Rye speaks at Black History Month lecture

Photo by Samta Brahmbhatt

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, members of the Tech community and beyond celebrated Black History Month by attending the Institute’s Fifth Annual Black History Month Lecture featuring speaker Angela Rye.

The theme of this year’s Black History Month at Tech is “Giving Voice to Justice for 50 Years,” referencing the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent founding of the African American Student Union (AASU) at Tech. The lecture was sponsored by AASU in partnership with the Office of Institute Diversity.

The guest speaker, Angela Rye — who serves as principal and CEO of IMPACT Strategies and is both a political commentator for CNN and political analyst for NPR — began her lecture by noting that because Black History Month takes place during the shortest month of the year, she would speak about the #MeToo movement as requested, but reminded the audience that her lecture would focus more on black history, stating, “I think it’s really important that we don’t erase our blackness in the short month that we have.”

Throughout her lecture, she discussed some of the themes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” speech.

“One of the most interesting things to me about this speech is [Dr. King] takes a moment to kind of deliver a State of the Union of SCLC — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” Rye said. “He’s trying to talk to the audience about why SCLC still matters — about why it’s relevant — after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, after he wrote the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act — which would not have happened without the pressure from Dr. King and his allies. This is after 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law, and this was right before the 1968 Fair Housing Act was passed and signed into law. Folks were questioning the relevance of SCLC and Dr. King after all of that.”

She turned to this speech as a framework for discussing the theme of “Giving Voice to Justice for 50 Years,”: “We can’t move ahead if we don’t understand where we’ve been,” Rye said.

Another common thread woven through her lecture involved Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Rye read part of Truth’s poem of the same name, and concluded by posing the question, “Well, I wonder what Sojourner would say today? I wonder how she would instruct us given our discord and the current state of the struggle, not just for women’s rights, but black women’s rights.”

Rye also addressed the current political climate, noting that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and explaining the double standard she has witnessed in regards to the way that Barack Obama was treated during his tenure as President. She addressed the allegations of sexual assault against Trump, asking, “I just wonder — speaking of “Me Too” — how “Me Too” didn’t get him too?” With this in mind, she provided several examples of modern black women experiencing their own  “Ain’t I a Woman” moments.

“[The president] is trying to put you in a position where your access to birth control is so limited,” Rye said. “‘Don’t I have the right to learn? Don’t I have a right to decide what is best for my own black body? It’s 2018, and ain’t I a woman?’”

She addressed several other well-known black women and specific moments of discrimination and oppression that have been prominently featured in the news, such as Kamala Harris being interrupted by John McCain during her questioning of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Rye said of that moment, “Kamala Harris had to be thinking, ‘Ain’t I a lawyer? And ain’t I a woman?’” Similarly, when Bill O’Reilly likened Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ hair to that of James Brown, Rye stated: “In her case: ‘Ain’t I fully capable of getting to the bottom of ‘Russiagate’? And ain’t I a woman?’”

Rye also noted the significant role of black women in organizing Women’s Marches across the country, and the importance of considering the racism and sexism involved in the 2016 presidential campaign in regards to black women.

“As a people — black folks —we have to reclaim our power,” Rye said. She referenced her own role as a political commentator, and explained how she persists through the challenging aspects of being a black woman in
that role.

“When I consider the many black women throughout history who have blazed trails, who opened doors, who persisted and resisted — before we knew that was a thing — I pull from their strength,” Rye said. “I’m not doing anything new. I get to stand on their shoulders. We get to stand on their shoulders. Ain’t I
a woman?”

Towards the end of her lecture, Rye referenced Dr. King’s 1967 speech, arguing that the oppressed calling for justice is not effective without already having power. She describes how Dr. King spoke about power in his speech.

“He defines power in the most compelling way that I’ve ever seen,” Rye explained. “He defines power as the ability to achieve purpose. If you can’t achieve your purpose, does it matter if you get dealt with fairly?”

Rye then called for the audience to consider the difference between equality versus equity, arguing equity is necessary to account for deficiencies created by oppression, which she defined as “power designed to keep you from achieving
your purpose.”

“We have been asking for justice and equality when we should be telling you we need equity and power,” Rye said.

She further asserted the insufficiency of discussion alone.

“We don’t have the choice anymore to talk about our activism as optional, our political engagement as optional … all of those things are required,” she said. “We really might as well get used to working to truly change our circumstances. That is our only path forward.”

Rye concluded her lecture with a call and response that honored black activists and politicians such as Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, congresswomen Kamala Harris and Maxine Waters and finally, Sojourner Truth.

Rye proclaimed: “Ain’t I Still a Woman: 2018.”

Following Rye’s impassioned talk, Tech’s Institute Diversity Vice President Archie Ervin delivered his closing remarks. After thanking Rye for her passionate words, he announced to the audience a welcome addition to
Tech’s campus.

“This April the fifth, we will unveil a sculpture of Ms. Rosa Parks, to be dedicated on Harrison Square,” said Ervin.

He commented on the impact of the statue.

“Many of us who grew up in the shadows of the tremendous, horrific experiences of [Rosa Parks’] times, it’s a real thing to us; so, for Georgia Tech to make this installation on Harrison Square is a very huge accomplishment,” Ervin said.

This announcement served as a poignant closing to the powerful event.

For more information aboutTech’s AASU Black History Month events, go to gtaasu.org/events.