The Conversation: How a poet and professor promotes racial understanding with lessons from history

Why does your research matter? And why do you study it?

Quraysh Ali Lansana: I am a historian and a political junkie. I think that my love for history and connecting – I call it the tenuous tether of yesterday and today – actually was born in my small town, Enid, Oklahoma. I grew up in a lower-working-class Black, very deeply segregated town where I did not learn much in K-12 education about Black history.

My love of history began there in Enid with a growing understanding of what I didn’t know, what I didn’t learn, what I was not introduced to. Those questions led me into journalism.

How did you get to where you are today?

Quraysh Ali Lansana: I attended the University of Oklahoma and studied print and broadcast journalism and started writing poetry as a sophomore. I could scream on a piece of paper as opposed to screaming at a human being.

But I always had a love for poetry, and then I worked professionally in broadcast journalism in Oklahoma City for a year. And then I moved to Chicago in 1989 to get to a literary town, and also to move to a city where I saw folks who look like me engaged in every aspect of civic and cultural and political life, which is something that’s fairly rare in Oklahoma .

What’s the one thing you want people to take away from your research?

Quraysh Ali Lansana: I want folks to learn from the past so the future can be different, the future can be better. A section of a poem that I wrote a couple of years ago reads,

Fear = ignorance.

Ignorance = lack of knowledge.

Lack of knowledge = lack of respect.

Lack of respect = hate.

And I think that frame in this poem really sums up what my work is about, right? It’s rooted in Black history, African American history and culture and politics. But it is also informed by the fact that we don’t live in a monolith, and Black culture and Black community are not monolithic either. Even my graduate and undergraduate creative writing course are rooted in BIPOC literature and sensibilities. Langston Hughes wrote, “If you’re going to write, it’s important to have something to say.”

What is something that people might be surprised by in the research you do?

Quraysh Ali Lansana: In my work, I learned from Amiri Baraka and Mari Evans to speak truth to power.

Some folks might be surprised that the work I do is primarily rooted in sharing knowledge of Black history and culture for Black folks. But it is not just for Black folks. It is for everyone. And I think that there are folks who… might think or who may harbor an idea that my work is an assault or attack or affront on dominant culture. And it’s some of those things, and none of those things.

Because it’s really about how we as BIPOC folks define ourselves, how we understand the history that our elders and our ancestors endured to get us to this point. And then also seeing where we are now and how we can help young people. We want the future to be much more welcoming and nurturing and positive for our young people.

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