By Mechelle Hankerson
While controversy in Richmond about slave burial grounds has come to a relative quiet since last year, author Tom Burrell wants to address a different type of slavery that he argues is still alive.
“Slavery came in two forms,” Burrell said last week, before arriving in Richmond. “Slavery was, in America, physical enslavement, but in order to justify it in a democracy, it became psychological enslavement.” Burrell said that this psychological enslavement is still a part of many African-Americans’ psyches and can indirectly affect the behavior of those affected by it, specifically in relation to their habits as consumers.
Burrell will visit Richmond on Feb. 22, as part of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries’ Tenth Annual Black History Month Lecture Series, to elaborate on some of these issues in the marketing field as they affect consumers. Burrell’s lecture will focus on problems he addresses in his most recent work: his book, titled “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.”
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Burrell, often hailed as an advertising visionary, has developed successful ad campaigns for companies such as Coca Cola, McDonalds, Procter & Gamble and Verizon. As an author, he examines marketing techniques that, he said, sell the idea of black inferiority through negative media messages targeted at black consumers. Ultimately, Burrell claims this creates a new kind of slavery.
“We may say that we have been freed of the physical chains, but there are still psychological chains that keep us in a slave-like attitude,” Burrell said.
The 40-year advertising and marketing veteran said that he was noticing patterns among African-American consumers that were somewhat puzzling, including brand choice and what types of products African-Americans were choosing to spend money on.
“I was (thinking) things like…why is it that black people, despite being at the lower rung of the economic scale, tend to spend more money on material goods? Why do, among those material goods, we tend to prefer the most premium-type products?”
While Burrell’s professional background is in advertising, he said he is often asked to comment on topics like race relations, an issue he considers to be secondary to the way races have been conditioned to think about themselves. “I primarily focus on how black people have been conditioned to think about themselves, how white people have been conditioned to think about themselves and we need to address that issue before we start thinking about how we address each other,” he said.
Burrell doesn’t just focus on discussing problems, but has also taken steps to solve the problems he’s identified.
His Resolution Project, created in 2007, is dedicated to challenging mass media stereotypes and negative race-based conditioning. According to the Resolution’s website, “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority” was the project’s call to action, but the project goes beyond just discussions and awareness.
The multi-faceted project offers a fellowship program that would provide some students with a $5,000 scholarship to study ways to combat potentially damaging media messages. Currently, Howard University is the only university signed on to apply for the fellowship.
Burrell has won awards like the Advertising Person of the Year and the Albert Lasker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advertising and owns and operates his own communications firm, the Burrell Communications Group, based out of Chicago and Los Angeles.
His firm is the largest marketing firm in the country owned by African-Americans.
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Last year’s lecture at VCU featured political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry, a complement to Burrell’s visit this year, according to VCU’s University Librarian, John Ulmschneider, who helps organize the event.
“(Harris-Perry) talked a lot about how contemporary politics and how the African-American community works within the contemporary political structure,” Ulmschneider said. “We thought this would be a great complement: a national level speaker and someone who can talk about the images and stereotypes that surround…African-American people in contemporary culture and how we try to improve that.”
“VCU Libraries developed the lecture series in order to help engage minority and activist communities in Richmond in modern-day issues,” Ulmschneider said.
It is sponsored by the VCU Friends of the Library and the relatively new Francis M. Foster African-American History Endowment Fund, which provides funding to the library to continue acquiring library materials and planning events for Black History Month. In the past, the lecture series has addressed topics like women in the civil rights movement, and in 2009, the series discussed the fiscal presence of slavery in Richmond with specific reference to burial slave grounds.
“We wanted to have a program that reflected our commitment to reaching out to the community around Richmond to help us build our collections and the history of African-American minority and activist communities and to show our commitment not just to collecting those materials but to making them available and helping people understand the issues of the day,” he said.
VCU Libraries has been working to expand their Special Collections and Archives since adopting the New Dominion Initiative, which aims to fortify collection materials about Central Virginia’s African-American, women, activist and Hispanic populations.
Ulmschneider points out that the library strives to make sure newly acquired materials are modern and address issues that are relatable, which is what makes Burrell an easy fit for this year’s lecture series.
“We try to engage contemporary issues, bring in speakers (and) panelists who are going to help folks understand how minority and activist communities are engaging with Richmond today,” Ulmschneider said.
While Burrell’s lecture is VCU’s key event celebrating this year’s Black History Month, the university will offer other events through various departments, including the School of World Studies and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
VCU will host various discussion groups for minority students as well as a Diversity Film Series with films like “Bamboozled” and “Ruby Bridges.”
Burrell will present his lecture tonight, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m., in VCU’s University Student Commons Richmond Salons at 907 Floyd Ave. The VCU Libraries event is free and open to all but seating is limited and registration is required.