Dr. Lisa Brock is currently the Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She is the senior editor of the Praxis Center, an online resource center for Scholars, Activists and Artists. She serves as a Trustee on the Davis Putter Scholarship fund for radical student activists. Since the early 1990s, Brock has been researching and writing on African-American solidarity with South Africa and Cuba liberation struggles and important issues in the African Diaspora History. She also teaches courses on Black History, and is working on a book project entitled: Enslavement and Resistance in Two Black Atlantic Port Cities, Charleston and Havana. During her undergraduate career at Howard University, Lisa joined the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (DC). This led her to become active in campaigns, including being the chairperson of the Terrence Johnson Defense Committee, which supported Terrence, a 15-year-old victim of Police Brutality in Maryland. While getting her PhD at Northwestern University, she served in the leadership of the Chicago anti-apartheid movement and could be seen often on “Chicago Tonight”. Because of her anti-apartheid work both in Mozambique and after, she was invited as an honored guest to the African National Congress’ Centennial Celebration in 2012. Lisa and her husband, Otis Cunningham, became key coordinators of the Venceremitos Project which for many years sent children from the US to the Jose Marti Pioneer Camp in Cuba, which hosted thousands of children from over 40 countries each summer.
Welcome to the Radical Zone podcast, where we get updates on the current state of the world and how various communities are impacted from activists and organizers who are out there doing the work. The Radical Zone podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. I know you’re probably wondering what the Arcus Center is. The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership also known as ACSJL is an initiative of Kalamazoo College, whose mission is to develop and sustain leaders in human rights and social justice through education and capacity building.
We envision a world where every person’s life is equally valued. The inherent dignity of all people is recognized. The opportunity to develop ones full potential is available to every person and systematic discrimination and structural inequities have been eradicated. Listen to and engage in conversation with organizers and activists across the globe about social inequities that impact us all.
Hey you all, thanks for tuning in. My name is Rhiki Swinton and I’m the Center Manager of the Arcus Center. I have with me my co-host, Tirrea Billings.
Before we get started, I want to take time to acknowledge the recent current events that have happened in our society regarding police brutality in the deaths of unarmed Black people. We will discuss police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in our BLM series in the near future, so be on the lookout for that. But today we want to take the time to talk with Dr. Lisa Brock, the Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership about her journey into this work of organizing and activism.
Dr. Lisa Brock is a radical intellectual and activist. She holds a doctorate in African history from Northwestern University. She is the Academic Director and Acting Executive Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Her articles on people of African descent in Africa and the Americans have appeared in dozens of academic journals and as book chapters. She is the co-editor of Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban Revolution with Digna Castaeda Fuertes. Faculty Ameritas at the University of Havana.
Her latest book project is a comparative study of enslavement and resistance in Charleston and Havana at the turn of the 18th Century. As an historian and activist, Dr. Brock is an internationalist who views history as a way to enter contemporary discussions about race, class, gender and global inequalities. Living in Mozambique in the 1980s, she worked with Mandela’s African National Congress and in the 1980s/1990s was a national coordinator of the [inaudible 00:03:03] project in solidarity with Cuba. She has organized study trips to Cuba and South Africa. Welcome Dr. Brock.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.
So, Lisa how have you been since COVID-19 and the start of the self-quarantine?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
It’s been tough. It’s been very tough trying to figure out how to reorganize and recalibrate the center virtually has not been easy. But I think the bigger issue has been watching people die in this country and the lack of any kind of real national leadership that would mediate some of these deaths and these issues. So I feel like people are dying in ways that they shouldn’t have to. And so that’s been really, really difficult as well. But we will survive. One of the things that’s helped me is I think about my grandparents and the Great Depression and Jim Crow and what they all went through and what our ancestors went through. And if they survived that, we can survive this.
Okay. So it’s my understanding that you’re the current Academic Director and the Acting Executive Director of the Arcus Center and that you were there from the beginning. So could you touch a little bit on the development of the center and the idea behind its inception?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yes. I actually came, the center had been in operation for one year when I came. So I am the founding Academic Director, but there was an Executive Director for one year before I came. And we have a dual leadership and directorship model and that was important from the beginning. So the Arcus Center was developed by the former president of Kalamazoo College and Jon Stryker, who is the founder of the Arcus Foundation in New York City, and the Executive Director at that time, Urvashi Vaid.
And the three of them decided that the idea of having social justice within a liberal arts college was something that they thought was important for our times, and that Kalamazoo College could be a national and international leader on this issue of bringing social justice to the liberal arts. And so it came about with that discussion and the Arcus Foundation endowed the center at $23 million, in addition to $5 million for the first few years. And the idea of a building, a modern building that social justice was seen as a part of was also a part of the early discussions. And the first few years we did not have the building, but the building was finally finished in the fall of 2014.
And according to Gang Studios, the architectural firm and Jeanne Gang, the principal there, according to Jeanne, this is the only building that she knew of at the time that was built with the concept of social justice in mind. While there are other social justice centers around the world and religious justice centers around the world, those buildings weren’t built necessarily with social justice in mind. And so the Arcus Center is unique in many ways both in terms of what we do, and also the fact that we’re in a liberal arts institution and the fact that we have a building that’s won many awards because it took social justice in mind in the conception of the structure of the building.
