On Thursday night, Fordham students, faculty members and administrators gathered at the Fordham Law School to hear Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Canada, speak.
Khan was invited to be a keynote speaker as part of Fordham’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week 2020 celebration. The week is meant “to honor, celebrate and explore the legacy and impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement on today’s civil and human rights agenda,” according to an email sent from the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer.
Rafael Zapata, chief diversity officer, said at the lecture event that he hopes students will also learn the full story behind Dr. King, including his radical and often-overlooked anti-capitalist and anti-war views.
“Tonight’s speaker embodies [Dr. King’s] spirit,” Zapata said, introducing Khan.
On their personal website, Khan is described as “a Black, queer, gender-nonconforming activist, staunch Afrofuturist, boxer and social-justice educator.”
Khan and their co-founder Ali started the Black Lives Matter chapter in Toronto after the murder of Jermaine Carby by police in Brampton, Ontario. According to their website, the two activists have “worked to resist anti-Black racisms in the Greater Toronto Area,” since then. Khan also serves as an international ambassador for the Black Lives Matter Network.
Khan opened the lecture by recognizing the question that many minority groups in America have heard: “Do you belong here?”
They talked about the difference between how people with privilege carry themselves versus how those without power exist in the United States.
To illustrate this contrast, Khan talked about the highly-publicized conflict in 2019 between Native American activist Nathan Phillips and a white teenager, Nick Sandmann. Khan said the difference in how the two parties were treated after their confrontation went viral. Sandmann was invited onto talk shows and celebrated while Phillips’ side of the story went largely ignored.
Khan said they remember that when Sandmann was asked about the conflict, his response was, “I had every right to be there.”
Khan said that for members of minority groups across the country, this statement would not be received the same way it would be from a young white man.
They drew a comparison between how the left embraced the activism of the teenagers protesting gun rights after the Parkland mass shooting but criticized this same spirit in young black people at the outset of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“What do you think it does to us as a society when we decide some children are worth more than others? What does it do to our humanity?” they said.
Khan said they observed leadership and power as a part of Black Lives Matter, despite the fact that a large portion of the public is reluctant to praise the movement or recognize its accomplishments. They also said black activists struggle against certain thinking.
“On some level, we believe black people deserve what happens to them,” Khan said.
However, Khan also said listeners should look to forge bonds and relationships with others, even if their beliefs do not always perfectly align.
“Sometimes we have to go into the place of tension,” Khan said.
At the end of the event, Khan turned to the young people in the crowd to give them advice for entering activism.
“We expect queer folks … to come out … But every single one of us needs to come out of the closet as freedom fighters and revolutionaries,” Khan said.
A true activist is “simply the person that you need most in your most vulnerable moment. That’s it,” said Khan.
They asked each member of the audience to recognize their power as individuals. Khan said people idolize figures like MLK Jr. and Malcolm X without realizing they were not born the heroes they became.
“No one starts out as remarkable … We become remarkable when we fight for freedom and when we fight for justice,” they said.
As Khan concluded, the activist was met with enthusiastic applause from the crowd. Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, said Khan truly reached the audience with their message.
“It was an invitation, not a lecture … A necessary conversation,” he said.
In the question and answer session after the talk, students and faculty members were able to interact with Khan more directly. Audience members asked them questions on topics ranging from what Khan dubbed their “rant on billionaires” to their struggles with self-care as an activist whose day-to-day is often filled with tension and difficult moments.
“It’s been a process … to use this idea of love to build connections … And I box,” said Khan.
Afterward, many students stuck around to talk to Khan one-on-one and express their own experiences to the activist. They shook hands and shared jokes as well as serious moments of reflection. However, the most common exchange was simply, “Thank you.”