Bree Newsome speaks about consciousness, activism at GVSU

By Arpan Lobo | 1/18/18 1:50am

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GVL / Dylan McIntyre. Wednesday, February 17, 2018. Bree Newsome speaking at GVSU for MLK week.

On Wednesday, Jan. 17, Grand Valley State University continued its honoring of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by hosting Bree Newsome for a keynote speech on the Allendale Campus.

Newsome is an activist who gained notoriety in 2015 for climbing a flagpole at the State Capitol of South Carolina to remove a Confederate flag shortly after the mass shooting of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist. Her message to GVSU students and community members consisted of being conscious of the societal roles that are assigned to people based on the color of their skin.

"From the time we are babies, as we interact with society and grow, we are socialized into holding thought patterns, beliefs, customs and social roles, and we act these roles out, often unconsciously," Newsome said. "So, what does it mean to be conscious? In this most basic sense, it means to be aware of our unconscious behavior. 

"I'm aware that I am a black woman. But I am also aware that race as it is understood in the United States is largely a social construct with no real basis in biology."

Newsome explained the role of white supremacy in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historical perceptions of people of color and the American Civil War. Newsome, whose ancestors were slaves in South Carolina, reminded listeners that the Confederate symbolism of the Civil War had meaning deeply rooted in white supremacy. Newsome added that the Confederate flag she took down in 2015 had flown over South Carolina since 1961 as a symbol of defiance against the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"Being a child of the South myself and descending from family that has been in the Carolinas for hundreds of years, the meaning of this flag and the social order that it represented was never lost on me," Newsome said. She read quotes from Confederate figures, repeating lines of racially charged hate and intolerance, reminding listeners again of the causes of the Civil War. 

"The Confederacy was formed in the belief that African-Americans should remain in a perpetual state of bondage," she said. "And so the Confederate flag was a banner that first represented slavery, and then, after the South lost the war, it became emblematic of the Jim Crow laws that would govern the South for the next hundred years."

Newsome told attendees that the way to overcome the trauma of the historical plight of African-Americans and the injustices that exist today was to become conscious of self-privilege and the fight for racial equity.

Becoming socially conscious, according to Newsome, is an active decision to be made by individuals. She told listeners that not everyone has to be a larger-than-life figure like King, as leadership is about selflessness.

"It's important that when we give of ourselves that we do it with an understanding of service leadership, that leadership is first and foremost about service and sacrifice for others, and that giving is first and foremost about grace," Newsome said.

"People often speak in terms about this modern movement as being leaderless, but it's more accurate to describe it as leader-ful. There's a common belief in the shared leadership and collective responsibility. Everyone can help lead the way toward a just society."

Newsome finished her speech by encouraging attendees to take the steps toward social justice. Also speaking at the event were Jesse Bernal, vice president for inclusion and equity at GVSU; Bobby Springer, director of the Pathways to College Office and co-chair of the MLK Commemoration Week planning committee; and Kin Ma, fellow co-chair. Cassonya Carter led the Voices of GVSU in song before Newsome's speech.

Newsome's speech was part of GVSU's MLK Commemoration Week. The remaining schedule of events can be found at www.gvsu.edu/mlk.

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