Yes, yes. So for those who are not familiar, the Arcus Center is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is a part of Kalamazoo College. The Arcus Center has not only improved the cultural climate at Kalamazoo College and the surrounding community, but it’s also had a national impact as well. Lisa, could you talk about some of the projects and / people that came through the Arcus Center and kind of the result of the work done with those people in the projects that it has in the broader community?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yes. This has been so exciting. As you say, we’ve worked with student activists on campus to bring about a lot of change on campus, which has been great. And I should mention that most of that came through student protests. And I think with the social justice center here, we were able to offer them a kind of, I always like to say we are the wind behind their sails, and probably had we not been here they would not have found that wind. And so I think that we’ve been able to really, really assist in changing the climate here, but a lot of it did come from student’s own initiative and student protest.
In terms of the bigger picture nationally and internationally, we’re very proud of the kind of work we’ve been doing here. I mean, one person that was here before #blacklivesmatter was Patrisse Cullors. She came here as a part of our social justice leadership prize. Her organization, Dignity and Power in Los Angeles was a finalist for the prize and they came to campus and presented their work on campus. And that was in 2013. We invited Patrisse back in the fall of 2014 and between 2013 and 2014 that the Trayvon Martin case had inspired Patrisse and two other Black queer women to start #blacklivesmatter.
And in August of 2014, when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and left to lie on the street for over four hours, literally to bleed out in his community. I mean, can you imagine the community that you grew up in and the police shoot you and all the people that saw you grow up there can’t get to you because they’ve surrounded the body and allowed you to lay in the street for four hours. It was just outrageous. And so Patrisse came back in fall of 2014 and she credits the Arcus Center with some of her development. So we’re very proud because of course Black Lives Matter became a huge thing and she was one of the founders of that.
We also have had regional fellows and we’ve worked with faculty here. One of our regional fellows was Cosecha, an organization that works with undocumented people in the area. And they worked with a faculty member, Dr. Francisco Vegas and his students to develop a county ID program so that anyone who lives in Kalamazoo County can get an ID. A lot of undocumented people were unable to get driver’s license, and so they did not have an ID and this allowed them to have an ID. And they came up with a rubric that they were able to present to the county officials
And so undocumented folks, they bring in a bill, they bring in something that establishes an address and they can get a county ID. And so we’re very excited about that. We had a lot of community partners in the city, restaurants that would give 5% discount if you got a county ID so all of us can get a county ID, so you don’t have to be undocumented to have a county ID. So we all got a county ID in order to support our undocumented and our homeless population so that they could get an ID.
One final thing I’ll mention, and these are just three is we worked with native Americans who were regional fellows, and they were working on getting rid of racist mascots. That’s a big tradition in the US to call a sports team, the Indians, or the Redskins or things like that. And we managed just recently, the result of all that work, that the high school near us, Paw Paw changed their mascot from the Redskins because of that kind of wor
And probably the biggest thing was getting rid of a racist anti-native American fountain down in the major park of Kalamazoo through the work of regional fellows here in the city. We were able to convince the city commission to get rid of that fountain. It took a lot of organizing work, and we’re really proud that we were able to support that work and for that to actually have been the result. So I think having the center here, we don’t create the struggle, but we provide added value to the struggles that are going on by providing support, by providing education, by providing capacity building for people
Wow. I think it’s just so cool to hear about like the different people Arcus work with. I know I love Patrisse Cullors and her book or their book on When They Call You a Terrorist is one of my favorites. So just knowing that Patrisse worked with Arcus is so cool.
Yeah, definitely second that.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
It is. It’s really cool.
So Lisa, you were heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movement and various efforts surrounding the issues of apartheid, specifically in Africa. And so based on that, can you talk about the work and how the apartheid struggle impacted Black Americans?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
It’s interesting. I’ll tell a story about my grandmother, mama Lou. So mama Lou, she’s not your sweet grandmother, even though she could cook great. She’s kind of the salty one, the one that if you don’t treat her right, she going to tell you about it. And if you don’t do right, she going to tell you about it. And she don’t want you messing around in her garden and that kind of stuff, all with love. But I remember telling my grandmother, she said, “What are you doing these days?” And I told her, I was working against apartheid in South Africa. She said, “What’s that?”
And I said, “Well, it’s a country in Africa called South Africa. They have a White minority, about 10% of the people are White people from Europe that settled there and they have taken all the power. They got all the guns. They set up a constitution in the country where only White people can vote. Only White people can own property. Only White people can have passports to travel and Africans are forced off their land and into the mines and are subject to a Nazi-like fascism.” So mama Lou said, “What? In Africa? Africa is Black people.” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “White people in Africa doing that?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “That’s horrible.” She said, “I’m so glad your doing that work.” She said, “But be careful because you know White people here will kill you too.”
So I think the connection between South Africa and Blacks in the United States was very clear to people. And it’s actually not just metaphorically or philosophically clear. Actually South African studied Indian reservations to come up with the reserve system for Africans and the township system for … and the so-called homelands for Africans in South Africa. They literally studied the United States Indian reservations to figure out how to put Africans in reservations. So the connection was very direct.
And very similarly, I remember when we were organizing against the racist sports teams that had come here, we realized that they had studied Jim Crow for segregation as well. And that there were a lot of partnerships between segregationist and racist in this country and apartheid and they’re racist. And in fact, almost all of the Western government supported apartheid, which was why it was such a hard battle. It took so many people internationally to defeat because American, German, French, British, Dutch companies made a lot of money in South Africa. And Gold, De Beer Diamonds, JB Robinson, gold, uranium, platinum all of these kinds of things were sold to the west by the White apartheid government. They had a very, very tight relationship. So it took a lot, a lot of struggle to overturn that system for many years
A lot of people don’t realize that the African National Congress was actually founded in 1912. Mandela went to jail in the ’60s. He didn’t get out until 1990 and it wasn’t until 1994 that they had their first democratic election where everybody could vote. And all those restrictions of apartheid were finally overturned. A lot of people died. A lot of people struggled. It was a hard fight, but it was worth it. And it was so clearly wrong that it did garner the attention of the entire world and especially Black Americans who felt a special tie to South Africa because of the particular way that racism was structured there.
