Ferguson activist and author Brittany Packnett –Cunningham launched 2020 heritage celebration with the theme “Reclaiming our Renaissance.”
By B.L. Wilson
The theme of the 2020 GW Black Heritage Celebration is Reclaiming Our Renaissance in honor of the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, an opportunity, said junior journalism major and BHC co-chair Guinevere Thomas, “to share this time of history, culture and legacy with the entire GW community.
“In 2020, we are entering a new generation of film, art and politics, similar to the Harlem Renaissance in the ’20s and ’30s,” she said.
BHC co-chair sophomore Bishop Walton said during the Heritage celebration that “there would be no shortage of ways to learn how to reclaim the renaissance” whether through discussing real estate with the Multicultural Business Student Association or through journalism with the National Association of Black Journalists, just two of the events organized by the BHC committee and the Multicultural Student Service Center in partnership with over 25 student organizations and academic departments.
The celebration got underway Monday night at a packed George Washington University Jack Morton Auditorium with a keynote address from Brittany Packnett-Cunningham, an activist, author and educator who explored the meaning of blackness and renaissance.
“We’ve been African Americans. We’ve been Afro Americans, Negro, colored, boy, girl, negra, … urban, anything to avoid saying black,” she said.
Former classmate and friend, Imani Cheers, associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, introduced Ms. Packnett-Cunningham “as a leader at the intersection of culture and justice” whom President Obama cited “as a leader whose voice is going to be making a difference for years to come.”
Ms. Packnett-Cunningham bounced on stage in a burgundy Beyoncé Ivy Park sweat suit ensemble to cheers of the audience. After ruminating on people’s discomfort with the word black, Ms. Packnett-Cunningham said she realized “it was because black people are no longer uncomfortable with being black.
“This idea that we could operate and walk around, live, have joy and dare to laugh and wear our sweatpants on stage and do what we want to do the way we want to do it is in and of itself a dangerous concept,” she said.
“People’s discomfort with black has everything to do with our straightened and upright backs,” which comes from building on what the ancestors of black people had accomplished, she said.
Ms. Packnett-Cunningham said the renaissance was necessary in the past just as it is now 100 years later, a movement in an era when far too many people saw blackness through a “deficit lens of what we couldn’t have or couldn’t do in their minds.”
Ms. Packnett Cunningham said in redefining blackness “…the first thing we need to know is black never has been and never will be in need of anybody’s fixing.”
She said that the idea that black people need to be saved goes along with another limited way of looking at blackness, which is that black people are resilient. “It is absolutely true,” she said, but “it means we are great despite what has been done to us…and places at the center of a story about black people the folks who have been holding onto white supremacy.
“We are creative, period. We are brilliant, period. We are thoughtful, period. We don’ t have to justify how we came here, how we got here, or how we came up with what we do. We don’t owe anybody an explanation for being our bad black selves,” said Ms. Packnett-Cunningham.
“[Black people] have to embrace black. We know that we come from generations of folk who weren’t allowed to say they were black, were not comfortable saying they were black. So we have to own it to honor them,” she said.
In order to do that, she said, black people have to unlearn internalized oppression by “thinking critically,” “defining ourselves for ourselves” and by engaging in self-care and protecting one another.
Non-blacks in the audience, she said, need to unlearn anti-blackness.
“When you hear it at the dinner table, when you hear it in the cab, when you hear it from your professor, you have to decide that you are going to pay attention to it and not ignore it because it is discomforting,” she said.
During a Q & A, sophomore Alexis Sam asked Ms. Packnett-Cunningham what advice she would give her younger self.
“It would be to go to sleep,” she said. “Half the time I was awake just trying to push through, thinking that was going to make me a champion. I should have gone to sleep and been more wise about how I planned my time… so that I could just do my best work and not do the most work.”