In Conversation with Traci Parker, Speaker for the 2023 Plenary Lecture
By Mahidhar Sai Lakkavaram
The Commonwealth Honors College Plenary Lecture is an annual event that features thought leaders from across the spectrum. The lecture is also connected to the Honors course “Ideas That Change the World.”
This year’s lecture will be delivered by Traci Parker, Associate Professor of African American History at the University of California Davis. Titled “Envisioning Black Liberation: W.E.B. Du Bois's Transformative Ideas of Producer-Consumer Cooperation,” Parker’s lecture will discuss producer-consumer cooperation, a theory that Du Bois once proposed could facilitate black liberation and economic democracy and will consider the role and utility of producer-consumer cooperation in the Civil Rights Movement through the Black Lives Matters protests of today.
In this interview, Parker details her journey into this topic and why she chose it for the Plenary Lecture. Read on to learn more about Parker and her work!
Q: What was the context and motivation behind this topic?
Until recently, I worked in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. I spent many wonderful years there and as you can imagine, Du Bois greatly influenced my scholarly and activist thinking. My first book examines the movement to integrate work and consumption in American department stores and, in the process, reveals some of the economic dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement.
I focus on how African Americans leveraged both their labor and purchasing powers to not only make gains in the marketplace…as workers and as consumers but to also make claims that they are human and deserving of full citizenship.
This is where my idea of talking about Du Bois comes in. In the mid-twentieth century, he was grappling black economic emancipation and how consumers, not workers, might facilitate this process. He is particularly intrigued by the ideas of economic cooperatives and the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement that began in 1929 and continued through the 1930s. By 1940, he seems to be committed to the idea that producer-consumer cooperation is the route towards racial and economic freedom; and that any project seeking to dismantle Jim Crow must center the consumer.
Q: How did you decide on this topic for the Plenary, and why is it important for students to know about?
When George Floyd died in May 2020, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was flooded with new support, and gained renewed momentum. Corporations donated millions to the movement and programs that aimed to advance racial equality. Amazon and Target celebrated the movement on their websites; they sold [BLM-themed merchandise] such as the Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth t-shirts. Unsurprisingly, then, supporters of the movement—and the project of racial equality—spent money at these retail establishments. More recently, in May and June, consumers on both sides of the aisle have been using their dollars to push their political agendas at Target.
None of this is new. Consumption has historically been a tactic or strategy used to affect change. And on the most basic level, we often shop at stores that we feel represent us in some way, and these small acts can make a difference.
But we should question, especially as businesses have increasingly sought to monetize civil rights activism, whether consumption still has the same impact. Does it remain a strong and viable strategy? How should we be leveraging our purchasing power in the twenty-first century?
Q: What do you want students to leave with after the lecture?
I think it's two-fold. First, I want students to walk away with an understanding of Du Bois as a great scholar and thinker whose thoughts on race, the Black experience, and the Black Freedom Movement (the movement to dismantle Jim Crow) evolves over his life. For example, in Souls of Black Folk, published in 1909, he advocates strongly for political enfranchisement as being a necessary component to realizing economic emancipation. In subsequent decades, and certainly by the publication of his autobiography Dusk of Dawn in 1940 his thinking is slightly different. Disillusioned by the labor movement and the persistence of Jim Crow, he pushes for African Americans to turn inward—albeit temporarily—and build businesses and infrastructures that cater to Black consumers.
Think about Du Bois as an evolution, but also as a great thinker, to get a sense of the African American experience over this long history.
Second, I want students to think about how they want to move in the world. How they want to change the world? How they see themselves as citizens — especially since we are quickly approaching another presidential election. What political power do we have on the day to day beyond voting?
Q: What are you most excited for?
I haven’t been away from UMass long—just several months—but I am thrilled to return and connect with students and faculty. Also, Amherst is a great place to be in the fall!
Q: How did you join this line of work?
I grew up in the 80s in Maryland, which is this upper South state, and when it came to the history of African Americans, we got Frederick Douglass because of Maryland. We got Harriet Tubman because of Maryland. And then it all sort of fizzled. As a child, all I could think is that my heritage was just slavery. Then I got to college and I explored what really interests me. I had gone in, and I thought I was going to be a virologist, but then I took a course with Professor Margaret Washington at Cornell University on African American history — and it just was mind blowing.
I felt home. I felt like I was getting a sense of self. I was starting to understand better our nation's history and where to situate myself and our community within that history. It just felt right.”
There's also something about being a historian [that’s a bit like] being a detective. This past week, I've been reviewing FBI/COINTELPRO records for my new book. Specifically, I've been combing the files of FBI informants who were planted in the Black Panther Party. And I continue to be surprised by what the bureau demanded of informants, like instructing them to date or have sex with Panthers to gain entry in the party. Too, these records make it clear that informants—who were tasked with uncovering seedy or illegal acts and information—often found little to report, and were the ones instigating illegal activity and causing undue chaos. There’s so much information that we can still learn from this huge archival collection. It’s just so fascinating.
What are you working on now?
This spring I released The New Civil Rights Movement Reader: Resistance, Resilience, and Justice. I co-edited it with Dr. Marcia Walker-McWilliams, a colleague and good friend from graduate school. Right now, I am working on three books—an edited collection of essays on marriage in the twentieth- and twenty-first century United States, an autobiography of Coretta Scott King, and another book about love, sex, marriage in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.
In the love, sex, and marriage book, I consider romantic love and relationships and their role in shaping activists and the Black Freedom Movement. For example, there were many interracial couples in the civil rights movement and they believed that their love, their relationships, was a manifestation of what they were fighting to realize. We’re also in the middle of the sexual revolution and women's liberation, so people are challenging gender or they're experimenting with their sexuality. There's just a lot going on.
The Plenary Lecture this year will take place on Monday October 16 at 5 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom.