This Is Your Time: An Open Letter to UK’s Black Students

By now, many of you know that yet another anti-Black hate message was posted on the UK campus, and that there is a long history of these messages.  The Black Student Union and other students organized a panel that was attended by many students, faculty, staff, and administrators of all backgrounds who are deeply concerned about the hate speech and the broader climate issues on our campus.  I was grateful to be invited to be on the panel, but feel that I must say more, and do more.  This open letter to Black students on our campus is my attempt to begin that work.

 

An open letter to Black students at the University of Kentucky:

I stand in solidarity with you.  I stand with you in your outrage at the continual anti-Black hate messages directed at President Barack Obama and our students, staff, and faculty posted on UK’s campus regularly, and I stand with you in your quest to make the University of Kentucky a more equitable place for its Black students, staff, and faculty, and for all of the groups that learn and work here.  Your willingness to stand up to address this issue lets everyone know that cowardly attempts to intimidate us or make us feel unwelcome here will not work.  That willingness to stand up and be heard connects you to a long tradition of student activists of all races and to a proud tradition of Black students who were frequently at the forefront of freedom struggles for Black people in the United States.  There is much to learn and much to do at a time like this and in a climate like this.  So even if it seems like I’m slipping into seminar mode on you, consider the observations and advice in this letter as loving words from an older brother who wants to build with you.

First of all, this must be said.  It is never acceptable for university administrators to respond to hate speech, to attempts to intimidate you or make you feel unwelcome by saying that you might consider “whistling Vivaldi*” to make whites and others feel more comfortable with you.  No matter how much many of us might believe in building bridges across cultures as a matter of principle, this advice to you in this specific context amounts to whistling Dixie in response to systemic oppression.  Always build bridges and coalitions with other people.  Always respect and develop a love for the humanity of all people, of all races and backgrounds.  However, even if the real intent of these comments is in line with Dr. King’s teachings that we should love those who hate us, it is deeply offensive that anyone in a position of authority with a university would give you this kind of advice as their official response to hate speech directed at you—especially if those administrators have no specific suggestions for steps the university can or should take in this moment when they’re so quick to advise you.  And you are completely right to let any such administrator know that you deserve better.
For those people of other racial and cultural backgrounds who are also offended and hurt by the acts of hate speech that you have observed, remember that just like you aren’t excluding or disliking anyone when you hang out or study together or speak Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic or Japanese together, Black students aren’t communicating exclusion or separation when you see them together.  And to white students and colleagues who seek to build common cause, keep in mind that Black people have spent their entire history in this country letting you know we want to build a just society with you, and have done much of the heavy lifting and building for even the possibility of bridges or coalitions.  Do not rush to simplistic judgment when you see Black people congregating.  Those students and colleagues will still study with you, fellowship with you, and imagine better futures with you.

And when administrators answer your demands and requests by saying you need to do more research, flesh the demands out more, don’t let it phase you; take that challenge—while you still press for specific answers to your demands.  And when they present their responses, know that you are right to let them know that you see their answers as a good first draft, too.  That you expect more research and more details about exactly how they will implement those responses, too.

You are also right in seeing the issue as bigger than flyers on doors and nooses on trees, bigger than whether individual perpetrators are ever caught.  Continue to focus your demands on the broader climate for Black students, staff, and faculty at the university.  Even if the perpetrators of these acts of hate speech are not affiliated with UK, these acts deeply affect the climate for learning and working here.  Those acts also operate in a broad matrix of thousands of acts on campus and beyond that make UK, Lexington, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and our nation deeply hostile places for African Americans and for many other groups of people.  The University of Kentucky cannot control what is “out there” or prevent hateful people outside the university from doing what they do, but it can do far more than it is currently doing to make sure you are welcomed and feel valued.  And it certainly can stand as an example to the Commonwealth and the nation of how to build a truly diverse university.

As you already know, there is much work ahead.  Novelist John Oliver Killens teaches us that the work of liberation takes generations, takes lifetimes.  As you plan the work ahead, plan for the longgame, for changes that will make this place better for your younger siblings, for kids growing up in your neighborhood, for people you know who had the intellect but who never could go to college or attend UK.

So what should you do?  The first part of the answer is easy: keep doing what you’re doing. Keep searching for the answers to your questions and demanding that your questions and needs be heard.

Keep excelling in your own classes. Keep pushing for curricula that honor you and your community, that teach truth about your traditions even as those traditions are put in conversation with the broader human family.  Keep demanding more Black faculty and staff—professional staff and classified staff.  Keep demanding more intellectual and professional role models and mentors.  Keep building spaces to build the conversations you crave to show you ways to achieve your goals. Continue to get more involved in every aspect of student leadership and university governance in every opportunity that allows student input.  Keep building relationships with faculty and administrators.  Participate in every opportunity possible that can help you grow, on campus and off, domestic and international.

But because this isn’t just about UK, because it is about liberation, because it is about the longgame, there is much more to do, much more to consider.  The first thing is the hardest in this society.  All of our work must begin with a profound belief in the beauty, power, possibility and agency of Black people.  Across the spectrum of genders.  In all of our hues, from the deepest chocolates to the lightest beiges.  Across sexualities. Across economic and social class lines.  Across the African continent, the Caribbean, the US and the entire Diaspora. Across the ideological and strategic commitments people employ in their work for a better community.  You will continue to be bombarded with messages telling you the exact opposite.  In one of the passages from Dr. King that no one cites on the King holiday, he addresses this exact point.  In his 1967 presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King tells Black people to note their beauty even before James Brown:

Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority.

