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The Omohundro Institute is proud to support the Lemon Project at William & Mary. Lemon Project Fellow Sarah Thomas, Ph.D. candidate in History at William & Mary, brings us this account of the seventh annual Lemon Project symposium.
by Sarah Thomas
How do ideas effect change? That’s the question that community members, William & Mary students, faculty and alumni, visiting scholars and historians gathered together to answer at the Lemon Project’s seventh symposium March 18-19, 2017. A tenet of the Lemon Project is that ideas are more powerful when they come from diverse backgrounds, and the goal of the symposium was to provide space and a platform for these voices to be heard. Our exploration of “Black Revolutionary Thought from Gabriel to Black Lives Matter” began on Friday evening at First Baptist Church with a moving performance by the Hampton University Choir, continued with a full day of presentations and discussion, and concluded with a celebration of black expression via a variety of terrific performances.
Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University as well as regular National Public Radio commentator and author of the award-winning Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics, gave a roaring keynote address as he traced the impact ideas have during moments of crisis. For Spence, a man who “walks his talk” as a “powerful scholar with deep political commitments,” according to Trent Vinson, the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at William & Mary, ideas are weapons we can use to attack institutional practices. For example, Spence positioned the Black Lives Matter movement as an ideational response to the string of highly visible police killings of black men and women that echoed past revolutionary movements. The ideas and loose structure behind the Black Lives Matter movement generated and galvanized a black identity that encompasses a variety of communities and backgrounds to effect necessary change.
Other speakers included Autumn Barrett, New York University, who discussed the collective actions behind recognizing and saving Richmond’s African Burial Ground and Kelley Fanto Deetz, independent scholar, and Alfred L. Brophy, University of North Carolina School of Law, who presented the documentary “Rise Up! The Legacy of Nat Turner.” Public historian and W&M graduate Lexi Cleveland discussed poison as a middle ground of the resistance of enslaved women, and Virginia State University professor Zoe Spencer positioned the “conspiracy theory” accounts of Sandra Bland and Korryn Gaines’s deaths into a more credible context.
In today’s tense political and social climate, understanding how we can use ideas to effect change in institutions and the broader world around us is not just important—it is necessary. Lester Spence noted that black revolutionary thought is effective because it re-centers history around the experiences of traditionally underrepresented peoples, makes collective action possible, destabilizes institutional regimes, and creates standards of ethical action.
Lemon Project Director Dr. Jody Allen fittingly pointed out that William & Mary is no stranger to the impact of ideas in shifting institutional practice. In fact, it was the black revolutionary thoughts and actions of a group of African American undergraduates who spurred the creation of the Lemon Project. They called for not only the recognition of the College’s slave-owning past and archival research into that history, but also for the creation of a memorial to those people enslaved by the College. The grassroots origins of the Lemon Project provide us with a blueprint on how to affect real change. With continued funding, our efforts in healing can continue for years to come.