Dear Colleagues and Students,
After much reflection on the events of the last few days, weeks, and months I decided to send this personal note to all of you – faculty, students, and staff of the Department of the History of Science. I begin by sharing with you the words of a song that brings me comfort and reminds me of my commitments in times like these.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons ...
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”
From Ella’s Song by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock
In the late 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., Ella’s Song was a rallying cry for me and many of my friends during the many marches held to bring attention to the epidemic of HIV/AIDs. The lyrics were familiar to those who marched in the 1960s Civil Rights movement as well. When singing this song as we marched, the refrain always reminded me that the struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of injustice in this country would not be easy or short. If you believed in freedom you had to be in the fight until the moral arc of the universe met justice. I have been in this fight for my entire life.
These are dark times in our country as we struggle through a pandemic of a novel virus that has pushed all of us into new and uncertain territory that is re-shaping how we live, learn, and work on a daily basis. And just as we have been coming to grips with the pandemic and the inequalities it has revealed, we watched the horrific murder of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of white policemen in Minneapolis. This horrendous death ripped the scab off the long festering wounds of America’s ongoing struggle with racism, police violence, poverty, and crippling health and economic inequalities. As an African American woman I am sickened by this recent incident – no, not incident - this was a lynching. A lynching that was one more in a long bloody history of lynchings in this country. I like many black mothers live in fear daily that my son could be the next target of the white racists that continue to feel they can take the lives of black people with impunity.
It is now time for white Americans to join with black Americans to take up the fight to end the murder of black Americans. It is more than time for white Americans to work to end the systemic deeply embedded attitudes and practices that provide the unspoken and invisible rationales for those who actively devalue black lives.
That work has to start now on the third floor of the Science Center in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. This commitment to end white supremacy has to be made visible in everything we do – our work, our teaching, and our daily interactions. The time for polite silence is over. From my perspective, for too long medicine, science, and technology have been complicit in sustaining white supremacy in complex ways that have largely been underexamined. Now we need to be leaders in exposing and dismantling the structures which uphold the assumptions that sustain it.
We cannot and must not succumb to despair or hide behind comfortable platitudes. In the coming days and weeks I will be reaching out to you to work with me to develop concrete ways to respond to the challenges we face within the department, the university and the nation. In the end, we must be better colleagues to each other, better teachers of our students, more courageous in speaking out when racism raises its ugly head - because we who believe in freedom cannot rest.