‘Black issues are brown issues’: Thought leaders discuss the shared history of people of color

Image via Cañada College

Latinx thought leader Rick Najera and renowned Harvard scholar Cornel West explained the relationship between Latinx and African American histories at the intercultural event “The Shared History of African-American & Latinx People”, held by Cañada College on January 28 via a Zoom video conference.
During the event, Najera, award-winning writer and leader of the cultural advocacy group Latino Thought Makers, shared some relevant knowledge that he gained while studying history during his undergrad.
“I looked at the early settlers of California, the early settlers of California were over 50% black,” Najera said. “Over 55% are of African descent. “That’s California, the beginning of California. Next, when you look at what the word California is, it was named for a black Moorish queen (Khalifa/Califa/Califia).”
Queen Califia is a character from “Las Sergas de Esplandían” (The Adventures of Esplandián), a romance novel by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo that was written in the 15th century.
Cornel West, one of America’s contemporary philosophers, graced SMCCCD students and faculty with his presence as he imparted his viewpoints concerning the flaws and issues surrounding the modern narration and pedagogies with American history.
According to West, a part of history that Americans tend to not acknowledge is the effects of imperial expansion.
“You hear these politicians all the time, the narrow, parochial ones talking about, ‘Well, the US’ slavery was America’s Original Sin,’” West said. “You say now, that was the second one. The first one was indigenous people, dispossession of their land, violation of their precious humanity, and genocidal effects in terms of the imperial expansion from 13 colonies to 48 states.”
On the topic of immigration, Najera spoke on the importance of immigration when it is viewed as “coming back to the land once ours”.
Najera told of his experience being labeled a “guero”, or light-skinned Latino, and watching people buy into cultural stereotypes while not applying them to him because of his appearance.
“Sometimes when you’re not the person that people are being credited against, per se, you actually get to witness it in a very profound way,” Najera said. “I would hear ‘Well, you’re not one of those kinds of Mexicans, oh, you’re not one with this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am one of those Mexicans.’”
He proceeded to share a story involving his father’s experience as a soldier serving in World War II. It involved his father having been sent to take a break and thereupon meeting black soldiers who had been told to take a break for refusing a white officer’s command to go into a burning munitions ship.
“And then it was, (my father) sat there and said to me, ‘Always remember this, Rick — Black issues are brown issues,’” Najero said. “They are our people as we are their people, and we cannot have one side get to the promised land without the other.”

Q&A Session

When asked about his sentiments regarding prison abolition, West calls for radical transformation of the prison system, and cited philosopher and activist Angela Davis’s views on the issue.
“A lot of times, when people say ‘abolition,’ people think it was just a matter of shutting all the prisons down overnight,” West said. “No, that’s not what it’s really about. (Davis is) talking about massive rehabilitation, massive education. And for that small slice of fellow citizens who are tied into murder, and mayhem and rape, and so forth and so on, they still would have certain conditions under which they would be confined. So, it wouldn’t be prisons in the traditional sense of to be a transformation of prisons, but they would still be confined.”
West also noted how this advocacy is vilified, and gets interpreted differently by a vast number of people.
“You can see how the language gets manipulated until you see some people that are ‘you just won’t let everybody out?’” he said. “The crime is gonna go through the roof and so forth. And so, like defunding the police the same thing? No, we want a transformation of a police department so that the law enforcement is fair. And so much of the money that is spent can be channeled toward community development jobs in the living wage, healthcare, and so forth. … White brothers and sisters need to be committed to truth and justice too. They need to fall back on the history of white brothers and sisters who fought against white supremacy.”
West suggested reading about the lives of historical figures such as John Brown, Elijah Lovejoy and other prominent figures who are abolitionists and were persecuted for their efforts against white supremacy.

Panel Discussion

Screenshot via Zoom Video Communications

A panel discussion began following the Q&A session. The panel was moderated by Tammy Robinson, the vice president of instruction at Cañada College, and its members were Jamillah Moore and Manuel Pérez, the Cañada College president and vice president for student services respectively; Cynthia Olivo, the assistant superintendent and vice president of Pasadena City College; and Abdimalik Buul, a faculty member of San Diego City College.

Concerning how one can communicate the need to be revolutionary to those who are “living in the land of denial,” the panel received, among others, the following questions: “How do you want to change the education system or the teaching of history?” and “What steps can the educational institutions make to allow students to be tolerant or open to these versions of history as opposed to their biases or beliefs?”

For Buul, one of the first steps is to quit lying to the children and the students.

“We’ve got to be honest with the truth,” Buul said. “And yes, it’s a mess — Yes, it’s not nice, but it is the truth. And from there, we can move towards justice, we can move towards feeling liberation.”

For Moore, she believes that education and enlightenment about history should start as early as possible.

“How many of us had to learn about our true history when we got to college, on the path to college and realize how much you don’t know, and how much you were not taught,” Moore said. “And it’s that process of ‘Wait a minute, I’m having a spiritual and an academic awakening, that I should have gotten 20 years prior.’ So, most of us are coming to this realization, after we come out of high school or halfway through, or when we’re in college. And you know, I’m sure it had happened to you (West) in your early days at Harvard, you did it in three years, and you’re looking at this stuff. And you’re saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, if I knew this, I wouldn’t have made some of those decisions I made back there.’”

“I wish that that was in our schools, that it was something embedded within the curriculum and the experience of our school system, so that our students can feel the love and the confidence that comes with knowing who you are and where you come from,” Olivo said, following up on Moore’s remarks.

Pérez expressed agreement with the statements of her peers, and added that “talking to youth about the reality of race and racism in the United States is a healthy thing to do.”

Najera mentioned that history is problematic due to “the fracturing of America” upon disagreeing with facts, and that Americans must learn to accept facts no matter how bad it makes the country look.

As for West, he believes that the youth should also have the “initiative to be in a quest for truth.”
This event was sponsored by the College of San Mateo (CSM), the California Community Colleges Organización de Latinx (COLEGAS), the National Council on Black American Affairs (NCBAA), RSS Consulting, the San Mateo County Community Colleges Foundation, and the San Mateo County Community College District (SMCCD).