Professor Ruha Benjamin Delivers Black History Month Keynote Lecture

At Thursday’s event, Benjamin discussed the concept of “viral justice,” which is also the focus of her most recent book.

By: Meghan Kita  Wednesday, February 22, 2023 01:02 PM

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Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, speaking on campus on February 16. Photos by Kristi Morris

On Thursday, Ruha Benjamin visited campus to deliver the keynote address for Muhlenberg’s Black History Month event series. Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University who has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed her 2022 book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want

Though Benjamin is also a scholar of technology — two of her other books are Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code and Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life — she was quick to clarify in her talk that she wasn’t using “viral” in the internet sense of the word.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that something almost undetectable can be deadly and that we can transmit it without even knowing. Doesn't this imply that small things — seemingly minor actions, decisions, habits — could transform the world around us, have exponential effects in the other direction, tipping the scales towards justice, affirming life, invigorating society, fostering well being?” she said. “This attention to seemingly small actions is what I think of as viral justice because of how this virus is teaching me to respect the microscopic.”

She shared several examples of activists operating in this way, including one from her hometown of Los Angeles. There, an activist named Ron Finley began growing food on the city’s “parkways,” the patches of grass between the sidewalk and the road, in neighborhoods where it was difficult to find and afford fresh produce. At first, the city cited him and issued a warrant for his arrest; later, he and supporters successfully lobbied to change the city’s laws against growing food on parkways. Then, with the organization Green Grounds, he helped to plant more than 20 urban gardens in Los Angeles, including a teaching garden where residents can learn to grow their own food.

“What I'm calling viral justice orients us differently towards small-scale, often localized actions,” Benjamin said. “It invites us to witness how an idea or action that sprouts in one place may be adopted and diffused elsewhere. But it also counters the assumption that scaling up should always be the goal.”

Benjamin’s visit was the first of Muhlenberg’s Black History Month events. This year’s theme is A Love Letter to Black Activism: Celebrating Agents of Change Around The World. Learn more about this year’s event series here.