Dr. Layla Brown-Vincent envisions a better world for her people

The activist, researcher, and educator has spent most of her life learning and teaching about how to dismantle current systems that disenfranchise Black people.

Dr. Layla Brown-Vincent grew up amongst political activists – including members of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party and a co-founder of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Since her family raised Dr. Brown-Vincent with a healthy sense of such political weight, it made her wonder if she would ever be able to be involved in such meaningful activism in her life.

With that question still heavy on her mind, Dr. Brown-Vincent pursued her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in 2009. As a candidate, she studied the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, focusing specifically on the role Afro-Venezuelans played in remaking the nation.

It wasn’t until 2012 that she finally got her answer. That year, right-wing conservatives like Republican governor Pat McCroy took over her home state of North Carolina. For the first time since 1870, Republicans had control over both state houses and its executive branch. Subsequently, Dr. Brown-Vincent joined the Moral Monday Movement, established by religious leaders like William Barber, founder of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. They met weekly on Mondays to protest an action by the North Carolina legislature. Slowly, but surely, Dr. Brown-Vincent started to see how her family’s legacy might be manifested in her through her own political activism.

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That same year, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. With the consequent growth of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, Dr. Brown-Vincent started to see the connection between activism here in the United States and the growing Afro-descendant movement in Venezuela. 

Ever since that realization, she’s been on her own journey to understand the ways Black people in the U.S., Diaspora, and the African continent are informed and inspired by one another. She dedicates her studies to dealing with questions of racial identity in the U.S. and Latin America alongside legacies of Pan-Africanism in the African Diaspora and on the African continent. 

One of her most fundamental queries deals with why Black life seems to fare better under governments with “socialist aspirations”. In her most recent publication, Dr. Brown-Vincent examines the different ethical and socio-economic motivations behind Cuba and Venezuela’s response to the pandemic thus far. She argues that, unlike the United States, their success is driven by a focus on “preservation of life” rather than “capitalist accumulations.”

At present, Dr. Brown-Vincent is the Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts – Boston. However, she’s been living in Johannesburg, South Africa during the pandemic, where she is also the Visiting Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.

. . . .

How do you define your work? 

I am a teacher, third generation. My grandmother was a high school social studies teacher and my mother was an adult educator. Everything I have ever done that has carried any meaning in my life has been through my work as a teacher, whether that was volunteering in special needs classrooms as a high school student, teaching and coaching swimming for the City of Raleigh, tutoring ESL students after school, teaching at the university level as a college professor or helping organizers reading groups and discussions among my fellow community activists and organizers.  The most important thing I teach is to question and challenge our position in life as Black people, women, poor folks, and other marginalized/dispossessed peoples. 

What population does your work serve?

Most fundamentally, as a Pan-Africanist, I do the work I do for Black/African people in the Americas, the continent of Africa, Europe and wherever they may be in the world. I don’t limit that to the specific community where I live. I also understand the interconnected nature of our oppression as Black African people with Palestinians, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and Oceania etc. So in its broadest sense, I hope that my work serves all people, however in this moment my people are my priority.

How do you do your work differently than others in your field?

I’m not even sure I belong to “a field” in a traditional sense. As a professor, my priority with my students is to help them understand themselves as legitimate subjects in the world whose experiences matter and who have the capacity to live a more just and fulfilled life. As a researcher, I do work that moves me. I cannot churn out publications for the sake of notoriety or tenure. I struggle with claiming I work differently because I have so many brave and bad ass friends, colleagues, and fellow community activists who inspire my own work ethic. 

How did you create an audience or community?

I don’t know if I can claim an audience in any real concrete way because I do not promote myself like that.  It’s not really how I roll. Community, however, is a different story.  Pre-COVID I found my people in the work I do.  I am a lover of intense debate and dialogue so I generally find community in spaces encouraging that – whether that be formal classrooms, conference spaces, community protests, art events etc. I typically find my way into those communities rather than creating them and once there I do my best to do the kind of work we all must do to maintain them.

How did the pandemic or protests change or shift your life?

I got “stuck” in South Africa for this entire year. Watching the pandemic unfold as a US citizen from outside was a surreal and life changing experience. Narratives about the US and Europe dominate the world stage. Being outside of that bubble really helped me realize that in ways that I was aware of but did not fully understand before. 

It also allowed me to be in literal lock down with an amazing group of scholars, intellectuals and creative writers who exposed me to work and perspectives that I might never have engaged in. I am forever changed in the best of ways by the experiences this year granted me in spite of all the heartache and pain 2020 wrought.

How did you find strength in some of the darkest hours this year?

In people, my people. I am very close to my family and my small circle of chosen family. One of my favorite people in the world is my almost 6-year-old niece Zorah. She is brilliant and loving, creative and daring and can test your patience (as children of that age do). But a single conversation with her could pull me out of a hole, challenge me, make me laugh and remind me that even when I don’t feel like doing it (whatever it is) for myself, there is value in the work for her sake and the sake of her generation.

Who or what gave you the courage to continue on?

In a personal sense, this year just wasn’t my worst year. The worst year of my life was when my mother passed away in 2018, my grandfather passed away just weeks after that and as a family we had to tend to a series of ongoing crises.  I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me to COVID-19. No one in my immediate circle became homeless, incomeless or was without health insurance for any extended period of time.  

Knowing full well how the pandemic has ravaged so many peoples’ lives, in many instances beyond repair, my courage to continue on came from the sheer fact that I had the love and support of those most important to me. I was raised by parents who always reminded me that what we do for others is what gives us purpose in life. Our ability to be present for those we love is what makes life worth living on the worst days. I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

Which of your accomplishments gives you joy?

Not to be coy or unnecessarily modest but I’m not sure that “accomplishments” in the traditional sense give me joy.  In fact I always find traditional accomplishments a little bitter sweet. What does give me joy is seeing a person/student find confidence in their own voice, experience, and ability. 

My most memorable moment teaching was at the end of one semester when I asked students to reflect on what they’d learned over the course of the semester. This particular student stood up and in front of the class told me that she’d always been an “A” student but that my class was the first time she was ever asked to think. It was the first time her performance in the class wasn’t dependent on regurgitating some information but reading, sitting with, digesting and sharing her own developing thoughts about a given topic. For me THAT is what learning is supposed to do. Almost 6 years later that remains one of my most meaningful encounters as a teacher and I remain in contact with that student to this day.

What is a philosophy or idea that keeps you grounded?

This might sound morbid but, “If you’re not gonna crawl in the grave and die you might as well keep living.”  For me this isn’t a judgement or admonition or even a mantra. I just know that even at my lowest, if I’m not gonna give up then the only other choice is to keep going. 

My grandfather used to jokingly question why people were so funny about ageing, he would always say “you have two choices, either you get older or you die.” This is not to say I don’t shift gears from time to time.  I definitely know how to say no to things and let go of things but ultimately if a thing must be done and I have the capacity to do it, it will get done – even if the quality isn’t 100%.  It just is what it is.  

That also applies to the life of my people. If we are not going to give up, the only other choice we have is to believe another world is possible.  Not in a [romanticized] optimistic kind of way, but in a real way that reminds us daily that we are worth fighting for. In the words of June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

2021 and forward: what is your great imagining or construction of what the world must look like and be?

A world where we are loved and loving, fulfilled, housed and not hungry with free education and health care. So my sincerest hope for 2021 is that we as people continue to realize that Capitalism (Black capitalism) will not save us and another world is indeed possible IF we are willing to fight for it.

Sara Elroubi is based out of Queens and covers current affairs and social justice issues.

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