On Thursday, the Bohm Theater was filled with students, professors, teachers, community members and others who traveled to celebrate the ninth year of Albion’s Big Read and to hear a lecture from author and academic Bettina Love. Director of the Big Read, Jess Roberts, began the event with praise of this year’s Big Read, describing what the program is
“It is a social justice program that creates educational spaces with and for Albion young people. Young people who are predominantly Black and brown. Together we make educational spaces designed specifically for them,” Roberts said. “That’s not something they find in school.”
Roberts described the mission of the Big Read, adding that books are the gateway to change. Adding that she now knows that abolitionist teaching is “The mission of Albion’s Big Read, and books are the means by which we accomplish it.”
“In Albion’s Big Read we read books by Black and brown authors about Black and brown young people,” Roberts said. “Together we create a space in which all our young people can be their full selves.”
Roberts continued by saying that the Big Read allows students to be the “real them,” not just the “school them.” This is how she found Love, who she said has a vision for what education should look like and what it takes to get there. To Roberts, Love articulates a vision of abolitionist teaching, which Albion’s Big Read seeks to be a part of.
In an interview after the lecture, Albion College Dean of the School for Public Purpose and Professional Advancement Ashley Woodson said there were many reasons why it was important for Love to be the speaker.
“Bettina is a personal friend, so it’s always wonderful to connect with and visit with your friends – but she’s also a tremendous scholar who’s making an important impact on the world right now,” Woodson said. “I think her research, especially ‘Punished For Dreaming,’ is immediately relevant to the questions we are asking about schooling in Albion.”
After a round of applause for the Big Read Leaders, students who attend Marshall Public Schools and reside in Albion, the Albion 4H Creative and Expressive Arts program performed a range of choreographed dances, the last of which was dedicated to teachers. Roberts said the group is Albion’s longest-running youth program.
Roberts rejoined the stage and introduced the topic of the lecture and why it matters. She directed her next comments to the white people in the audience.
“I suspect that what we hear tonight will make us uncomfortable,” Roberts said. “And that’s good. We should be uncomfortable.”
Woodson joined the stage to introduce Love. Woodson said that Love is someone whose goal is to strengthen public education through abolitionist teaching, anti-racism, Black joy and educational reparation. She discusses these ideas in her newly published New York Times and USA Today Best Seller book, “Punished for Dreaming.”
Woodson added one more thing before Love took the stage. She spoke to all of the Black residents of Albion grieving the loss of Albion’s Public Middle and High Schools.
“There’s a concept called ‘afterwardness.’ It’s the idea that you can survive something and later learn about that thing in a way that involves the trauma response,” Woodson said.
Following Woodson’s introduction, Love took the stage, welcomed by a standing round of applause. Many “amens” and forms of agreement filled the room as Love spoke.
Love began by speaking about her generation, who were born in the 80s.
“We saw Black excellence, Black creativity, Black ingenuity, Black wealth, it was everywhere. And then we became punished for dreaming,” Love said.
Love said that this generation was the one to see crime reform and educational reform merge – which led to Black children being called “crack babies, super predators and thugs.”
Love related these ideas to her book “Punished For Dreaming” throughout her lecture. She said that standardized testing has been used to threaten Black students.
“In Florida you have an actual principal take Black students, put them in the auditorium, and separate them Black versus white and tell the Black students that if you don’t increase your test scores, you’re going to end up in jail or dead,” Love said.
She gave examples of Black students who are being punished in schools for their hair, culture and ideas and said that they are being “punished for dreaming.”
“Why is this happening? White rage, the ability to legislate your racism,” Love said. “You can always see white rage when you see Black excellence.”
Love later said that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is a “trap,” adding that real change has to have power and resources – and DEI does not have this in institutions.
“Learning about equity and doing equity are two different things,” Love said.
As Love’s lecture continued, she spoke about the meaning of language. She used the term “first-generation college students” as an example.
“First-generation college students, or the first who were let in?” Love said.
Love said she encourages the audience to be clear with words, because words have meaning, adding that “achievement gaps” and “funding gaps” are examples of racism.
“We need folks who are going to be real, actual co-conspirators. We need folks who are actually going to do the work. Understand you got privilege and use your privilege,” Love said. “And why should you use your privilege? Because you didn’t earn it. So why not cash out?”
As Love neared the end of her lecture, she added that educational reform is happening in the wrong way in our country – and her solution is reparations. Love said that we must change the system.
“You can’t repair the system without power and you can’t repair the system without resources. And you can’t repair the system without apologizing for harm and atoning for harm. That is what reparations is about,” Love said.
Love ended her lecture with a celebration of Black excellence and a call to action.
“You don’t have poetry, literature, music, march on Washington, Black Lives Matter, without Black folks,” Love said. “This is precisely the time when we go to work. We speak, we write, we do literature – this is how civilizations heal.”
The crowd stood for a standing ovation as Love ended her lecture.
Several Marshall High School Big Read Leaders like Elis’Ze Johnson, Maliyah Anglin and Timothy Pledger added what the lecture meant to them as Albion natives.
“I didn’t notice until (Love) said it,” Johnson said. “How there’s a lack of Black teachers. At our school, there’s not any Black teachers. I was like wow. That’s kind of crazy.”
Anglin had a similar reaction to Love’s discussion of the schooling system.
“What hit the most was when (Love) talked about Black kids in the schools because it was really relatable,” Anglin said.
Pledger said that the lecture left him with contrasting feelings.
“I feel sadness, we all do. But overall I also feel inspired,” Pledger added.
Kelvin Crone-Willis, Ferguson, MO junior and Big Read College Volunteer, said his greatest takeaway was Love’s definition of an ally versus a co-conspirator.
“I was pretty blown away by my role as a big ol’ white man in the whole process,” Crone-Willis said. “I think we spend a lot of time talking about how supportive we are, and I think we need to work on doing actions.”
Audience members from across the community, college and state left Love’s lecture having heard Love’s definition of abolitionist teaching and how she believes it can restore humanity and pursue educational freedom for children in schools.
Reflecting her book, on dreaming, Love said:
“It’s not radical, we want to do what humans do.”
Bonnie Lord also contributed reporting to this story.