Michelle Alexander, a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation, has been chosen to receive the Heinz Award in the public policy category. The awards were established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz from Pennsylvania, an heir to the Heinz Ketchup fortune. The Heinz Award comes with a $250,000 prize.
According to the award committee, Professor Alexander is being honored “for her work in drawing national attention to the issues of mass incarceration of African American youth and men in the United States, and for igniting a movement that is inspiring organizations and individuals to take constructive action on criminal justice reform.” She is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010).
The annual Kent Lecture was established by the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago in 1984, and was named after the late Dr. George E. Kent, who was one of the earliest tenured African-American professors at the University of Chicago, and its first African-American professor of English.
The prestigious honor was “designed to serve as a platform for community exposure to African-American luminaries” and since its inception, speakers who have given the lecture are names you would expect, such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Michelle Alexander.
This year, the OBS pulled off a real coup and got, for the first time, a film director. Not only just a film director, but the director of “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” Ryan Coogler himself, to give this year’s Kent Lecture.
According to OBS, Coogler will be discussing “blackness in mixed forms of media, specifically film, the importance of representation, and why stories such as these are so important to tell.” After his opening remarks, there will be a moderated Q&A with Coogler (no doubt there are going to be a lot of audience questions about the Oscars and “Black Panther”).
The event will take place at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago campus (1175 E. 57th); starting at 7PM and yes it’s free and open to the public. But get there early to secure a seat because they will likely be going fast.
In light of the recent events surrounding racial and social injustice around the country, knowing our history, as part of our eternal quest to “stay woke,” is more important than ever. While many of us are experiencing a new movement unfolding right before our eyes, scholars, experts and even regular folks with stories to tell, have been putting their experiences to the page to enlighten generations.
The publishing industry suffers from the same lack of diversity and racial biases that plague society at large. While many books don’t make school reading lists or even the New York Times Bestsellers List, there are countless classics that break down the Black experience in America.
It’s hardly a complete list, which could go on for volumes, but it’s a great starting point:
1. The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson
This book is of primary importance in understanding the legacy of slavery and how it affects Black Americans’ perspectives in society. The book essentially argues that Black Americans are not educated, but rather conditioned in American society. It challenges Black Americans to “do for themselves” outside of the constructs that are set up for them.
2. And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou
This is one of the most affirming books you will ever read. Technically, it is a collection of poems which focus on hope, determination and overcoming struggle. It contains one of Angelou’s most famous poems, Phenomenal Woman.
3. The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois
One of the most important books on race in sociology and African-American studies, it is a collection of essays that Du Bois wrote by drawing from his personal experiences. Two of the most profound social concepts – The Veil And Double Consciousness were written about in this book which have come to be widely known as part of the experience of being Black in America.
4. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
You may have seen the movie from Steven Spielberg or the recent Broadway musical, but I highly encourage you read this powerful novel, too. The book explores in depth the low position Black women are given in society through the lens of a particular group of women. The story explores both interpersonal turmoil and socially-inflicted violence toward Black women, as well as the bonds they share.
Monday at Yale University, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander condemned mass incarceration of African-Americans as a form of legalized discrimination. (Photo/Maria Zepeda)
Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer who gained national renown after publishing the book “The New Jim Crow,” spoke to students and faculty at the Yale Divinity School Monday afternoon about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States, which she described as a legalized form of racial discrimination. Because African-Americans make up a large percentage of America’s prison population, Alexander said millions of African-Americans nationwide are deprived of basic human rights to housing and employment, adding that the prisoners have fallen victim to the kind of racial discrimination that existed at the time of Jim Crow.
“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” she said. “This is a system that has literally turned back the clock on racial progress in the U.S.”
Alexander said a series of American government campaigns to curb the illegal drug trade, commonly referred to as the war on drugs, is causing an unprecedented number of incarcerations, especially of people of color. More than 45 million people have been “swept into the system” for drug offenses, Alexander said, adding that the number of people currently incarcerated for drug offenses surpasses the number of people incarcerated for any one reason in 1980.