Critical communications scholar Patricia Parker champions stories of descendant communities in order to live up to ideals of democracy

Patricia Parker, critical communications professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, speaks July 8, 2024, in the Amphitheater.
Sean Smith / staff photographer
Patricia Parker, critical communications professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. 

This week was Patricia Parker’s first time at Chautauqua; the professor and director of the Institute for Arts & Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, stepped in last minute as a replacement on the Chautauqua Lecture Series for author Donovan X. Ramsey. But in some ways, she said Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater, this may have been the appointed time for her to speak at the Institution.

When Parker read the description of the Week Three theme, “What We Got Wrong: Learning from Our Mistakes,” the title for a potential presentation came to mind almost immediately: “On Receiving the Thomas Jefferson Award, Reflection from a Black Woman Scholar-Activist Descendant of Enslaved Ancestors.”

Parker has been on the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill for 25 years; last year, she was honored with one of the university’s highest honors: The Thomas Jefferson Award at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s given to a faculty member whose work best exemplifies Jefferson’s ideals — the values of democracy, public service, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Only, it’s a complex legacy, and it gave Parker pause to accept the award. She decided to go forward on some conditions.

“One was that I would be able to make remarks — not everyone makes remarks. It’s presented at the faculty council meeting; its a two- to three-minute ordeal. You get your award and you sit down,” said Parker, whose scholarship focuses on communication for social justice. “I wanted to make sure that I was able to make remarks, and that my remarks would be posted on the website, alongside my name and the names of others who had received the award.”

It’s an honor to be recognized by one’s peers, Parker said, and she saw the award as a chance to elevate what is among “the most sacred and urgent work at UNC Chapel Hill: reckoning with the legacies of systemic racism at the founding of the United States and our university, to find pathways toward healing, reparations and strengthening American democracy.”

Parker is a Black woman, the descendant of enslaved ancestors; she has pursued that “sacred and urgent work” in her writing, scholarship, and service at UNC Chapel Hill.

“It is through that race and reckoning work that I think a university and nation can make real the promises of the Jeffersonian ideals of democracy for all, and assurances of human rights and dignity for all,” she said. 

Jefferson was a revolutionary thinker and public servant who envisioned the ideals of a true democracy, Parker said, and he had the opportunity to engage in that sacred and urgent work, but “chose to leave it as unfinished business for future generations to pursue.” In doing so, he “left the republic he helped create with a clarion call to us, to continue the revolution that he helped start, to continue the revolution towards freedom for all.”

In preparation for her remarks last year, Parker toured Monticello, Jefferson’s estate where he enslaved 400 Black people throughout his life, including Sally Hemings. The tour guide, Parker said, described Jefferson’s choices as a “paradox of liberty.”

“I don’t think Jefferson’s life choices were paradoxical at all — his belief in racist, dehumanizing beliefs that Black people, the people that Jefferson enslaved, were not human,” Parker said. “… It is unfortunate that Jefferson did not believe that all people are created equal. However, I agree with the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, noted Jeffersonian scholar; she argues that Jefferson’s belief in equality for all is not a necessary condition for living up to the ideals of democracy that he penned and wanted for himself.”

The words “all men are created equal” are ones written by a social radical, as was Jefferson’s reputation at the time, Parker said. So the critical point is not whether he was sincere in his words, but “how much others would take his words to heart.”

“If we want to learn about what it means to live out the ideals of democracy, we must confront the contradictions in American rhetoric and reality of the lives of African Americans,” Parker said. “We should listen closely to the people from each generation, including Jefferson’s — Sally Hemings’ — whose very lives were a test of the democratic ideals at foundation of our republic.”

Parker pointed to Hemings and civil rights activist Ella Baker as examples. Parker has written extensively on Baker, including Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice. Both women, Parker said, can teach us much about the Jeffersonian ideals of democracy.

From Hemings, Parker said, is this lesson: “Fight for freedom, especially when the system is denying basic human rights.”

Parker referenced work done by her UNC colleague, Blair Kelly, in the book Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class.

Kelly notes that while Jefferson considered the men, women and children he enslaved as “a different species altogether, … enslaved people dreamed of freedom and sought it every chance they could,” Parker said. “When we think about the histories of enslaved people, often times what is left out of the narratives is the constant, incessant quest for freedom.”

Hemings, for example, negotiated with Jefferson for the freedom of her children, and “in the larger Black diaspora, resistance to slavery came in many different forms,” Parker said.