I think it’s so interesting in what you said, like a lot of people, we like to think of America as this progressive country, but when you were saying that they actually studied our Indian reservations and studied Jim Crow to figure out how to oppress people in Africa, like that really hit.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things when we think about solidarity at the bottom, we always have to also think that there’s racist, capitalists, elitists, fascist solidarity at the top too. And if it wasn’t that then the power that they have wouldn’t be as stark as it is. And one of the things that always bothers me is people like President Trump will say like, he’ll stoke a kind of American nationalism as if we’re this great country, we’re going to make it great again and he stokes that among a particular set of Americans. When in reality the elite, and he gets his shirts from China and Mexico. I mean, the elite is always international and not nationalist. They’re not nationalists. It’s just a rhetoric to oppress people because they are cutting deals across the world all the time.
And like right now, this anti-China thing, I have to bring this in because people are led to believe that somehow China stole our jobs. China didn’t steal our jobs. Walmart and American companies went to China. So the fact that iPhones are made in China, it’s not a Chinese company, it’s Apple in China. So the issue is the goods in Walmart are not being made by Chinese companies, they’re made by Chinese for Walmart in China, because labor is cheaper.
I’ll say one more thing and I know I don’t want to belabor this too much, but I’ll go back to apartheid. I remember one of the big struggles we had in Chicago with the … well, there were all kinds, there was the labor movement against apartheid. There were churches against apartheid. There were all kinds of folks against apartheid. And in Chicago with the labor movement, we realized that, I think it was like 1981, ’82, they were shutting down the huge remaining steelworks in South Chicago that had employed for years, hundreds of thousands of workers from all over the world who had immigrated to Chicago to work in the steel mills.
And it had been whittled down over the years because they were getting steel from other places in the world and one of the places was South Africa. And I remember when the last of South Work Steel Works were shut down, I mean, literally workers went to work one day and there was a padlock saying we’re closed. And so they were fighting. It was like, I don’t know, 60,000 people fighting for their pensions, fighting in the courts, fighting for back pay, fighting for all kinds of stuff. And we realized at that time that downtown Chicago, the State of Illinois building, which is right across from city hall was being built and it was being built by South African steel.
So it was cheaper because of apartheid labor, which they were paying them nothing. It was cheaper to import steel from South Africa than to pay workers on the south side of Chicago decent wages to build that building. And that’s the way the international economy works. And so, one of the things we always say, if they’re exploiting workers somewhere else, it’s not going to be good for you. So if they’ve taken our jobs to China, then that puts workers out of work here. Its not China’s fault, it’s American companies fault.
But the anti-apartheid movement, from what I know from talking with you and kind of reading up on some of the materials you sent us was not just a big movement with one organization, it was made up of a lot of small organizations who were working towards a common goal. So given your involvement in that movement and thinking about the successes of that movement, what advice could you give to Black organizers and just organizers and activists in general about what we can take from that movement and put towards our movements to better the racial climate in America?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
You see, I can go on about this stuff, ladies. That’s interesting. I think one of the things we understood back in the day, and I’m not quite sure … Well, one of the things we can learn is organizing. See, organizing is not just holding a rally. It’s not just putting out a petition, organizing is going to churches. I mean, we went to churches. We went to union halls. We went to synagogues. We went to all kinds of places and we presented the case about why apartheid was bad and why they should be joining us in this struggle against apartheid.
And so it’s that level of organizing that I think we need to kind of get back to. We need to go into places and start talking about racism. It’s really interesting because, or the lack of rights and begin to work to win allies and to win people over, and to get more people involved. And so, one of the things I love about the Arcus Center is that we’re not just involved in struggles for social justice, but in creating leadership so that people can go out and do that. Wherever they land, they’re going out to be a social justice leader and that’s what I think.
And by leader, I don’t mean someone who’s going to be up on the hill teaching the masses from it, like way up or talking from a podium or a pedestal. But someone who’s going to understand the way the system works, the way oppression works, the way racism works and can work with people to bring them along to change the system. And that’s what leadership is. Is working with people, providing them with some guidance. Providing them with information. Helping them become leaders in their own communities, and working with the leaders in the communities that are already there.
I mean, the Civil Rights Movement was a huge example of that with Fannie Lou Hamer and Septima Clark in Charleston, Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi. I mean, these are just regular sisters who became mega, mega leaders in their communities. And you have to be brave when you’re fighting this stuff. And that’s the other thing I think. I mean, when we were doing this work, I went to jail and it was frightening, but when you put yourself out there, these are the things you got to have to do. Dr. King went to jail. And I think when you start challenging systems, you have to really also give people courage and hope to come along, to work with you and to work towards justice.
