On Juneteenth, a Call to Turn on the Lights and Look Around

Political scientist and alumna Christina Greer was the featured speaker for Tufts’ fifth annual day of remembrance and reflection

Invoking a phrase that her grandmother would often use about the need to be more aware of one’s world, Christina Greer asserted that Americans need to “turn the lights on”—to see what is good about the nation while also acknowledging the reality of slavery.

An associate professor of political science at Fordham University and a Tufts alumna, Greer focuses her scholarship and teaching on American politics, Black ethnic politics, campaigns and elections, and public opinion. She spoke to an audience at Breed Memorial Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus (and attendees via livestream) in conversation with Taina McField, associate dean for strategy at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. 

Noting her frustration with her students’ ignorance of Juneteenth’s significance—something that “could and should be common baseline knowledge”—Greer critiqued the failure of the American education system to provide the foundational information required for understanding the implications of slavery.

She called for a national conversation on slavery as being important both in its own right and as a predicate for conversations about related topics, including generational wealth and institutions that historically excluded Black Americans. Knowing history, she noted, is required to “explain the present because it makes the future make a lot more sense.”

Without that national dialogue, Greer said, Americans are “having a false conversation where the brochure of America says one thing, but the reality is very different.” 

“We have to recognize that the project of America has been brutal,” said Greer, and yet “appreciate that it is a beautiful nation.” Calling the United States a nation of immigrants, Greer reminded the audience that “there’s a reason why people risked life and limb to get here … why most of you can think back to your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories … Of all the places in the world they could have gone, they chose to fight to come here. There’s a reason for that.” 

Both realities, Greer said, can be true, and both truths can coexist.

Greer characterized democracy as a “system of daily decisions and conversations.” Sometimes, she acknowledged, those conversations require “heavy lifting and stepping outside your comfort zone,” but they are necessary for anyone concerned about reckoning with injustice. 

It cannot be the responsibility of Black Americans and others “who are feeling the brunt of the wind to do the work,” said Greer.

In response to audience questions about how to have conversations with people who are resistant to engaging or unsure how to engage with that work, Greer drew upon the wisdom of her mother. 

As a child, Greer would frustrate her mother by asking at the last minute how she could help before a family party: “The party’s at 8. It’s 7:30, and I say, ‘What should I be doing?’”

“Why don’t you just look around?” her mother would respond, exhorting Greer to observe for herself the chores that remained to be done before guests arrived. 

As a remedy for the challenges we face as a nation, Greer asked listeners to observe the state of the nation. “I’m asking people, ‘Look around this country. You see what needs to be done,’” said Greer. “We can see all the micro things that can be done on a daily basis to make all of our lives easier.”

Greer is the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream and co-editor of Black Politics in Transition: Immigration, Suburbanization, and Gentrification. She is a member of the Tufts class of 2000.

This event was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Inclusive Excellence and hosted in partnership with the Tufts Juneteenth Planning Committee.

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