An Inquisiton on Liberation

These remarks were originally prepared for MIT's 47th Annual Martin Luther King Celebration held on February 10, 2021.

What does liberation look like?
Will you like how it looks when we’re free?

As a boy, I remember squirming in the church pew on Sunday Mornings doodling contraptions and inventions in the sermon notes section of the program. And when that wasn’t intriguing enough, my mother would scribble down a collection of x’s, y’s, and equal signs, then ask me to “…solve…” to keep me awake. Monday through Friday I attended school at that same Black Baptist church, and many in the community knew of my academic achievements. So when Sunday service was dismissed, I remember shuffling through slacks and heels looking up at warm faces declaring how I was destined for greatness; many so bold as to call me “Professor” from the age of 8 years old.

There was a rush that came from being lauded week after week, and these prophecies expanded the horizons I saw for my own future.

And it all came true. My mother’s math puzzles transformed into biomedical engineering problem sets during my undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis. Those doodles transformed into designs for microscopes that can peer into the brain for my work in Ed Boyden’s lab at MIT.

My path so far, and my presumptive path forward to professorship or industry leadership, is evidence of the very social progress that King and others fought for … right? As grateful as I am, I’m sitting with the question:

Is Black achievement indicative of Black liberation?

I’ve had to consider that my journey—one inspired by seeing people like me represented in science and one driven by my desire to be one of those representatives who can be looked at by the next generation—I had to consider that this path was imperfect.

The politics of who gets to be first, or second, or even who gets to be fiftieth are not the same paradigms that get everyone free.

Let me say that again: The politics of who gets to be the first Black astronaut, or the second Black woman nuclear engineer, or even who gets to be the fiftieth Black student body president are not the same paradigms that get everyone free.

Applying this in the context of MIT, we have to question if it’s enough to be proponents of diversity and inclusion. Dr. D-L Stewart proposes that we would be better to stand for equity and justice, stating:

  • “Diversity asks, ‘Who’s in the room?’ Equity responds: ‘Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?’ ”
  • “Inclusion asks, ‘Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?’ Justice challenges, ‘Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?’ ”

Diversity and inclusion allow us to complacently define liberation as representation. Equity and justice force us to reframe liberation as so much more. Can we stretch our imaginations to take actions that uphold equity and justice holistically?

  • What if students saw the endpoint of their time at MIT not as graduation day, but as the day when they were humble enough to learn from the knowledge of those who’ve never been in the academy?
  • What if MIT engaged with its own history of slavery beyond research and awareness, to the point of completely divesting from all arms of the modern parallel: carceral and prison systems?
  • What if the MIT community saw as its mission to disable all technologies that uphold inequity and injustice in all its forms—imperialism, sexism, queerphobia, racism? What if we saw this mission as so important that we were willing to challenge the foundations of the Institute’s existence to see it through to fruition?

Now, I don’t have all the answers. But in church, I did learn some things from those Sunday sermons. I learned that God defends the widow, the orphan, and the migrant. I learned that our Creator values us not because we’ve “made it in the room,” but by the nature of our sacred humanity. I want us to do likewise.

I want us to see liberation as bound to the humanization of the most minoritized among us even when it comes at a significant sacrifice of our own. Let’s honor the marginalized not on our terms, but on theirs.

What does liberation look like?
Will you like how it looks when we’re free?


I want to give my overwhelming graditude to my friends and comrades Yaritza, Solome, Ufuoma, Christian, and Kirsty. Their time, energy, and late night phone calls were essential to the crafting of this speech.

I would also like to acknowledge the other speakers and memebrs of the planning committee for the event. A recording of the entire program is here; please give it a listen.