Welcome to the Center for the Study of Black Life and the Law. This center is a call to action, a call to commune, and an urgent call to return together again, for the sake of Black lives and that of our fragile democracy. It has its roots in the history of our local community, as well as that of our nation. While we cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of current and ongoing violence against Black people in all aspects of American life–from those killed by civilians like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride; to the often mysterious murders of BlaQueer and trans folk like Demar Love, Muhlaysia Booker and Tony McDade; and those who have died at the hands of police like Breonna Taylor, Rekia Boyd, George Floyd and Amir Locke–the Dred Scott decision continues to haunt us and jurisprudence from 170 plus years past. The lessons of this decision, and its logics, are not merely about police or citizen involved violence against Black people, but more urgently, about how Black claims to citizenship–and its benefits–continue to be regarded and the consequences of such disregard, from the womb to the tomb.
In 1857, Chief Justice Taney, in Dred Scott v. Sanford, declared that:
“[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.”
In this case Dred Scott, an enslaved Black man held in bondage locally at Fort Snelling—while also having been held in Missouri and Louisiana for a time—sued for his freedom, on the account that he held been held enslaved illegally at Fort Snelling, in violation of its status as a free territory, pursuant to the Missouri Compromise.
In response to this, Frederick Douglass, celebrated abolitionist, writer, speaker and justice advocate would go on to say:
“Slavery lives in this country not because of any paper Constitution, but in the moral blindness of the American people, who persuade themselves that they are safe, though the rights of others may be struck down.”
Somewhere between the remarks of Taney and Douglass stood a broad swatch of the American people. Indeed, a great many sat in the middle, while others stood in bold solidarity with one vision or the other. Nearly 165 years later, the question continues to be salient in a community, a region and a nation that finds itself recycling through moments of so-called racial reckonings. Indeed, it feels that entirety of my life has been a time of racial crisis, a time of looking and planning ahead to live beyond the next racial “(in)justice” rupture, an exhausting attempt at trying to outthink, outrun, outwork racism and antiBlackness and BlaQueerness in particular.
I first imagine creating this center over a decade ago, at Tufts University, in Professor Christina’s Sharpe’s “Memory for Forgetting” (now Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University York University). This seminar focused on the singular traumas of the Holocaust and the Atlantic Slave Trade and the differing ways we choose/fail to remember and forget the individual, communal, collective, and inter/national traumas and what happens in their wake.
It was there, while sitting in a former cabin of the enslaved—on the Royall Plantation—in the wake of the lynching of Trayvon Martin, that I became aware again of the precarity of own my life, of what it meant to exist as furtive, to exist simultaneously in and outside of law, to be inside of law insofar as being reachable by its disciplinary arm but, more often than not, outside of the reach of its protective, constitutional guarantees. I had recently been accosted by campus police “because I did not look like a student” and surrounded by city police because I “looked like I was up to something.” All in a single week and, these were the nice encounters. To some, these sort of experiences are shocking, for many they are uncomfortable inconveniences that happen sparingly over a lifetime and for others, yes, many others, they are “normal” reminders of how dominant notions of “law and order” continue to unlawfully disorder Black and BlaQueer life, routine and access to durable dignity and citizenship. The center stands here as witness, collecting the complicated stories and truths, so that together we might cobble together a new jurisprudence, a new policy paradigm and an emerging, innovative approach to community that doesn’t look past ethnicity, gender, legal status, class—particularly as they intersect with Blackness—but prepares with those particular experiences as guide, to create a more textured, nimble and humane system that works for those who need it most. We seek to operate as a mediator between the present and possible, the facts of now and the fundamental values of the future we aspire to; and we seek to do this work with all who are willing and able, to see where we might grow, work and move forward together.
MacArthur Genius fellow and Columbia University Professor Saidiya Hartman argues, “In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Across The Atlantic Slave Trade” that:
“If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery–skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
In the nearly ten years since the lynching of Trayvon, it has only become increasingly clear—it has never been unclear to many who came before me, who lack the privilege of distance—that we continue to live in the afterlives of slavery. Therefore only an honest, rigorous engagement with past—a past that is not past, but haunting—present and future will allow us to move into a different moment. We are called and endeavor to make way for a time where Black lives are more than mere matter to be handled as one will, but fully enshrined as peoples that require regard—and those that receive it freely—in our legal, political and social systems and institutions.
It is this afterlife, this remnant, this recycling of violence—systemic, systematic, social, legal, political, economic, extralegal and intramural—shock and grief that this center seeks to contend with and struggle against. Here, we seek to harness the wisdom and intelligence among us—scholars, teachers, artists, advocates, organizers, public officials, educators and the public—to imagine, create and perfect with studied critique, alternatives to the systems that continue to harm us (and those continually unseen).
The center seeks your support in doing this through the creation and sustenance of critical seminars available to the public, a speaker’s series featuring scholars, artists and others who can engage our community on issues of deep historical, current and future importance free of charge and support for programming and scholarly inquiry that engages “the afterlives of slavery” in their various forms. This includes everything (and more) from policing and criminal injustice to education inequity and disparities in school discipline; from discrimination and violence against BlaQueer and other LGBTQ people to humane and humanizing responses to drug addiction and sex work; from immigration and its nexus with criminal law to the curtailing of fourth amendment (privacy) protections; to the shrinking of voting rights to ruptured promises of the Reconstruction Amendments; from access to quality healthcare to the ongoing history of eugenics that minimizes both Black pain and proximity to death. The list could (and should) go on, and we are hoping you join us in helping to mold and address our emerging priority list. Together, there is no limit to the futures we can create.