One of the things I’ve found too about leadership and about struggle is that not everybody is going to stand out and be a leader on their own, but if you are prepared to work with them and provide leadership, they will definitely get involved and be a part of the movement. So I think leadership gives people, they say, “Wow, there’s somebody out there. If they’re going to do it, I can do it too.” And I think that’s the kind of hope. And so King kind of represented that. There were a lot of women around King that did a lot of organizing, but King represented something for people and made them brave enough and courageous enough to step out, to come forward, to get involved in the struggle. We need masses of people in the street when this COVID is over and we don’t need to go back, we need to stay in the streets. Yeah, so what do you all think? Let me ask you this, what did you all know about the anti-apartheid movement coming up or about apartheid?
I honestly didn’t know much about it prior to meeting you, like the way it was described to me in school. Well, you already know the way history is taught in the school system is, it waters down a lot of the information. So it was basically taught to me as just the form of racism that people in South Africa were experiencing, but that’s all that I got, I didn’t really get to learn about it in detail. So yeah, prior to meeting you, I didn’t know much about the apartheid movement at all. I knew whom Nelson Mandela was, and I know he got locked up and I know apartheid was a problem, but that’s about it.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Well, one of the misnomers, I think, is that when they talk about Jim Crow or when they talk about apartheid, they call it segregation. Segregation was the result of oppression and fascism. I mean, if you spit on the ground in the south or you went to the white water fountain, you could get beat up, I call that fascist, you could get jailed. And I mean, it was physical harm if you stepped out of line. And sometimes physical harm, if you didn’t step out of the line in both places. And so it’s not just segregation, is that segregation requires social control. It requires repression. It requires the police and somebody to tell you to stay in your place.
And we see that right now with this young man who was shot jogging in Georgia. The fact that he did not respond to a regular White person as if he’s supposed to, is a part of our legacy, the legacy of what that period left on us.
Based on the video you sent us about the Kamoinge-Ferman scholarship, it seems as though South Africans are really connected to the transitional times in their history. So based on that, what are some ways Black Americans can better connect to American history?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yeah, so interesting, is called Kamoinge-Ferman because a student of mine, Tery Ferman, African-American came to me and she says, she was actually a model and an actor. She had been in the original Miami Vice believe it or not, the TV show. And she had come back to school to get a degree in theater after actually acting and modeling. And she had lived all over the world and she said, “Lisa, so many people, African-Americans don’t get to travel and I want to do something about it. And can we work together to try to create a scholarship?”
And so the Kamoinge photographers, this was a group of activists, photographers that emerged in the 1950s and continues until today. And what we decided to do, she knew some of the Kamoinge folks and we decided to hold a huge auction of their work. I didn’t even realize how well known they were. And they gave us half the proceeds of the sales of their work. And we made about $30,000 in that one night to start this scholarship for … the way we framed it was for African-American students, and/or people involved in the African-American community or African-American studies.
And it still exists today at Columbia College, my previous institution where I worked, and it was a way for students to get funding to do international travel. Yeah. And so I took a group of students, the first time we used it was taking a group of students to South Africa. And it was great because they met a lot of the folks that I knew at the time from the movement who actually … I’ll never forget, we were on a bus. Keep in mind this is just the post-apartheid system like only two years after it was over. And we were on a bus with a White bus driver with this tour company that we had booked and he didn’t want to go into one of the townships where Black people live. It’s like going to Harlem or going to the West side of Chicago or the North side of Kalamazoo, right?
And he’s like, “Oh, we can’t go over there.” But I knew people there. We were going to meet with the activist in that community and he didn’t want to go. So I called the person I knew because we had brought him from South Africa. He was like a city commissioner now for the township. I called him up and said, “This guy won’t bring us there.” And he got on the phone with that guy and that guy was driving up in that township. So it was something to be there at that time because racism, the people who created and lived with apartheid were still there and still racist. You don’t change that overnight and it hasn’t even changed completely today. They don’t have power to do what they did before, but a lot of them still have the same ideas. So just like here.
From watching the video you sent us about the scholarship and its establishment, something I took away from it is that South Africans, just seem like they’re really connected to the transitional times in their history. And so I’m curious to know what you think about what are some ways Black Americans can be better connected to our American history, our African-American history?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
It’s a challenge because in the US until you get to college, you very often don’t even learn some of the counter narratives and alternative views. This sort of what we call history from below, or the fact that history has been silenced. Here you don’t learn any of that. And the vast majority of Americans, and in fact, a decreasing number of Americans are not even going to college where they might get a better sense of American history. So to me, the only way we are going to completely change this system is we have to have a massive overhaul of this system, because if we don’t … we have to change the power structure so that we can have control over the education system at the lower levels.
And I know there’s a history in the ’60s and ’70s of Black Americans creating small independent Afro centered schools. We used to call them Watotos, which is school in Swahili. And so people were doing that, but it is very difficult for those kinds of schools to educate the millions. You know what I’m saying? Can educate some, but in terms of educating the millions, it’s very difficult to do that. And that there’s a very tight rein on textbooks. They’re produced by a very small number of people, and the reason I believe is because I’ve always said, whoever controls the master narrative of history is going to control the way people turn out and the way they feel they belong to a society.
So I think Black Americans have to study on their own. I mean, one of the things that back in the ’60s and ’70s we did is we had study groups. We had book clubs. I used to hold a Saturday school for my son and his friends and some of the friend’s parents. They had special skills. They could teach, and we would teach them what they weren’t getting in school and that was Black history. So I taught Black history, another young man’s father taught Swahili. Another one taught painting and drawing, and we called it Saturday school. And so you can do that for a small number of people. But like I say, I think those are ways that Black Americans can better connect to American history.
