Actor Nate Parker visits MU to speak out on racism in US
Parker proposed solutions to racial inequality in America.
Oct. 29, 2010
Actor Nate Parker, known for his work in "The Great Debaters" and "The Secret Life of Bees," gave a speech titled "The Legacy of Racism in America: Where Do We Go From Here?" on Wednesday.
The title alluded to Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 speech, and Parker tackled the sensitive topic of racism by referencing King and other advocates and professionals, as well as relating his personal experiences through anecdotes.
Brian Favors, who works with Parker at Breaking the Cycle Consulting Services, introduced Parker and began the discussion.
"Some people are kind of anointed," Favors said. "Nate was the kind of person who walked into a room and you could kind of see there was something different about this person."
Favors said he is most proud of Parker for the charity work he has done and for turning down roles that fit the thug stereotype.
"One of the things that we've been able to see is he makes intellectualism in the hood attractive," Favors said.
Parker built on Favors' introduction to further discuss his teenage and early adult years.
"My only objective when I was in high school was to pull my family out of poverty," Parker said.
Parker's mother could not afford to send him to college, but he won a full wrestling scholarship to Penn State. Parker then attended the University of Oklahoma and landed a job in computer programming four months after graduation.
Parker began acting after going to a modeling convention in Dallas with his girlfriend at the time. Parker left for Los Angeles two weeks after getting a callback.
"There's something about feeling like you haven't had all the opportunities in the world that will make you take one opportunity and give everything, put everything you have into this thing," Parker said.
Parker said researching for roles such as Ben Chavis in the film adaptation of "Blood Done Sign My Name," by Tim Tyson, and Henry Lowe in "The Great Debaters" taught him about racism in the U.S. and helped him to understand himself better.
"We have to be honest about where we are right now," Parker said. "If we're going to deal with these issues we're going to have to figure out where we are now."
To demonstrate the disparity between employment among blacks and whites, Parker used an anecdote regarding the high concentration of African-Americans working in menial jobs in the Memphis, Tenn., airport.
"As my mentor Brian says, either something has happened to change the balance, or we're inferior, or black people are just monkeys," Parker said. "I know it sounds weird to even come out of my mouth, but either we're inferior or something has happened, something systemic has happened that has created this reality that we still suffer from it today."
The systemic happening Parker referred to is slavery, specifically chattel slavery. Chattel means moving property, and America is the only society that has ever used this type of slavery. Parker said in other societies, such as the Roman Empire and Egypt, slaves had rights. They could serve their sentences, and they could marry in and out of slavery.
"What happens when you take a man's culture, when you take a man's language, take their religion and their education and then reduce them to less of a person?" Parker said.
Parker asked his audience why the momentum created during the Civil Rights Movement stopped. His theory is all the leaders of the 1960s, such as King, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, were lost, and no one was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to replace them.
Parker said the way to remedy racism today is to heal the inferiority complex and to reeducate people about racial history.
Sophomore Charnissia Smith said she attended Parker's speech because she wanted to learn more about her African-American heritage.
"What I've gained is just channeling my frustration with racism and discrimination and trying to learn about my culture and how to educate other people about it," Smith said.