On Tuesday February 26th, students were invited to attend a viewing of the documentary film 13th, which explores racial inequality in the United States as manifest in our prison system. The event was sponsored by the African and African American Studies Program, organized by Dr. Matt Calihman (English) and moderated by History Instructor Dr. Jacynda Ammons. The event was a huge success, with student attendance outnumbering seats in the Meyer Library auditorium—about 130 students were in attendance in addition to faculty from across the university.
I sat down with Dr. Ammons to find out more about this event.
Dr. Troche: How and why did the African and African American Studies Program arrive at the decision to show this particular film?
Dr. Ammons: I suggested the film, and the committee agreed, because it is a timely issue. Although people have been talking about mass incarceration and the ‘War on Drugs’ for at least a decade, there are still major problems that need to be addressed. Drug sentencing and mass incarceration have been in the news because of a recent bill that was passed, known as First Step. The bill is supposed to address some of the mandatory drug sentencing laws, but as noted by the name is just a first step. I thought it was important for people to understand the history of the system, and not become complacent, even if there seem to be attempts to decrease mass incarceration.
Dr. Troche: What were student reactions to watching the film? How did the post-film discussion go?
Dr. Ammons: The discussion went really well. I think there was some incredulousness on the part of students when they realized the whole history and what is currently going on in the political system. It is one thing to understand that mass incarceration is a perpetuation of systems that try to keep African Americans as second-class citizens, thus the title 13th, but when people also realize groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) are writing our laws, they become more attuned to paying attention to our political system.
Dr. Troche: Did anything surprise you?
Dr. Ammons: I think the committee was surprised in a good way! This was the first event we had planned, and the fact that it was standing room only in Meyer 101 was outstanding. I was surprised by that, but also encouraged that we picked the correct documentary and that students really do care about what is happening in our country.
Dr. Troche: This was a huge success–filling the room to capacity. So, what’s next?
Dr. Ammons: I don’t know what is next, but we will definitely be talking about ways in which we can build on the interest of our campus community. Perhaps another film in the fall and a bigger panel discussion in which we bring in other faculty, staff, and students to keep people talking and paying attention! In the meantime, if students are interested in learning more, take one of the classes being offered in the African and African American Studies Program: (https://www.missouristate.edu/areastudies/aas/courses.htm).
Dr. J. Troche