And one of the things I love to do and is to go out and talk to groups about Black history because it’s just so much they don’t know. It’s just so much we don’t know. I was reading the other day, a friend of mine called me because he didn’t know … it was about Black history in Cuba. This poet, Placido in the 1840s was killed by the Spanish government. He was a poet, a Black poet. They said he was organizing a slavery vote and he got killed by the Spanish government because of his abolitionists activities.
But then Martin Delaney, this is in my book that I did with Digna. When the first African-American novel, considered first African-American novel was a novel called Blake. And it was about a Black man in Virginia, former slave, who goes all over the Americas to organize a mass Pan-African, Pan-American slave uprising. It’s fiction, but he launches the uprising in Cuba. And the poet Placido, reads one of his poems as the moment in which the revolution begins.
And so Placido lived in Cuba as a Black poet in the 1840s. Delaney is an African-American, wrote this novel in the 1850s. And so it shows you that there’s also this connection of Black people throughout the world that’s been in existence since enslavement and colonialism. Not everybody knows it because not everyone has access to it or not everybody was involved because not everybody kind of had the ability to know what was happening in other places, but a lot of people did.
I think what you were saying about a lot of people don’t even have access to knowledge about Black history and like other facets of our history until college is so true. And then thinking about, it isn’t that it’s provided to you once you get into college, you kind of have to self-select into those courses. So yeah, history, at least the American history and my perception is just so … I don’t even know if I want to call it history because like the narrative has been so manipulated into what they want us to hear and want us to believe that it’s almost like it isn’t factual anymore.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
That’s right. And what I say too is that, it’s very easy to grow up as a White person to be racist in this country because you don’t know what Africans and people of African descent have contributed to humanity. I used to say about my son, my son studied Shakespeare, if he had done, was it Hamlet or Macbeth? I think it was Hamlet. He studied Hamlet in fifth grade. He studied Hamlet in eighth grade. He studied Hamlet in 11th grade. You see what I’m saying? Shakespeare. I mean, Shakespeare was a great writer of course, but what about Mansa Musa? What about all the African leaders that built kingdoms and built great stuff and left archives, or Timbuktu in Mali, one of the earliest libraries in the world.
But see people, they don’t know that. So by the time you’re an adult, White people say, “Wow, Black people haven’t done nothing, they’re just lying around.” And a lot of Black people, they know they’d done something, but they don’t have a counter-argument because they don’t have the details, they don’t have … And so until we deal with this kind of education system, I think we’re going to continue to repeat.
So switching gears kind of back to Cuba. So for people who don’t know, Lisa has done work in various places, Cuba being one of them. So can you speak a little bit more about the work you do in Cuba and the issues that they’re facing there?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yeah. Cuba, well, one of the things you should know is that as a social justice leader and I’m going to say it here. I’m a revolutionary. I just don’t believe we can get out of the traps of the past until we have a real revolution. Now, what that means, how incremental or overnight it is, how much military struggle would have to be or not, all of that’s in the detail. But when I say revolution, I mean a complete transformation of our power structure and what we value in the United States.
One of the things that has interested me both in Cuba and in South Africa, when the struggle was happening is I thought there were a lot of lessons that we could learn from their struggles here. And so some people say, “South Africa, Cuba, African-Americans, Lisa those seem like really different places and issues, how are you so interested in all those places?” Well, it’s because I’m a revolutionary and I’m interested in how we can make change. And I want to see the successes and the failures of all of these other struggles, so that as we move forward in this country, we don’t make the same mistakes and we can also learn from them.
Of course, every place is different. South Africa has a Black majority and a Black … they never lost their culture, their languages and all of that. And so that meant a whole lot difference for us in this country. In Cuba, Cuba is an American, Caribbean, Latin American country, an island of 10 million, 11 million people. It’s multiracial like us because its history is also the history of enslavement. So there’s a lot of similarities there. They have a majority people of color, Black and what they call mixed race there. The mixed race people there would be considered Black here, but there in Latin America is a little different, but they all considered themselves Black in the struggle against enslavement like we did.
And so the Cuban revolution was very interesting to me because here you got a country of 10 or 11 million people. And they had been colonized first by Spain and then as soon as they defeated Spain, the US intervenes and takes control. And so then they have a neo-colonial power that owns almost everything in Cuba, up until 1959 when the revolution happened. But they had a revolution. They changed the power structure. They changed the value structure. And I was like, dang, a country of 10, 11 million people defeat the United States, 300 million people with all the guns and the armaments.
And so I was like, I want to study that place. How did they do that? And so that’s kind of what got me involved in Cuba because I’ve always been interested also in the relationship between the past and the present, right? So I’m a historian, but I’m also involved in the present. History helps inform the present and you can see the present through history. So academically and scholarly, I’ve been very interested in history, but actually sort of in terms of where I put my commitments and my boots on the ground, it has been as an activist, a solidarity activist of these two places.
So Cuba actually has been very interesting to me because I mean, even right now, Cuba sending doctors abroad because they train some of the best doctors in the world. And so, one of the things that Cuba did, which I found so interesting is that they’re an underdeveloped country. They ain’t got no money. They ain’t got a whole lot of resources. They’ve been exploited like other colonies in the world. But one of the things they did, they said, “We’re going to put our resources in our human capital. We got human beings, don’t we? We can train them to be engineers. We can train them to be doctors. And that’s what is going to be our selling point in the world.”
