said regarding his decision to write the book. “I don’t know that it alters anything.”
Maggie Powers, managing editor, and Carolyn Freeman, news editor, contributed to this report.
Correction: Sriya Bhattacharyya’s last name was originally spelled incorrectly, as Battacharyya. The article has been updated to reflect this change.
This article has been updated.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Staff