OHMA student Desmond Austin-Miller reflects on Michael Roberson’s contribution to the Fall Workshop Series, A History of Echoes, Pt. 2: Sound of Trans Freedom and the influence Roberson left on him as a Black academic.
Black, academic, spiritual, animated, knowledgeable, Michael Roberson showed me what few others have been able to over the course of my academic career: what I can be. What my potential is, embodied and manifest in his form. In Roberson I saw my best self. Emotional yet theoretical. Vulnerable yet doubtlessly powerful. It seemed like most of our time with Roberson was colored by these seemingly opposing themes. His life story, for example, was full of revelations and realizations. Roberson recalled sitting in church and hearing God speak to him saying, “The way you are learning about me is limited here.” It drove him to seek new forms of testifying as a community organizer and an academic at Union Theological Seminary. When Roberson’s mother, the center of his life and main inspiration, passed away, he came to realize that he needed to “unlearn sacrifice as a virtue,” something his mother had always embodied in life. Roberson’s presentation and his overall person were an inspiration to me. In what follows, I would like to revisit some of what he discussed and speak more about his influence on my growing life as an academic.
Roberson’s borrowed concept of “intra-vention” struck me. Originally proposed by scholar Marlon Bailey, intra-vention refers to community-authored strategies and solutions to community based issues. Roberson’s collective Ultra-red, and the House Lives Matter movement are examples of intra-vention at work. As a young black professional who is deeply involved in my home community and connected with a number of social service institutions and community organizations, this framework gives physical form to a belief that I have long held when it comes to thinking about how to best serve a group of people, but have been unable to properly voice. It seems like such a simple, logical idea but one that is tremendously underutilized in community organizations. As a vendor at Street Sense Media once said to me, “These people,” in reference to government employees in charge of social welfare programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), “They always wanna tell you what’s good for you. How much you need and what you should be doing. I’m a grown woman, I’ve made it this far in life following my own instructions. What makes me think that someone who knows nothing about me, doesn’t come from where I’m from is going to know what I need and don’t need?” Intra-vention is one strategy I intend to take back to D.C. after my time at Columbia.
Roberson’s “pedagogy of YouTube” which he described as being, like many great things, borne out of the body of the black woman (See: Who Invented YouTube?), was a powerful tool in communicating to the audience certain aspects of trans life and culture. I felt particularly moved by a video of Sylvia Rivera, a victim of transphobic and homophobic brutality who stood with her community and fought for trans rights until the very end. As I watched Sylvia Rivera screaming until her voice went hoarse, videos of Ball dancing and other trans performance arts, all on YouTube, I felt an aura amongst the other guests in the room that could not be explained as anything other than deeply emotional. There was something so profoundly beautiful about the way that people who, in Roberson’s words, have been told over and over again that they are “abominations,” express themselves and their art. As Roberson would reiterate throughout his presentation, trans expression is deeply spiritual and connected in many ways to the same sorts of themes surrounding slavery. “When slaves lived and died for generations believing that freedom would someday come, what does that say about how they chose to express themselves? It is my belief that [this expression] was inherently political and theological.”
When you can move your audience, give them pause to sit and think about the ideas you have laid before them and include a range of viewpoints in your work, I believe that you have truly succeeded as an academic, public speaker and an activist/organizer. In coming years, I will be returning to my notes, this blog post and other sources of Roberson’s work in order to remind myself of what that means and inspire my own endeavors.
Desmond comes to OHMA as a recent graduate of Lafayette College where he earned a B.S. in Anthropology & Sociology with a minor in Africana Studies. With a background in social sciences and cultural studies, Desmond hopes to study the life experience of young black professionals who have recently graduated from college through the lens of oral history.