And so they have engaged in what I call solidarity as foreign policy. They send engineers to Africa. They send doctors all over the world right now. They went into Italy. The Italians were clapping. The Italians have nominated the Cubans Medical Solidarity Corps, the medical Corps during this COVID, they’ve nominated them for a Nobel prize, peace prize. So Cuba has a different value system, it’s human and not material. So you can’t be rich in Cuba. You can’t, they won’t let you. The US sees that as repressive. The Cuban see it as spreading the resources evenly.
Some of their challenges that they face, they still have some elements of racism in the ideology, but they don’t have social inequities like we do here. They don’t have health disparities based on race. So this all kinds of things that they’ve managed to handle and change that I think we can learn from. So I think everyone who goes to Cuba is … They also didn’t have a history of segregation like us. So the first thing you notice when you go to Cuba is the neighborhoods are all mixed up. They’re not racially segregated. And you don’t have class divisions in quite the same way. They haven’t been able to solve everything. It’s just not the same way.
One of the challenges recently has been that most of the people who left Cuba, 94% of the folks who left because of the revolution were White, rich Cubans and they all landed in Miami. They’re very anti-revolution because they lost things because the Cuban said, “You can have one house, you can choose, but you can’t have five houses when we have homeless people.” So they seize property. They seized American property. They wanted to relate to Americans as country to country, not colony to colonizer. The US did not like that, they’ve been trying to destroy the revolution ever since.
And people often ask me, why does the US hate Cuba? So it’s a country of 10 million people, it’s not a military threat, it’s an ideological threat. And it’s a multiracial society. So anyone who goes to Cuba might see something different. So yeah, so Cuba is facing a lot of stuff. The US is trying to strangle. Literally under Trump, they’re seizing ships trying to go to Cuba and that’s illegal, but there’s no court in the world to deal with some of these things.
But I tell you, one thing is they’re bad now. They’re bad asses now. The Cubans ain’t going to let the US invade them. And one of the things that the US has not been able to do is to find a small group of people like there’ve been cultivating in Venezuela to overturn Cuba. They’ve tried. They’ve invaded. They’ve they engaged in biological warfare. US has done all kinds of things to Cuba, but the Cuban revolution has been strong. And they’d rather have a chair that they’ve had for 50 yeamight be broke down than to give up their soul for material goods. So they can’t be bought so far. Everything can be changed, but they can’t be bought.
And so the US has not been able to undermine them or to kill them. They’ve undermined them, but they haven’t been able to kill him yet. So I’m interested in how they’ve done that. I think that’s interesting. And we need to learn from them if we’re going to try to take power and change, fight oppression and end oppression in this country.
So, Lisa, I know that you went to the Howard University as a kid. Can you talk your time there and what encouraged you to become a historian?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yeah, I loved Howard. I went there at my junior … at the end of my sophomore year. I initially went to Oberlin College. I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. I had a good scholarship at Oberlin College. Also, I realize now looking back, I was a part of a big affirmative action experiment that Oberlin was doing. They brought in a lot of African-Americans and other students of color by a lot, I mean, like 100 in 1975. But the liberal racism on that campus just ate at me. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to stay there.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
So I transferred to Howard and I did so because I wanted the blackest college in the blackest city in the country at the time because I was like, so sick of racism. I didn’t know what to do because I had also grown up as a minority in my elementary and high school places. Although I had kind of always been an activist, but. So I loved Howard. I’d learned a lot at Howard. Is so interesting, while I was fighting racism other places I had never really understood class within the Black community until I got to Howard. It was definitely some class stuff within the Black community that I was unaware of from my working class community back in Cincinnati.
But at least I didn’t have to deal with racism. And I had wonderful teachers and I had wonderful history teacher. So I became a history major. I had a wonderful teacher from Sudan. I had an African American teacher. I had a Jamaican teacher. People don’t realize that HBCUs are not just Black American, they’re basically, they’re international institutions and a lot of international people of color go there and have historically. So I just loved history. I loved it answered questions for me. If you’ve ever been curious it all starts with, why are we treated this way? Why aren’t we in history? Why don’t I see myself here? Why don’t we have this? Why did this happen? All of those were burning questions for me. And so that’s why I was attracted to history and continue to be because it answers questions for me.
I’d be sitting, looking at archives, I’d be like, wow, no, what, really. I’d be, so that’s the way I respond to history. So it’s like, Whoa, who would have thunk it? So I decided to become a historian there yeah, because of that. And then got my PhD at Northwestern in African history again to satisfy my desire, to know African history as an underlying basis to being a Black person in the world.
So switching gears a little bit to talk about the pandemic that we’re in and facing currently what is your take on the current racial climate in America and its relation to COVID-19?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
What do you think? I want to hear from you two.
Oh, Rhiki’s on the spot.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. This is all going one way.
I would say my perspective is it really is just, I think a lot of people, I don’t want to say we’re complacent, but some of the issues that we were trying to argue for in the Black community kind of fail. I don’t want to say fail silent, but it didn’t seem as pressing. And then when the pandemic came and when we saw who was being affected the most and why it kind of gave an opportunity for those conversations and those issues to be brought back up and to shed some more light on it so, yeah.
