U.Va. professors address black activism in media

Panel served as the third in U.Va. Libraries Black Contemporary History Month forum series


The panelists, all University professors, explored the intersection of blackness and activism.

Sarah Lindamood | Cavalier Daily

A crowd of more than 30 people listened to a trio of panelists for a public forum entitled “Eyes on Racism in the Media & Activism” in the auditorium of the Small Special Collections Library Tuesday. The panelists — Carmentia Higginbotham, associate professor of Art & Culture in the McIntire Department of Art, Meredith Clark, assistant professor of Media Studies and Lisa Woolfork, associate professor of English — explored and considered the intersection of blackness and activism.

The forum was the third of four in a series of panel discussions that make up the “Black (Contemporary) History Month: Eyes on Activism” forum hosted by University Libraries. The panels discuss a variety of topics pertaining to modern black history and activism. 

Phylissa Mitchell, the director of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity, originated the idea. She wanted to promote a greater and more contemporary understanding of black activism, a topic she said is often overlooked when teaching history.

“We are very good at teaching people about ancient history,” Mitchell said. “We’re not very good about people understanding modernity.” 

The forums are scheduled to meet once a week for the entire duration of Black History Month. The previous two forums included “Eyes and Ears on Economic Activism,” which focused on the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, and “Eyes on Health, Medicine & Biases,” which featured both medical and legal professionals discussing how bias harms black individuals. 

Mitchell introduced the event and served as moderator as the three panelists began the forum. There were three major questions posed, each selected by their respective panelists to answer, with the other two panelists free to provide their own thoughts at any time.

The first question posed was “What do we think about the intersection of pop culture and expressions of black activism?”

Higginbotham responded by referencing the implications of depictions of blackness in media, such as in the Netflix series “Luke Cage” and Marvel Studios’ recently-released “Black Panther” film. 

“They are representations of blacks and blackness that are involved in a heroic rhetoric,” Higginbotham said. “This has always has been typically reserved for bodies that are not black.”

There was also significant emphasis placed on the impact and potential for activism that these examples of mainstream black media represent. 

“[They] can offer a particular and politicized vision of African-Americans in different ways,” Higginbotham said. “It all coalesced together to form empowerment.”

The second question asked “What does it mean to think of Black Lives Matter as a social movement and as a strategy for understanding and creating popular representations?”

Woolfork addressed this question by exploring different types of black representation. 

Woolfork introduces Angie Thomas’ novel “The Hate U Give,” which tells the story of Starr, a young black girl who witnesses her friend being shot by a police officer. According to Woolfork, Thomas is dedicating the paperback copies of her book to Charlottesville in the wake of the events of Aug. 11 and 12. Woolfork went on to discuss how providing examples of black literature specifically for teenagers to engage with can help ensure better representation and understanding.

Woolfork also discussed the impact of the all non-white cast of “Hamilton,” the  Black Lives Matter movement, and how black narratives must be told and listened to for progress to occur.

The third and final question was, “Does the digital realm offer particular challenges and/or advantages to black activism?”

Clark answered this question by discussing trends with social media, “black Twitter,” black communities on different media platforms and engaging with the media that is being produced regarding blackness.

With the social connectivity and mobility offered by online platforms, Clark emphasized the increased potential for accountability when harmful depictions of blackness are circulated.

“People do not know the difference between the media and our actual, lived narratives on the ground,” said Clark. “We have this opportunity to speak in real time to the media that is being produced.”

The one remaining panel in this forum series is “Eyes on SNCC,” which will occur Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the Rotunda. The panel will address Julian Bond’s papers and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee  with a reception to follow.

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