By LUCY D. SUDDRETH
"One of the most critical issues facing the world today is racism and its equivalents," Alvin Poussaint told a standing room only crowd in the Mumford Room on Feb. 2.
The keynote address kicked off the Library's African American History Month celebration.
Dr. Poussaint, a well-known author, psychiatrist and educator represented the national theme for the month "Afro-American Scholars: Leaders, Activists and Writers," commemorating the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois and others.
In opening remarks, Denise Banks, director of Affirmative Action and Special Programs, expressed her appreciation of the "Library's commitment to educating and raising the awareness of the myriad of contributions made by individuals of diverse backgrounds."
Before he introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Billington said he felt the occasion was appropriate for announcing a major new undertaking. The Library is planning a major exhibit that will celebrate cultural and intellectual achievements of African- Americans. It will bring attention to LC's extraordinary, highly varied and unique collections such as those of Daniel A.P. Murray, who founded Black History Week, Thurgood Marshall, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Tuskegee Institute to highlight creative expressions and social, institutional and legal history.
Dr. Billington announced that once formalized, "the exhibit will encompass all three buildings of the Library. Through American Memory and possibly traveling exhibits, the city and country will have an outreach capacity to the items."
In his introduction, Dr. Billington described Dr. Poussaint, "as an individual who has done much to inspire human dignity and change the quality of life."
To the amusement of the audience, Dr. Poussaint began by revealing that "PrimeTime Live" news commentator Renee Poussaint "is not his estranged wife but his niece."
Speaking of the recently played SuperBowl, Dr. Poussaint said, "One of the moving aspects of that day was not the game nor superstar Michael Jackson, but the ethnic appeal from the children to 'Heal the World.'
"Racism can destroy us as individuals and ultimately destroy the world," he continued. "One of the reasons why it has historically been so lethal and devastating is that when played out unharnessed, the bottom line, is genocide. Once you know that racism leads to genocide, and frequently that is one of its missions, then you can spread out and kind of tabulate the other manifestations on a different level of the genocidal doctrine. Racism plays itself out institutionally in the way we deal with people."
Dr. Poussaint reminded the audience of how racism was played out in America through segregation. For example, blacks that visited health care facilities were not given the same quality of care as whites. Some black patients were allowed to die, children were neglected, and women often had their babies in trucks on the side of the road. The institutions reflected the different value base placed on an individual's life.
Even today, Dr. Poussaint said, "You can easily form a hierarchy of whose lives in America, according to race, are worth more than another.
"The primary focus of the civil rights struggle," he continued, "has been to make a black life count as much as a white life -- still a difficult point to move toward in this country. When a relative value is placed on a life, it sends a message to persons doing the oppressing, as well as to the persons being victimized. In turn, the victim learns to devalue their own life. This can often work itself out in a lot of destructive kinds of ways."
These devaluations have been inflicted upon others through cultural expressions. Dr. Poussaint gave the example, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," to describe what he meant by "genocidal doctrine."
"I still get nervous when I hear kids saying "eeny meeny, miney mo ...," he said. "We need to be sensitive to this type of language.
Definitions of race can also have an insidious message. "The definition of a black person meant an individual with any known black ancestry. One drop would do it to you -- denoting the potency of black blood. It isn't based on anything biological. There is a psycho-political message there. It is a way of promoting white purity and stigmatizing blackness as something bad, inferior and polluted that should be relegated, be oppressed, suppressed and enslaved."
Dr. Poussaint told the audience to be mindful of the psychological effects of racism. To be black in America is "to be suspect," he said. "Being a minority has a whole psychological impact. There becomes a burden of proof on blacks to show that they are OK; a burden of proof to show that they are competent."
Dr. Poussaint concluded by acknowledging that "none of us are pure and free of everything. We all have the capability of being racist.
"The benefit of being sensitive to multiculturalism is an ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. When an effort is made to understand other cultures, then we can better understand ourselves."