And then the whole thing of police brutality, but how we’re taking like a militarized approach to handling the self-quarantine that brought off some more issues that I feel like were falling to the wayside before the pandemic. So I think it’s just making people more aware, but then now we’re in a place where we’re aware of it and we’re trying to figure out how to move forward. And then as we become aware of it, there’re still those other people who want to say “Well, no, it’s not like people are being treated differently. We’re all being treated the same. And the reason why Black people are getting it more than everybody else, it’s just because they’re not self-quarantining,” or we’re doing something wrong and that’s why, and it’s like, no, that’s not true.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
That’s why history is so important because these patterns are the same patterns. It just says over and over and over again. Trayvon was killed by a White vigilante. Now we got Aubrey in Georgia. I mean, and then it was so interesting to me, Rhiki. I mean, listening to what you say, how all of a sudden, oh, African-Americans are dying at a higher rate, right? How did that happen? Why? The media was like, oh, we didn’t know that. Which of course, we didn’t know that. Why, why, why? And then they say, “Oh, it’s health disparities. They don’t have access to certain things. And so therefore they’re more susceptible because they have diseases at a different rate and that’s because of poverty and racism.”
And then you saw it switch to now it’s our fault, right? It’s our fault. And that same thing happens with every African-American that’s killed. All of a sudden everybody’s sad and then all of a sudden they dig up something before the person is even in the ground to try to diminish who they were as a human being. And we’ve been under that forever. And you’re right, this COVID has revealed it again that in terms of health disparities and other things, but the way in which the power structure responds is very similar.
And so we have these peaks and valleys of kind of, I want to say, well, maybe affirmation of the problem or a kind of clear vision of the problem. And then it goes back down again. And so we have to really figure out, to me when we come out of this, how to use this moment to continue to fight for … I mean, to me, universal healthcare, it should be a part of what happens at the end of this. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I think that’s what we need to fight for.
I think another thing that I’ve noticed is I don’t want to say like an oppression Olympics, because that is not necessarily the term that I want to use, but it seems like when the conversation, when there is a spotlight put on racial disparities, there’s always somebody else that comes in and it’s like, no, we should really focus on the working class because that’ll cover Black people and poor White people, or we should focus on health disparities on everyone. It’s like, whenever we put the spotlight on racism, somebody else says, no, we should keep it broad because we’ll lose other people, if we focus just on race. And it’s like, no, if we focus on race, we’ll like help Black communities and people of color, and in doing so other people will benefit from that help.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
That’s right, you got that right. As they say it’s like Angela Davis says, “If Black women are free, then everybody else’s free.” Because if people who are oppressed the most are free, then it liberates everybody else from being a part of that oppressive relationship. It’s not a zero sum game. You’re right. It’s not like if one person becomes free, then somebody else’s less free. That’s when a lot of White racists think in this country, but we are a big country with enough resources to take care of everybody. That’s what drives me crazy. I see poor countries like Cuba struggling to spread that chicken around so everybody can eat because they have that value. And here, we got this hoarding at the top. That’s the American problem.
But to go back to your issue of the working class, I really think I mean, girl, I’ve been in this struggle for so long and that’s always been a fight on the left. To say the working class or to so-called deal with certain identities with that are oppressed in the country. And the issue is it has to be both. If you just say working class, you end up with sometimes with some of these White guys with the guns up here in Lansing. They’re working class, but they’re racist. We do not want a working class struggle that does not deal with racism within the working class. And that’s what a lot of people and I hate to say it, it’s usually White male working class folks who don’t want to deal with that.
And the issue is if I don’t want to be in your working class, if in fact I have to still deal with racism, I want the working class to be liberated from racism, and the only way that can happen is if people of color within the working class are able to fight for their power within that class, and fight against racism. If we can’t fight against racism within the working class, and the issue is what we’ve learned is if you don’t talk about racism, White people ain’t going to talk about racism. So you can’t trust White folks are going to solve the race question.
That’s one of the things that the Cuban revolution has taught us. It’s done some things, a lot of good things, but race is something that still, they don’t want to talk about like they should. And that’s one of the things transcultural transnational solidarity among Black people has been able to work in solidarity with Black Cubans around this question. And that’s one of the things that I’ve been able to do and vice versa. So in some ways the Cuban revolution has taught us about class struggle and we’ve helped to work with them on the racial struggle. You know what I mean? But you’re right. I mean, who wants to be in a society they’re still racist if the working class is racist?
Right. What have you seen happening in other countries compared to America around COVID and what are some things that could be like beneficial for America to implement?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
Well, we need a system that takes care of people. One of the thing that COVID has really shown us is that we do not have a people centered society. We have a profit centered society. And a people centered society, so for instance, in Cuba, every single Cuban has been visited by a doctor, every single Cuban because they have community clinics that are equal all over the country. Everybody in a neighborhood has a clinic they go to, a family doctor, they go to. Partly because Cuba made medical school free so you got a lot of doctors, right? We make medical school like this elite thing and very few people can become doctors. So we need more doctors.
And then those doctors need to be working like they work … doctors want to save lives and work with people, not to have insurance companies in the middle, not to be thinking about poverty. So I think we need systems like, we need a more socialistic system, medical system, like they have in Cuba, they have in Sweden, they have in the Scandinavian countries where public health is at the center of the work and humans are at the center and not profit and people trying to figure out how to get rich and make money off of somebody else and blaming the poor for being poor and those kinds of things.
So I think we could learn a lot from … and that’s why I was a Bernie supporter, because he talked about that, universal healthcare, free education. These are things that this society could pay for easily through our tax system. If the rich were taxed at a rate that they need to be taxed. And when I say socialistic, I’m not talking about the old style state communism thing. We’ve learned a lot since then. That didn’t work, it doesn’t work. But so there’s all kinds of ways you can have mixed economies, where the things that support humans are free for people. They’re not free because you’re paying for them through taxes and through the system, but they’re free. They’re when you need them, they’re there for you.
