Dr. Tillet's 'One Read' lecture marks start of Black History Month at MU

The lecture examined how black artists express the effects of slavery on life today.

Dr. Salamishah Tillet, assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about her book "Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination" on Friday night to mark the beginning of Black History Month events at MU.

The lecture, titled "The Making of Slavery and Freedom in the Age of Obama," was a part of the Black Studies "We Read" series, one of many that takes a look at African-American history and culture. While "We Read" focuses on literature, the "We Watch" and "We Listen" series focus on film and music, respectively.

Tillet's book examines the ways black artists and writers today remember slavery. By looking at the works of artists like Annette Gordon-Reed, Bill T. Jones, Randall Robinson and Kara Walker, the book delves into the ongoing effects of slavery on the country, Tillet said.

"The political concept and practice of American democracy was born on the back of American slavery," Tillet said. "So that's kind of the history of the nation so as a result of that, there are ways in which contemporary African American artists and writers have decided to use that tension in order to re-conceptualize slavery today."

Although slavery ended years ago, it has a legacy in the country today, and emancipation is an ongoing process, Tillet said.

"Slavery is this thing that even though it was abolished years ago, it has this ongoing legacy in the present," she said. "So one knowing 'How do people grapple with that, how do people represent that and how do people use that in order to make democracy in the future.' So that's what the book is about - these various meditations on the past in order to imagine a new future."

After the lecture, Tillet stayed for a book signing and to speak with attendees.

In addition to her writing, Tillet works to end violence against women. A rape survivor herself, Tillet co-founded A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit organization which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women.

"My sexual assaults (happened) when I was in college and so at first I didn't deal with that experience," Tillet said. "I started writing my story and using art to help me find my voice. That kind of fueled my activism. So then I created A Long Walk Home with my sister. For me it was the kind of vehicle to engage my own personal healing as well as kind of imagine a world where people don't have to experience the violence that I experienced."

Junior Juan Lewis attended the event and said the lecture offered a new perspective on black culture and history.

"It's Black History Month and I wanted to get some insight on something new about black culture," Lewis said. "I'm in a black studies class right now, and this lecture shows how much more there is to learn. It's interesting to see how people use satire in art to make fun of things in order to understand and deal with them."

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History dictates the specific theme for Black History Month.

This year's theme is "At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington," to reflect the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. MU's Black History Month events tie in the national theme while taking a more diverse approach, said April Langley, interim assistant director of the Black Studies program.

"The theme is directed by the national association," Langley said. "What we do at MU is extend that theme globally. The idea is that black history is larger than just the United States. Black history is American history and MU history. This is just one month where we learn more about it. It's another way of enriching the learning process outside of the classroom."

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