Interview with Toni Pressley-Sanon By Sonimar Maldonado

Questions for this interview are based on Toni's reflection called "Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired." You can find this reflection on EMU Today's Website. Press the button below to access the article.

Toni: "Thanks to the CAS Dean’s office for inviting me to share my thoughts and work with our campus community."

Sonimar: "What was your line of thought when writing this reflection?"

T: "I sat down to write the reflection piece after spending several days deeply grieved by the knowledge that yet another Black man had been murdered by, not just another white man, but by a system that valued white life so much more than that of the Black one agonizingly extinguished in the street. I, like many, was still reeling from the revelation months after it happened, of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men while that young man was seeking health and perhaps a little restorative solitude, going for a run in the fresh air amongst those beautiful Georgia trees; something that should be a right to all of us. I was still mourning the police murder of Breonna Taylor, someone who saved others’ lives, in her own home; a place where she should have been able to feel safe. I thought about them and all the other “cases” I know about. I imagined those that I don’t know about and I grieved for them. I felt sick with the certainty that such crimes against our common humanity would continue.

I also wrote it with the entirety of my U.S. education at my back; the way that “History”--that singular, authoritative narrative that is touted as “fact”--is from the perspective of “the victors”. For example, like all grade schoolers I learned about the cotton gin, that “revolutionary” invention by Eli Whitney, celebrated because it sped up the cotton cleaning process. But never during those lessons was there mention of the way that the installation of the cotton gin on plantations made the already unbearable workload of those who picked the cotton much more unbearable and prolonged. That is one of countless facts that get left out of the telling of History.

I wrote the essay as a mom who, like all mothers, wants the world and the moon for her son.

All of this and more was filling my head and emptying my heart."

S: "Some have said "I am not racist", others criticize them saying that they should say that they are "anti-racist"... What are your thoughts about that? What does being anti-racist mean? How do we talk about what's going on? What language should we use?"

T: "It’s not enough to claim to not be racist As I intimated in the essay, we must understand that the way that this land was dominated and colonized and developed, was to benefit white people. It is the reason that “race” was invented. What this means is that racism is woven into the thread of this nation and all who occupy it. Which means that we are all stewing in this poisonous soup of dehumanizing violence, often beginning even in the womb. It’s in our DNA. That may seem like an extreme statement, but we realize it is not when we reflect on the way that the “healthcare” system treats pregnant Black women, with doctors too often ignoring mothers-to-be when they tell them there’s something wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women in the United States are over three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women (See: “What Serena Williams’ Childbirth Story says about Medical Treatment for Black Women). That’s a crisis of racism.

These stats point to the unnecessary trauma that the mother and the child suffer. Imagine coming into the world under such conditions; what that does to the baby’s nervous system and its long-lasting effects.

It’s not enough for people to say they’re not racist because even if they consider themselves to be "good people” and go out of their way to call out racist jokes or “treat everyone equally” none of us can escape the racism that is built into this nation; the subtle and not so subtle messages that we may have received before birth. So racism shows up when we least expect it, in implicit biases, for example. It also affects how we experience the world without us having to do anything.

There’s more to it, but basically the difference between “not being racist” and being “antiracist” goes back to the adage, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” It’s not enough for white people to only account for their individual actions or inactions when it comes to racism. They must consider the ways that they benefit from racism and are complicit in a system that excludes and oppresses non-whites.

All of us have A LOT of unlearning to do. This is hard work, I know. But, the remarkable displays of solidarity and that I’ve witnessed in the streets these past few weeks give me hope that the vast majority are up to and more than willing to undertake the work.

To state the obvious, two resources for the journey are How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is available to listen to for free on SoundCloud."

S: "When dealing with racism in our school, in our community, and in our personal life, what is working? What needs to change?"

T: "I think that some of what we’re seeing coming out of the protests: changes in policies, organizations, businesses, conversations that people are having both publicly and privately, are hopeful and constructive.

EMU has several gifts, not the least of which is that a sizable number of our students hail from wonderful hubs of Black activism like Detroit and Flint. I love the way that the university works really hard to foster meaningful relationships and partnerships with the community of Ypsi as well as Detroit.

Still, there are subtle and not so subtle ways that we feel the weight of racism in our beloved community. The year after I came to EMU someone defaced our buildings with hateful racist words. There have been several such instances in the years since. I have heard white students talking with each other and calling certain events on campus “ghetto”. We all know what “ghetto” stands for (and those same students may not consider themselves racist, btw). I have had students express their frustration with what they perceive as their professors’ lack of empathy or engagement with racist incidents that happen on campus and in the larger world.

