Genna Rae McNeil, professor emeritus of history at UNC and a scholar of African American and U.S. constitutional history, spoke about the lessons she has learned in studying history and critical race theory during the 29th Annual Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture on Tuesday.
The event is a signature program of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, Vice Provost for Academic and Community Engagement Joseph Jordan said.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz shared opening remarks via a prerecorded welcome.
“The Stone Center has made a name for itself both regionally and nationally as a place for cultural and historical exploration, research, outreach and service,” Guskiewicz said.
The search for the annual speaker begins months in advance, Sheriff Drammeh, senior program manager for the Stone Center, said.
The speaker is selected based on their embodiment of Sonja Haynes Stone as “someone who was supremely interested in the lives of students, particularly Black students, and was interested also in making sure that the lives, histories and cultures of people of African descent were also understood,” Joseph said.
During the event, Jailyn Neville, a junior at UNC and a Sean Douglas Leadership fellow, discussed more of Stone’s life and legacy.
“Dr. Stone inspired a new consciousness among the student body," Neville said. "She exemplified why Black culture and history are indivisible from the American experience."
Joseph introduced McNeil and her contributions to the UNC community and scholarship on African lives and histories.
McNeil opened with a moment of silence. She then recognized historians whose work she feels enables her own.
“I stand on the shoulders of historians who wrote — and some who are still writing — based upon firsthand sources from African Americans themselves," McNeil said. "And from others, historical scholarship that highlighted the contributions of African Americans to this nation's history, corrected and countered false claims — often liberating historical scholarship.”
McNeil's lecture focused on three key lessons from her studies on critical race theory and history.
“To study the civil rights movement and its depth is to discover that African Americans have utilized aspirational language of documents that were never intended for us,” McNeil said. “Such words as 'liberty,' and 'all men are created equal.'"
In her first lesson, McNeil said researchers and historians need to commit to critiquing their own biases and analyses, as well as their sources.
McNeil, in her second lesson, said if people in positions of power stay silent in the face of injustice, it furthers the subordination of the oppressed and sustains structural inequalities.
She spoke on inequalities in higher education, especially regarding tenure. The UNC Board of Trustees initially failed to offer tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones last summer.
“Any silencing of others who attempt to speak on such is as harmful as silence," McNeil said. "On campuses where tenure is so highly valued, whether one is white or non-white, in situations in which non-tenured persons are not fairly treated and their own complaints are not attended to, it does harm to the entire community. Then you must understand that your silence — as well as your silencing — not only does violence, it is violence.”
McNeil was the first Black tenure-track faculty member in UNC's history department before her retirement last spring.
Sonja Haynes Stone herself was initially denied and then granted tenure after a year-long process, which Neville spoke about during Tuesday's event.
“Dr. Stone was first denied tenure by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, over 200 students marched in support of Stone from the South Building to Morehead Planetarium and following her untimely passing in August 1991,” Neville said.
The third lesson in McNeil's lecture centered on the importance of following through with action after historical analysis.
“Analysis without action makes a person complicit in the maintenance of the injustice of the status quo,” McNeil said.
She referenced the purposeful analyses and actions from leaders such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X.
McNeil closed her lecture with a set of questions for the audience.
"What kind of history will you make with your life?" she said. "And what kind of society do you want to live? What kind of society do you want to leave for coming generations?"
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