Junot Díaz talk discusses social activism in academia

Presented by the Brown Center for Students of Color’s Heritage Series, Junot Díaz came to Salomon auditorium Saturday night for a conversation about social activism in academia. Open to the public, the lecture was the keynote talk for the 2015 Latinx Ivy League Conference at Brown. The event was organized by the Latino Heritage Series Programmers, Lehidy Frias ’17 and Kiki Tapiero ’17.

Junot Díaz is the author of DrownThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and This is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller. Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was six years old. Díaz currently teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is an outspoken voice for social activism and justice.

Ignoring the lectern set up for the event, Junot Díaz walked up to the lip of the stage. He explained, “I do have comments prepared, you don’t get as nerdy as me and not come ready to roll,” but that he wanted to switch the order of the lecture, given what has happened this week on campus. Díaz transformed the structure of his lecture into a discussion, having students’ questions direct the conversation. Here is what we talked about:

With people who don’t seem to care, you must approach a conversation with compassion.

Díaz explained that “nothing is more politicized than the status quo,” and that many of us grow up weaned on status quo mentality. “Back then, when someone resisted the status quo, we were troubled by it. Remember how uncomfortable we were, how quickly we wanted the conversation to change.” Díaz reminded the audience that “we are not born activists,” and that it’s easy to forget how “messed up we used to be.” As such, Díaz explained his baseline for these types of conversations “always starts with compassion,” and that you must remember that the person you are angry at might have been you once.

Graduating is an act of defiance. 

One student asked Díaz how one might deal with racist and oppressive professors, given a situation where the instructor and student are in such an imbalance of power, with the instructor in control of the student’s grades and view of the world. Díaz explained that we must wrestle with the idea that this has “never been a safe space for us.” Díaz continued, “Where is safe? Where you’re from? Your neighborhood? You’re bugging if you think you’re safe in your home. We fight to get to college, thinking it will be a safe space, only to find out it was a lie.” Díaz explained, “You must recognize that we are in an educational system of deep scarcity. A couple students of color get in, and the door is shut.”

Díaz addressed the students of color in the audience: “My goal is that as many of you will graduate. There’s a million at home holding down the fort. The bench is full. We don’t need one more of you home, holding home down. We need you to be here, and to graduate. You survived growing up black, brown, yellow, Indigenous, and survived. This shit is cake… There are two options, fight or kneel. Our ancestors spent a lot of time kneeling, so we would have a chance to fight.”

For students, artists, and activists – create, even if nobody cares.

Another student asked how one may exist in in the “intersection of being a student, artist, and activist.” Díaz discussed the inherent struggle of being an artist, especially an artist of color: “Look gang, if you are an artist, allow me to disabuse you of something – you will need a regular job. Don’t confuse a lottery with a possibility.” Díaz explained that accolades like the Pulitzer Prize that transformed his career were arbitrary and lucky, and that this success was even more rare as an artist of color. “I’m an artist of color, trying to write about a community no one cares about. The only people who care about Domincans are Domincans and people who like dating them. If you are in a society addicted to whiteness, and you are not catering to whiteness, you are subject to struggle.” However, Díaz implored artists to keep pursuing writing and art for the sake of enjoyment: “It is your love that keeps you to it, even if nobody cares. As artists, we are creating not for a present but for a future that has not yet arrived.”

Do your reading. 

Bedour Alagraa, a PhD candidate in Africana Studies, asked, “How can we recenter black women in their rightful place as producers of insurgent epistemologies?” Díaz emphasized the importance of Alagraa’s question, asking the audience, “you might have heard that ‘Black Lives Matter’ was created by black women, but can you name two of them?” Díaz spoke of the gender bias used to guarantee the “marginalization of our leading philosophers.” Díaz explained that “there are people who think ‘intersectionality‘ dropped out of the sky and can’t name the black woman who theorized it.” Díaz urged the audience to do the research, finishing his talk by reiterating that “Black women in the 80s laid out the framework for this conversation today. If you are not reading about your liberation, there’s a problem.”

Make concrete demands.

Díaz talked about his experience as a MFA student at Cornell in the ’90s, and his role in the 1993 Latino student movement at the university. He explained, “Four years is the hardest part of student activism. The memory reboots completely.” From his leadership role in the 1993 takeover at Cornell, which protested the underrepresentation and underserving of Latinos at the university, Díaz explained how he knows the “only thing that works is institutions. Demand 10 [tenure] lines for women of color scholars. Fight for the concrete gains. Demand a new dorm, create a safe space of your own.”

Take care of yourself, because the self-talk will kill you.

A student asked “how we can actively take care of each other while all this is happening?” to which Díaz replied, “You got to do it, but I don’t have the advice for you.” Díaz explained that students at elite institutions must learn compassion, because compassion is not something that will come naturally, because of the self-talk and the struggle that they have gone through to get to where they are.

“Most people who get into select institutions have no conception of compassion, because compassion starts with compassion towards self. To craft yourself into a person to get the needed grades, you become cruel with yourself. How do you drive yourself when you are exhausted? The whip. You drive yourself beyond compassion. How much of your internal regime is based on cruelty? Self-talk like ‘I’m stupid. I’m a fraud. I’m fat. I’m lazy.’ As young people of color, we drive ourselves to superhuman limits to get to these schools. But when you are here, you cannot survive like that. You have to put the whip down. The self-talk will kill you. You must draw what your whip looks like, whether ‘I’m stupid. I’m fat. I’m lazy.’ Then you must begin, every time that whip cracks, to tell yourself no. They tell you it’s the only way, but you cannot live long like that.”

If you are not practicing altruism now, you will not in the future.

One student asked Díaz, “When should I turn around? When is it time to stop and go back [home]?” Díaz urged the audience to be “really honest about your privilege. You’ve got to have a conversation with your privilege, parallel to your conversation with your disenfranchisement.”

Díaz likened practicing selflessness as like practicing running. “Like being a runner, the best times to start is either five years ago or today. You have to give back to the community or else what is the use. If you are not practicing altruism now, you will not in the future.”

“Start by using a tiny bit of your privilege to help other people. When you help other people, it reminds you that you are not the pinnacle of suffering, and realizing that is a great relief.”

Pursue all of it.

Díaz concluded his talk by addressing a student’s question of how these ideas can be spread back home. Díaz acknowledged the difficulty of bringing ideas like intersectionality back to the dinner table, remembering that in his town growing up, the college graduates were the enemies. “We’re the enemy and why shouldn’t they think that. When we go off to college and come back, we come back brand new, and need to regain trust. If you drop out of a conversation, there will never be a chance.”

Díaz explained the importance of the ‘hand-to-hand’ work back home: “Being discursive about the importance of college is not important. Go back home and do work. Help someone with their college essay, check in on their homework every week. If you get one kid to college who wouldn’t have gone to college, you have transformed the universe.”

Towards the end of his talk Díaz reminded student activists in the audience: “We have no idea which tactic the future will require. So, try to pursue all of them.” With some parting words, Díaz explained:

“There is no safe space for you. You must understand home is not safer than here. We need you here. The fucked up shit outside is the fucked up shit here. When you go to college, it’s a loss of innocence. Most of us mourn that universities are as fucked up as the places back home.”

“In the end, we’re incredibly proud of you. This school was asleep a couple years ago, and you’ve woken it up.”

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