That resistance and belief in freedom was passed down through generations, Parker said. That brought her to Ella Baker, and the activist’s words that “We, who believe in freedom, cannot rest until it comes.”

As a communications scholar, Parker is trained in critical cultural theory and practice, with a particular focus on organizational leadership — which means she uses “critical cultural theories to understand the underlying communication processes that produce, sustain and transform human organizations.”

The critical questions she raises are about “excavating, naming, and dismantling the apparatuses — which I refer to as white supremacy, patriarchy, and extreme racial capitalism — that for centuries have been sustaining traumatizing and dehumanizing systems of power.”

Sometimes those apparatus are hidden, sometimes they’re not. When she was 8 years old, entering the third grade, it was just 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education. That feeling of “trying to navigate a social landscape in which I was in many ways invisible, but also hyper-visible” has influenced her entire career.

“We’re living in a time where people do not want to acknowledge how intergenerational trauma continues from generation to generation, and lives in people’s bodies, and in our institutions,” Parker said. “This lecture, for me, is an experiment of testing out these ideas and testing my own resolve that we can right these wrongs. I believe in this country. I believe that if we reckon with the past, it makes us stronger.” 

Through her lived experience, she started to think about how systems can change. Parker studied French philosophers, W.E.B. DuBois, feminist scholars — and, she studied Ella Baker.  

“The way we right the wrongs of Jefferson’s era is (by learning) from the people who have so much at stake for getting it right,” Parker said. “Black women have been at the forefront of that question, of leading. I wanted to reclaim and advance Black women’s intellectual histories and agencies in terms of reaching those ideals.”

She found there was a lot of research and literature focused on women’s leadership, but not Black women’s leadership — and Ella Baker was the embodiment of that rich tradition.

Parker interviewed 15 top executives across the country, all women, and they all talked about the ways their communities trained them to be leaders, and taught them about collective power.

“How are Black girls getting that kind of influence in their communities?” Parker asked. To help answer that question, in 2007, she founded the Ella Baker Women’s Center for Leadership and Community Activism. 

“Our students are, and this is what Ella Baker believed in, unafraid to think about reaching those (democratic) ideals,” Parker said. 

Next came Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership, and what she’s learned about Baker over the years, Parker said, is that “you have to be intentional about engaging with people who have gone through intergenerational trauma, first of all, and also in engaging in what resides in our communities.”

Baker is best-known for her work in the Civil Rights Movement, Parker said, and her influence on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and leaders like John Lewis. She was a “primary mover in training them in grassroots organizing methods that had been brought down to her from her grandparents and their forefathers and mothers, who taught them this tradition of organizing,” Parker said. Her practices were similar in theory to those of philosopher Antonio Gramsci, pointing to the importance of reclaiming the intellectual histories of Black women.

These women have been bridge-builders in their communities, with the “knowledge of the community, history of the community, and the dynamics of what’s going on — to recall Marvin Gaye’s popular phrase — and how these goings-on produce cultures,” Parker said.

Parker’s challenge to her Chautauqua audience was to engage with those doing the work, in those spaces, “living at the intersections of race and gendered systems, to test out the ideas of what our democracy can be.”

At UNC Chapel Hill, Parker is co-chair of the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward, charged with making recommendations for ways the university can reckon with its history to create space for healing and repair. Last year, UNC Chapel Hill hosted a consortium dedicated to studying and righting the wrongs of slavery, Parker said; part of that work is centering the narratives of descendant communities. 

“I’m very grateful that through the commission’s work we have done some of that reckoning work,” Parker said. “Some of the names of the men who were enslavers and who were advancing the cause of white supremacy, some of those names have come down from buildings, through our work. … But we have a landscape marked by white supremacy. My belief is that that work will best be advanced if we uplift the voices of the descendants of people where those stories reside.”

In closing, Parker asked Chautauqua: “How do we right those wrongs if we are still living with the symbolic references — in our landscape, in our institutions — marked by white supremacy?”

Americans owe it to the next generation, she said, to create counter-stories, as Ella Baker was committed to doing.

“That was part of her legacy,” Parker said, “to catalyze the power of organizing people to create new stories, to transform these landscapes to tell new stories and to live up to the ideals of democracy.”

Tags : Donovan X. Ramseymorning lecture recapPatricia ParkerUNCUniversity of North CarolinaUniversity of North Carolina – Chapel HillWhat We Got Wrong: Learning from Our Mistakes

The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is in her seventh summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband (a photographer) and her Lilac (a cat).