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Diversity Dialogues invites Lawrence Watson for discussion

Adrien Gobin / THE GATEPOST

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor 

The Center for Inclusive Excellence, in collaboration with the Henry Whittemore Library, hosted the first Diversity Dialogues event of the semester Feb. 15.

The theme for the discussion was “Reparations,” and featured special guest speaker Lawrence “Larry” Watson. 

Student Engagement Coordinator Kathleen Barnard introduced the attendees to Watson, an activist and music educator at Berklee College of Music. His other accomplishments include being the founder and artistic director of Save Our Selves Production, an activist group. 

“He has performed all over the world and has sung for a number of world leaders, presidents, and officials,” Barnard said. 

Watson began by talking about his relationship with Framingham State, and how he would visit for events in the past. 

“It was wonderful to return. And I would like to, on a personal note, say that you all have inspired me to come out of semi-retirement since COVID,” he said. 

He expanded on this by saying the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for him and his family, and explained this event was “one of the first times that I’ve branched out, and I want to thank you all for that.”

Watson talked about the event and how his goal for it was to be informal and interactive, and mentioned that he hadn’t spoken for less than an hour for 25 years. 

“But I’m going to be very succinct and try today to cover a variety of issues,” he said. 

In the spirit of making the event more interactive, Watson explained and then performed a song in flat-foot singing, which he described as standing up with both feet flat and singing.

Watson sang a piece of music, and talked about how he performed that particular piece before an audience of 250,000 people in Boston after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. 

He said there is “no better way to talk about reparations than to talk about Nelson Mandela.”

Watson said Afrikaners’ study in America caused them to go back to South Africa and “put into place one of the most inhumane, perilous systems that he endured for 27 years.” 

Next, Watson wanted attendees to look at the full lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and specifically wanted to focus on the song’s third verse. 

He had an audience member say a line from the verse aloud - “Their blood was washed out their foul footsteps pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and the slave.”

Watson said that he uses this line in the classes he teaches, and said his students analyzed the lyrics to try justifying them. 

He then discussed a series of injustices in recent history to Black people being unfairly treated. Black people being unfairly arrested and treated by the police were key points, and he also talked about how Barack Obama invited white police officers for a beer summit. 

“I called it beer for blood, because Black mothers who lost their children didn’t get invited to the White House as a means of trying to ease the pain and the pressure of it all,” he said. 

“So I’m happy to be here today, but I wanted it to be interactive to give you all some sense of the long history of this term - reparations.”

He explained that the classic definition of reparations is to repair and offer compassion when someone has done something wrong. 

Watson continued by telling an anecdote of his mother growing up in South Carolina, where she told him that Black people couldn’t purchase Juicy Fruit gum in stores, and had to instead buy Beechnut. 

“As Micheal Jackson says, ‘Let that marinate for a moment.’ That’s just the beginning of some of the insidious craziness that they grew up under,” he said. 

He said that the examples that he discussed are examples of mistreatment that have been going on for years so the audience can properly understand how long Black people have been fighting for a proper apology. 

Next, Watson asked the audience if they had participated in phone surveys regarding the “American public.” After this, he explained how these surveys prioritize the opinions of white Americans and mostly ignore Black people. 

“When you say the American people, you are not talking about Black people. We know they’re talking about white folks,” he said. 

He used this example to make the point that surveys like this “fight against any notion of reparations, to change the language and to now use terms that are coded.”

Watson told another story about his recent experience watching the new movie “Origins,” which he explained focused on the Indian caste system but was surprised to find that there was not any mention of the British involvement in that system being instated. 

This upset him while watching, but he continued to watch the movie with his friends who noticed he was frustrated with how the movie was representing these ideas.

“I think everybody should see it to see how rhetoric and how even the best well-intentioned Black folks, Black women who produced that film and wrote it, are missing the point,” he said. 

He then talked about his friend, Harvard Professor Derek Bell, who told his class that racism is permanent, which was something that shocked his students. 

“He said, ‘It’s like ivy that grows on the side of a building.’ He said, ‘You cut it down and what happens a month later? It grows back,’” Watson said.

Watson then discussed his piece “Reparations,” in which he described the lyrics for it as “a whole breakdown, as a jingle of the reparations movement.

“I hope one day, if I ever get the funds, to put it into a children’s book as well as to put it into a jingle,” he said. 

After this, he played a performance of the song for attendees to watch. When the performance was done, he opened the discussion to attendees to ask questions or continue any points he made in the conversation. 

One attendee wanted to further the discussion Watson began with discussing caste in the film “Origins.” Watson expanded on his view on it by further talking about caste systems and their relevance in our society. 

“Everybody is a part of caste, and caste is a system of oppression based on a variety of things. All I saw in the movie was Black people and dark Indian people who didn’t know they were Black,” he said. 

“My objection regarding the movie [was] that there wasn’t enough time looking at root cause analysis, which should have been Europe,” Watson said. 

He ended the discussion with final thoughts on the caste system and how important figures in the Civil Rights Movement did not deny caste. 

“I don’t think Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey ever denied caste. I don’t think they saw a contradiction between caste and race, but it seems like everybody’s trying to get away from anything that has to do with Africa and dark-skinned people,” Watson said.  

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