And then things we don’t need can exist in the profit, in the profit world, such as liquor and cigarettes and cars, and just a whole lot of other stuff. Those people can make some money off of it, but they should not make money off of people’s healthcare. They just should not or their education. Those should be right for us. But we have to change the narrative. Like one of the things I’ve been saying, Rhiki and Tirrea is, when people are saying that it’s the government’s money or the government shouldn’t give bail outs or payouts or welfare, that’s our money, that’s our money. We just need to keep that in mind. That’s the people’s money. That’s not Trump’s money. It’s not Mitch McConnell’s money. It’s not the elite’s money, it’s our money. And so we need to figure out ways to get our money back and take care of our human needs.
So we are getting ready to wrap this up, but before we go, Lisa, just can you tell us about some projects that you’re working on now or what’s to come with the Arcus Center.
Dr. Lisa Brock:
It’s been tough because people’s energy levels are down. I’m struggling with what leadership looks like. How much I can press people to work, how much I shouldn’t. I don’t believe in pressing people to do anything. I want people to be excited and to do their passion work like we were doing before COVID. So I think trying to find our passion and our excitement in this period is the thing I’m going to work on the most for our staff while we help provide resources and information to our people out there in the college communities, the higher education community, the Kalamazoo community and the national and global world. And so just trying to figure all that out, like a whole lot of other places I think is what we’re all working on now.
And then I have a book project that I’m working on and some writing work that I’ve been doing. So I have a journal coming out soon that I edited on Black Cuban revolutionaries, so that’s what I’m doing. Yeah. I’m waiting, everything’s ready to go except a few little copyright agreements between Cuba and here. One thing I’ll say is that international solidarity among us and I mean, but I always have to think about our ancestors. I always say, it’s not for the faint of heart because you’re often battling these powerful international structures. So it requires a level of commitment that I think is important to remember. But there’s so many blessings that come out of it.
I’ll never forget when I first went to South Africa and Ahmed Kathrada, who was one of the Mandela eight, he had been in jail with Mandela all those years. He said, “Oh, I heard about you, Lisa Brock.” And he took us, he took my students to Robin Island himself, showed us his cell, put us in Mandela’s cell. Talked to us personally about his 27 years in prison. The people, when you engage in solidarity, people are really grateful, but that’s not the right word. They understand that we’re in this together and that you supported them in dark times when it was not easy. And the blessing is that they get that, they understand that. They say, thank you and there’s nothing like that really in the world.
And lastly, we just want to ask you, who inspires you to do the work that you do?
Dr. Lisa Brock:
I had a lot of strong Black women in my life growing up. And it’s hard, probably hard for you all believe, but when I was in high school, Angela Davis was an icon of mine. And who would have known that I would have gotten to work with her and know her so well. And then there’s … so I really admire Angela. I admire, there was a woman named Charlene Mitchell who’s still alive, but in a nursing home. A woman from Harlem, an activist who took me under her wing. She was the leader of the National Alliance against racist and political repression of which I was a member of. She told me so many wise things.
And one of the things I think that’s so important right now, she told me something that stuck with me. When I was your age … okay. So when I was about your age I remember telling her, I’m not voting for anybody because I don’t like them. They’re horrible. They’re evil. They’re racist in terms of presidents, presidential politics. So when I was about 25, I was saying that to Charlene. Charlene said, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” I was like, “What? What did you say?” She says, “That’s stupid Lisa.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because we live in this country that’s got a whole history of genocide, a whole history of racism, a whole history of enslavement and colonialism. The issue is once you know that, you shouldn’t be looking … If the system is the same,” like what she called boujoua capitalist politics. “Then the issue is you don’t vote for who you like. That’s very naive.”
It’s not about who you like. And it’s not about who you like and it’s just one lever. It’s just one little thing in the overall struggle for social transformation. So she says, “It’s just one little thing. You’re making it bigger than it is.” She says, “You vote for the person that will give you the most room to continue to organize for change. That’s how you pick your person.” And that may be a very low bar in terms of whether or not that person is the ultimate person. We are not going to elect a Mandela in this country the way the system is set up now. We are not going to elect a Malcolm X. We are not going to elect a Martin Luther King. We’re not going to elect a Fannie Lou Hamer in the way this system is set up now.
But is there some difference between the two candidates that will help you continue to struggle? And one thing I will say, it is no accident that Black Lives Matter happened during the Obama administration. Part of it is because we had more room to struggle. We had more room. If we go out in the street like we did back then with Ferguson, and even then tanks came out, right? Even then tanks came out. But if we try to struggle under Trump, the way we did back then, we may see something very different because the room for struggle has shrunk under his leadership.
And so Charlene Mitchell was very influential to me. I love her to death. She said a lot of wise things to me. And so I will be voting. I was a Bernie supporter, even though he was a White man. He was not the best on everything. He was the best of the bunch. And Biden now, I’m going to hold my nose and vote for Biden even though he says some wild and crazy things. He’s 78 years old. He has a racist past, but I think that he will give us more room than the path we’re going down now with Trump. So I’m going to vote for Biden, even though I don’t like him. And voting is not an endorsement, voting is simply voting for the candidate that will give you the most room. And that may just be a little room, but the most room to continue to struggle.
Well, thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing with us and dropping that little touch of insight on why we should exercise our right to vote. Thank you all for tuning in to the Radical Zone podcast, where we center radical thinkers and their ideas. See you next time.
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