In February, Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul hosted a gala launching the new Center for the Study of Black Life and the Law, and formally introduced the center’s new director, Dr. T. Anansi Wilson. The event highlighted the mission of the center, with speeches from students, affiliated faculty, and representatives from the university.
The center’s associate director, Deanna Burns, welcomed guests and expressed the university’s enthusiasm for the center and the leadership of Dr. Wilson, an award-winning scholar in the field of Black studies and law, who earned a law degree from Howard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin, in the African and African Diaspora studies program.
Asked how the center came about, Dr. Wilson admitted to dreaming of doing this work for over a decade. “I think it was my sophomore year in college at Tufts. I was taking a class with Christina Sharpe, who wrote ‘In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.’ One of our seminar topics, I think, was the Black feminist theory of memory for forgetting,” recalled Wilson. “But anyway, it was about Black people, Black women, and how trauma lives long.
“And so for our final topic, our final seminar, it was supposed to be some type of project on how trauma in the past has affected us and how we’re living in the wake [of slavery].” Wilson remembered thinking, “I was like, you know, years from now I’m gonna have some type of center that is focusing on the way the law orders and disorders Black and BlaQueer life.
“It’s gonna have a policy arm. There’ll be an organizing arm, and I’ll work with artists. [And Dr. Sharpe], she was like, ‘All right. Well, you let me know how that goes in 10 years, and we’ll see.’ And literally, the announcement of the center last February was the 10-year anniversary of that conversation!”
The serendipitous moment of seeing Mitchell Hamline recruiting for the director’s role for a new center focused on Black life and the law didn’t mean Wilson was gung-ho about the institution. Black academics have seen White institutions create Black study centers without giving autonomy, adequate funding or proper respect to those centers,” Wilson said. “They’d rather give lip service in order to say they have ‘done something,’ without fully supporting the Black scholars they’ve recruited.”
Wilson made sure to fight for clear boundaries and expectations even while interviewing. “When I was interviewing for the job, one of the things I said was that I wanted to come and be able to do my own thing. I wanted to do something that was explicitly about Black and Black Queer people.
“Because if you don’t put ‘Black’ in the title, it just becomes a racial justice thing, which usually means the Black people get put at the end, or censored, or don’t get explicitly focused on at all,” said Wilson. Mitchell Hamline has since supported Wilson’s vision in the creation of the center, making sure to emphasize that the work will focus on the “study of Black life.”
Mitchell Hamline is the only Minnesota (or American) law school that explicitly names “Black life” as a research center’s focus. Asked if White institutions can fully support truly Black-centered research, Dr. Wilson offers this explanation: “I don’t think about or put trust in institutions. I pay them no mind—good intentions aside. I came here to do good work. That work will be judged by spirit, ancestors, and community, including students, in that order.
“I’ll join and struggle with anyone to do good—and that includes not just our community, but good work with our dean and partner Anthony Niedwiecki, and our brilliant faculty and staff. And when good is no longer possible or my time is up here, I’m going to go where my soul is called next.
“We’re off to a good start, but the proof is in the journey, and trust is forged in the crucible. Those things are earned.”
Asked about the initiatives and the upcoming work of the center, Wilson responded, “We have so much going on. Obviously, our launch gala. That’s something we want to do is have an annual fundraising event. But really, [other] events have drawn attention to the unfinished business of Black life, not just in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, but you know—across the nation and abroad.
In March, a joint roundtable conversation between the Center for the Study of Black Life and the Law and Harvard Law and their “Program on Law and Political Economy” is scheduled. “We’re gonna be talking about racial capitalism and its effect on the promulgation of law right now, in the way that it’s enforced both by police but also by bureaucrats, and agencies. What is the utility of race and racism and anti-blackness in the laws?
“We’re thinking about new and old laws and reform. That’ll actually be moderated by both the Black law student organization at Harvard and Harvard Law School, as well as ours here at Mitchell Hamline. We’re having this kind of simultaneous conversation that will be streamed into both classrooms that’s open to the community.”
In April, the center is going to be partnering with the law review symposium, focusing on Black life and the afterlives of slavery and how those afterlives continue again, according to Wilson. “I keep saying this phrase—how the law orders and disorders—Black living and dying in focusing on Minnesota, but also think about the greater Midwest and just the Black diaspora in the United States as a whole.”