As we collectively navigate through a global pandemic, pursue social justice on multiple fronts and seek answers to the global warming crisis, “Futures,” the theme of this year’s Syracuse Symposium hosted by the Syracuse University Humanities Center (SUHC), offers a series…
New Faculty Snapshot: Biko Mandela Gray, Assistant Professor of American Religion
01Tell me about your current book project. What are you discovering about how contemporary racial justice movements are forging new ways of thinking about embodiment and religion?
My current book focuses on how the perpetual state-sanctioned violence against Black people speaks to larger realities about what it means to be a person. Being killed for playing with a toy (Tamir Rice), holding a piece of merchandise (John Crawford III), holding a cell phone (Stephon Clark) or following instructions (Philando Castile) exposes the reality that Black personhood is contested terrain. One of the reasons for this is because Black people are reduced to bodies, which means they are reduced to objects; the state supports this objectification every time it acquits or refuses to indict officers.
The movement emerges as a response to this violence, and this response, I suggest, has religious sensibilities—not in a traditional sense, but in the sense that scholars talk about it: religion is a way that human beings discern and make meaning of themselves in relation to their larger environments. The Black Lives Matter movement does this by refuting the structure of death that continues to visit black life in a host of ways.
02Why is it important for you that your academic scholarship contribute to social change? When did you come to that realization?
“I feel bad that I don’t feel bad about the George Zimmerman verdict.” A white lawyer told this to me two days after Zimmerman [a Florida man who shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012, claiming self-defense] had been acquitted. He argued that the state should’ve charged Zimmerman with manslaughter, not murder—so, from his perspective, the jury did the right thing. After having that conversation with that young man, I realized my work had to speak to the institutional forms of violence and discrimination that are not simply a part of this country—they are what make this country possible and keep it alive.
03What do you want students to understand better in your class #Blacklivesmatter and Religion and the civil rights movement of the last century? What discussions are coming out of the classes?
My #Blacklivesmatter and Religion course pushes my students to understand two interrelated realities: 1) racism (and sexism, classism, homophobia and transphobia, for that matter) is not limited to or even primarily expressed by people who are intentionally discriminatory. More often than not, the violations and violence that occur on a daily basis happen because people unintentionally live into and perpetuate violent systems.
In that class, for example, we consider how the #neveragain movement—which strategically draws from elements of both the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements—is not simply supported, but done so in a way that erases the protests that made it possible. To say that we’ve never seen young people as organized as the young people were for the #marchforourlives is to negate the work that has been done for the last five years by young Black people who were protesting everything from gun control to environmental racism.
We discuss these disparities in our class in order to 2) try and further understand how we can move forward without reifying the violence of erasure or delegitimation—especially in our attempts to fight for justice.
04Tell me about the “Real Talks” that you’ve organized with Susan Thomas and Christopher Eng. What do you want the conversations to uncover for participants?
REAL (Resisting Exclusion through Activism and Leadership) was the collective brainchild of Susan Thomas [assistant professor, cultural foundations of education, in the School of Education], Christopher Eng [assistant professor, English, in the College of Arts and Sciences] and myself. We wanted to build on the critical energy we saw with the Charlottesville teach-in last semester, and have a series of more intimate conversations that would hopefully push the Syracuse University community to further embody the ideals it supports.
As we know, the University is committed to ideals of diversity and inclusion, and these conversations are organized around pushing both the SU community as well as the larger national community to not operate according to logics of exclusion and discrimination.
There are three REAL talks scheduled. The first, which happened in February, was organized around state-sanctioned violence and the BLM movement; the second, scheduled for April 5, is organized around economic justice; and the third is organized around rape culture and sexual assault on campuses and abroad.
About Syracuse University
Syracuse University is a private, international research university with distinctive academics, diversely unique offerings and an undeniable spirit. Located in the geographic heart of New York State, with a global footprint, and nearly 150 years of history, Syracuse University offers a quintessential college experience. The scope of Syracuse University is a testament to its strengths: a pioneering history dating back to 1870; a choice of more than 200 majors and 100 minors offered through 13 schools and colleges; nearly 15,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students; more than a quarter of a million alumni in 160 countries; and a student population from all 50 U.S. states and 123 countries. For more information, please visit www.syracuse.edu.