The Truth About Segregation
A Q&A with Reggie Jackson, head griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, following Mission Week 2018: Truth and Reconciliation
What message do you want Marquette students, faculty, and Milwaukee community members to take away from your speech?
What I want people to know is that when we talk about truth and reconciliation, the most important part is truth. We try to get to reconciliation before we get through the truth. The truth is always very difficult, and it’s things we don’t learn about in school. We live most our lives not really knowing the truth, and that impacts our ability to get to a place where we can have conversations about reconciliation. We come in with a lack of clarity of American history, and this applies to all of us: Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, everybody. We all learn the same history in the same way.
My journey, to know the things that I do now, has been a personal journey to self educate. I learned some of it in school, but most of it I’ve learned from independent research and study. I think that’s something people have to do themselves. You need to find the time and the space to look at things and analyze things. Look at the information and draw your own conclusions instead of having people tell you what you should think about things. That will get us to that place where we can cross that line towards reconciliation.
What is Marquette’s role in segregation in Milwaukee, historically and today?
Due to segregation, we create these spaces that allow certain people to occupy spaces and keep other people out of those same spaces. For a long time Marquette, in the way it was set up and the way it interacted with the communities around it, created these spaces with walls around them. It was this closed off place. That’s how you contribute to segregation in an institutional way. You create this mindset about how a university should interact with the people around it, and historically Marquette has not seen breaking down those barriers as important. But Marquette is breaking down those barriers more than they ever have before.
What does truth and reconciliation look like for Marquette?
Marquette has made tremendous strides in looking at these types of issues. Marquette has always been kind of isolated from these issues. They never wanted to engage in conversations about truth and reconciliation for most of my life in Milwaukee. I always got the impression that people felt Marquette was this insulated place that is very close to Black neighborhoods, but has nothing to do with Black people. I think they’re beginning to make a change of reaching out to the communities that are close by and engaging in conversations that are about what they can do to assist these communities. They’re moving in the direction of being more truthful and more honest about the impact that they have on the community as a whole.
As far as reconciliation, I think there are many people here that look towards reconciliation as this goal the school has, and it’s never really been a goal before. There has been a great deal of positive change within the past few years at Marquette. Tonight is the perfect example of that. I would never have spoken at Marquette or even thought about it four or five years ago.
How can we break down barriers?
It’s very simple. People live in little bubbles. We have to get out of the little bubbles we live in and occupy the bubbles that other people live in. You have to know people from other groups. Personally, I’ve gotten to know people from just about every community in Milwaukee. I’ve made friendships with people from all these different groups, and what I’ve noticed is those stereotypes I used to have about people, they’re not there anymore because I’ve formed real relationships with people. That can happen to anybody. When you get out of the normal space you occupy and you get to know people, you recognize, how could I have been that ignorant? This is something we can do as individuals, and when individuals change, institutions can change.
How can we tell if we are making progress towards truth and reconciliation?
I’ve always based my views on progress off of what I see, what the evidence shows me. There are several different ways we can look at progress. If we look at the conditions of Blacks today versus the conditions of Blacks 50 years ago, there has been a tremendous amount of progress. But then you can look at it another way and ask, “How much has that progress really impacted the lives of everyday average Black people?” In many respects, racism does the same level of harm today that it has always done.
We don’t like to think about the psychological impact of being an oppressed people, but the same things that were portrayed about Blacks back when I was a little boy, we still have the same negative stereotypes and fear. We’ve made progress, but that progress has come at the cost of Blacks losing the stability that was present during the days of segregation. Blacks created institutions to help them survive within that space. Blacks weren’t really looking for integration, they were fighting for desegregation, fighting to end forced segregation. That didn’t mean they wanted to run and live in a white neighborhood. They just wanted to make sure the spaces they lived in were spaces no one dictated whether or not they should occupy. There are many people that would say integration into American society has broken the bonds within the Black community. Those institutions that we used to control, the schools and businesses, we’ve lost those things. Now we’re trying to make a way in a place that doesn’t necessarily accept us. That’s been detrimental to the level of progress we could have made otherwise.
If we look at the things Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in the last few years of his life, he was talking about poverty and how it was intimately connected to racism. We can change these segregation laws but what are we going to do for people economically? So progress is a hard thing to measure in many respects, but I hold out hope that we can make positive changes happen. It’s done by us educating ourselves and learning more.
Finally, who would you choose to have dinner with, dead or alive, and what would be the first question you’d ask them?
There are two people that I would choose to have a meal with, and I’d ask each of them a different question. The first person is Malcolm X. I would ask him, “How did you make the transformations over and over to become a different person during all the different times of your life?”
The other person is someone most people don’t know, and his name is Frantz Fanon. He wrote a lot of books about oppression, particularly the oppression of Blacks. By reading his books, he allowed me to see oppression in a different way. He allowed me to see that oppression works the same in every realm that it occupies, whether it’s racism, sexism, or homophobia. He allowed me to see that regardless of the “-ism,” they all work exactly the same. The mechanisms and justifications created are exactly the same. People don’t create new ways of treating others badly, they just practice ways created centuries ago.