I believe that the idea was advanced by Student Government a few years ago, so I will echo that I think sensitivity training across the university should be implemented; that there should be workshops on racism and conversations that can be had around this scourge consistently offered. And there should be sustained and sustainable action taken to dismantle systems of oppression on campus and beyond."

S: "What do you recommend to students, parents, faculty, and staff to do when confronted with racial injustice or when in times of protests like these?"

T: "It would depend on who I was talking to, where they were in their journey. Since there are so many starting points for people, I won’t venture to give a definitive answer.

I would recommend that we all read, watch documentaries, youtube videos and interviews, listen to podcasts, talk out our fears and frustrations and celebrate our victories as we continue to work for meaningful sustained change. This may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: I would caution white people against seeking out Black friends/acquaintances to act as “informants”. Again, this side of the unlearning process is not Black people’s burden to bear. We have our own unlearning to do."

S: "Are there any opportunities available in the Africology and African American Studies department for majors and non-majors?"

T: "There are lots of opportunities for majors and non-majors in AAAS to learn broadly and deeply about these issues from a perspective that challenges and rethinks the dominant narrative. I mentioned in my reflection essay that I’m teaching AFC 244: Global Dimensions of Racism this summer. The Summer B session starts in a few days and the course will be offered in the fall.

Because of my interests and background as well as those of my colleagues, students get a broad understanding of the Black experience, within and beyond the United States. For example, I teach a course on Black Caribbean cultural production. A colleague teaches a course entitled, “The Social Context of African American Health”, a course that addresses racism and police brutality as a factor in determining Black health and life expectancy. Another colleague teaches “Law in the African American Experience” which, of course explores issues of police brutality and unfair treatment by the legal system. There are also courses on “African Civilizations”, and “Contemporary Africa”, which challenge and debunk the racist narratives that misname Africa as a country or portray it as a “dark continent”.

All of our courses are taught in a way that decenters the Eurocentric perspective that many of the students come into our courses with and instead, explores the African and African diasporic experience from a number of different perspectives, using diverse tools of inquiry. Students who put in the work come away from our courses “imbued with community consciousness and equipped with intellectual tools for shaping the world of the present and the future, community engagement,” and diverse careers.

Besides the courses there are opportunities for internships in Ypsi and Detroit through the department. I’m not sure what’s happening with GAships and student employment at this time."

S: "Who are you? What do you do? How long have you been at EMU?"

T: "I’m a mom

I’m a painter

I’m a nature lover

I’m an occasional blogger

As an Associate Professor in the Department of Africology and African American Studies I have the privilege of teaching and researching subjects that are dear to me and that contribute to making the world a better place.

I’ve been at EMU since 2015 and have really loved my time here. One of the first things that impressed me when our longtime colleague, Prof. Ron Woods, took me on my tour of the campus was the way that the campus was integrated into the community. I was also struck by its beauty. Aesthetics are super important to me and I feel at home in places with lots of trees, so that has helped get me through the cold months.

I was and continue to be impressed by my colleagues’ commitment to and care for our students. They have been amazing role models and mentors for me.

Just before I came here I read a news article about students protesting the screening of American Sniper because of the way that the film portrayed our Muslim brothers and sisters. I was really impressed by students’ political activism and their ability to connect the local to the global.

I was also impressed with the Michigan SNAP program which encourages people in the program to consume more healthy foods by doubling their purchasing power of fruits and veggies at farmers markets and grocery stores. For me, it signaled a commitment to creating healthy communities from healthy individuals."

S: "Do you do research? What are you working on now?"

T: "I’m a research fiend!!! I’ve published a number of reviews and articles in journals and collections and authored four books and co-edited one. Most of my earlier work was on the Caribbean country of Haiti. The book that came out of my dissertation, Istwa Across the Water: Haitian History, Memory, and the Cultural Imagination, is based on extensive field research in both Benin Republic, West Africa and Haiti.

An article that I wrote on Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, in a volume called I Am Not Your Negro: A Docalogue, is due out soon. The publication date was pushed up because of what’s happening politically.

I have another article forthcoming about a 1936 film called The Love Wanga that starred Fredi Washington, an African American actress who got so fed up with Hollywood’s racism that she left acting to pursue her political activism.

For the past few years I’ve been working on a book project that explores autobiographical writings by Black women Buddhists as part and parcel of Black women's activist traditions, so that’s been really lovely and challenging."

S: "Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!"

T: "My pleasure. Thank you!"