When a friend introduced me to the work of a theoretical physicist named Dr. Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, I had no idea what a "theoretical physicist" was. Whatever the work of theoretical physicists, I didn't imagine that there was one in our country who would say to a group of grad students at MIT, "Do not be afraid to be black, whatever that means to you. Do not be afraid to be black scientists. Do not be afraid to be black and simultaneously successful, whatever field you choose. For each individual, that may require creating something new and spectacular. Do not capitulate to the fear that you are not up to this glorious task."
These are the words and work of Dr. Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein. Both were beyond my imagination. After reading thousands of glowing, fearless words by her on everything from quantum theories of gravity to the importance of cultivating symmetrical relationships between Black folks and Native Americans, I begged her to be a part of our Times Six series.
Two of the questions focus on memory, love, misogyny, and blackness. Two of the questions place us at 12 years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when he was gunned down by police in Cleveland Ohio; and the same age Davia Garth was, who was killed by her stepfather in the same city. One of the questions asks us imagine two incredibly needed national policy proposals. The final question ponders how black lives can actually matter in 2015.
Laymon: Tell me about the first time you remember your love for black folks being threatened?
Prescod-Weinstein: This is a tough question. I can't remember a time when my love for black folks wasn't being threatened. There were a lot of little moments at school, on TV, everywhere. But I can say this: I was 15 when I was forced to reconcile with the fact that white kids my age were going to be part of the problem. First I got thrown out of a New Years party because they didn't want any niggers there. They were these unattractive boring white guys who were not cool at all. But because I stopped (unknowingly) passing for "a Mexican" I was considered beneath them? That was how I learned to be afraid of white guys my age and spent six months wondering if they were all secretly thinking "nigger nigger nigger." I worked to get over it though, because it's not okay to judge people based on the color of their skin, you know?
Then that spring we read Maya Angelou's poetry in 11th grade honors English. My high school was about 50 percent black, but that class had about four blacks out of 30 kids, all four of us sitting in one corner of the room. A white girl announced that she felt like Maya Angelou wasn't trying hard to enough to use rhetorical devices to talk about racism. I wasn't then and am not now deep into Maya Angelou, but I knew then as I know now that this white classmate of mine had just crapped on a part of the Black American Bible.
That was when I started to understand why my mom had been teaching me all these years to hold on tight.
When you were twelve years old, can you describe for me what a perfect day would look like?
On Saturday nights, one of the radio stations in Los Angeles would have a Disco Saturday Night. I have always loved to dance, and I loved letting it all out to disco at my best friend Sharifah's house.
If twelve-year-old you could describe the most exciting thing you did last night, what would she say?
I totally understood something about the math of particles. It is so cool!
Can you describe your first memory of misogyny and anti-blackness colliding?
I was raised primarily by a single black mom who also happens to be a kick-ass activist, which means sexism and racism, and how they especially affected women of color, were always a discussion topic. My mom was heavily involved in pushing the police to find the Grim Sleeper, the serial killer murdering poor and working class black women in South Central L.A., so I was conscious of this as a reality from the earliest that I can remember.
But I remember the first time I really became conscious of it. For a little bit in college I ran with some black dudes who were all about "revolution." I eventually came to understand that their version of "revolution" involved black women recognizing that their primary struggle was to fight for justice for black men, and that they felt, as Harvard students, they were supposed to lead the revolution. It was super messed up, but it kind of cracks me up thinking about it because ain't nobody was going to be following that ish.
If you could concretely propose any two new national policies, what would they be?
Mychal Denzel Smith trumped everyone by saying reparations—and recognizing the need for them broadly along many axes of oppression—so that sucks for everyone answering these questions after him. We got scooped!
Next up: I'm a theoretical physicist, so I want mathematical and textual literacy. I want oral literacy. I want them for free, regardless of a person's age or status. I want free community college, free trade school, free public universities. I want private universities, including the one I work at and the one I attended, to lose their 501(c)3 status so that rich people don't get tax deductions for donating to them when they should be paying taxes that will fund public education.
I also want everyone's languages to be recognized as national languages. All First Nations languages, all our dialects, all our Englishes, all our Kreyols, Spanish, all the languages people brought to these shores. But first I want to check with my First Nations folks to see what they have to say about that plan. But I want to find a way to fight linguistic oppression which is just another avenue for cultural oppression and genocide.
How can black lives really matter in these United States of America?
We need to join with Native communities and reconsider borders, reconsider theft, reconsider history, and reconsider how we will respond to borders, theft and history. I believe that we will only be truly building a community that will recognize that black lives matter when we build a community that is ready to reconcile with what happened, and on whose land it happend. And that process will not be legitimate unless it includes the destruction of white supremacist heterocispatriarchy. It's going to be a real struggle because a whole lot of white people don't want to give that up and some people of color have been rewarded for participating. But the ancestors survived the Middle Passage, and I think that was literally hell on earth. So this, I think we can do it.
Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein is a black, Jewish queer ciswoman and a theoretical physicist.
[Photo via AP]