The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life and to strip him of his personhood is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning’s newspaper.  To upset this cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood.  Any movement for the Negro’s freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried.  As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free…Yes, we must stand up and say “I’m Black and I’m beautiful,” and this self-affirmation is the Black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.

Understanding that beauty, power, and possibility from the outset of all we do is the first step.  The next is understanding our connection to each other.  Everyone wants to tell you that this is a post-racial society now, and that racial identity doesn’t matter.  That you are focusing too much on race if you are proud of your identity.  That  you are no longer Black because you have other races in your ancestry.  That the experiences of educated Blacks are so much different than those who never went to school.  That you’re not like the others.  That you’re so well spoken.  All of these are attempts to minimize who you are by separating you from the rest of your people.  This does not mean that we will all see things the same way, have the same goals for ourselves or our communities, or even understand Black identity in the same terms.  We all got family that we’re close to and family we don’t talk to enough.  But they’re still our family.  No one ever challenges the idea of a unifying American identity because of all of the international mixes and influences on the broader national culture.  No one tells the children of Irish or Jewish or Italian immigrants that their cultural identity no longer matters as much because some passed or intermarried or migrated to other places.  No one tells these groups that educated white Americans are less white or less American because they don’t “act like the others.”  Loving yourself means loving your people in all of our complexity.

Understanding that we are all connected from Lil Wayne to W.E.B. DuBois, from Rihanna to Paul Robeson, from Michelle Obama to Audre Lorde to Langston Hughes, from PhD’s to NoD’s, from celebrity names to those with “no name in the street” means we have to reeducate ourselves.  Means we have to rethink why we’re pursuing an education.  Continue to pursue excellence in your majors and success in your chosen professions, but remember Carter. G. Woodson’s teaching that we don’t get an education “to make a living, but to make a life.”  The question then becomes how do we pursue educations that will help us earn a living and live a meaningful life in connection with our communities, in service to those who have not had the opportunities we have been blessed with. Womanist theologian Katie Cannon teaches us that we are “called to embrace a holistic justice agenda,” that we are ethically bound to stand in solidarity with the oppressed in our own community and in other communities.  During the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, James Cone called out the Black Church as mostly irrelevant to Black people’s needs.  He said “how else can we explain that some church congregations are more concerned with nonsmoking principles or temperance’s than with children who die of rat bites or men who are shot while looting a television set.  Men are dying of hunger, children are maimed from rat bites, women are dying of despair, and churches pass resolutions.”  The remix of Cone’s statement for the academy?  Our classrooms at all levels are still not Black and Brown and Indigenous enough; in elementary and middle and high schools our students are still tracked out, dropped out, and stopped out, and our students still can’t wait for the next game or party, our faculty can’t wait to get funded to go to the next conference, and our professional organizations pass resolutions. Thinking differently about why we’re here is a huge challenge when everything around us tells us that those new kicks, that new handbag, that nice new whip, next video game or new cell phone are the things that will make us feel better.  We are not here only for ourselves.  We are called to do more, be more.  Do better, be better.  Make your education mean something more than a job for you and for your community. And not just for our communities but others where we can love and serve and build as well.

I have participated in student protests.  I was the Student Government President at my undergraduate institution.  I have stayed up through the night trying to build with people working for liberation and talking through, working through, singing through, debating through some of the difficult questions.  I’m telling you this not because I think I know what you need to do.  I don’t know.  This is your time.  But I’m telling you I know what it feels like to have to work through it, and I am here for you.  You must unflinchingly confront the complexities and nuances of difficult questions that your professors and parents have not had to answer in the same ways that you will have to.  But we do know the journey.  Build with us—not just for classes, and not even just in response to urgent situations.  But for the longgame. For liberation.

We just lost one of our intellectual giants, Dr. Manning Marable.  One of my favorite pieces from him is titled “Living Black History:  Resurrecting the African American Intellectual Tradition,” and he lays down the challenge for us all better than I ever could:

Black public intellectuals in the age of racial revolution saw their scholarship as contributing to a building of a necessary intellectual rationale for the destruction of legal structured racism.  Ironically, during the past quarter century, as legal barriers and restrictions on racial advancement in many respects have come down, the overall character of black studies scholarship is largely disengaged with the problems of the urban poor.  Today’s elitist discourse of liberal multiculturalism speaks the safe language of symbolic representation, but rarely of resistance.  Our scholarship indeed must be rigorous and objective, but if it lacks vision or is not informed in its substructure by passionate collective memory, how meaningful can it be to the one million African Americans who currently are incarcerated in this nation’s correctional facilities?  Glittering public intellectuals may appear to offer a depth of social commentary in the media, but too frequently their politics and comprehension of history have shallow roots.

When giants like Marable pass on, it’s also a generational calling.  Grownfolks old enough to know the sacrifices of elders and ancestors, and young enough to still carry that fire, we’re being called.  It’s not up to the elders to carry us anymore.  It’s time for us to build in their—and our—and our future’s—names.  How will you answer the call?

Sometimes it’s easier to know what we’re struggling against in the world than what kind of world we’re struggling for.  And urgent situations like hate speech can contribute to that confusion.  But focus on the longgame.  Think about our community at UK and our entire community beyond these buildings.  Think about the world beyond our communities, in coalition and solidarity and love and service with others. Do the hard work to figure out what kind of world is worth struggling for—and then work, study, love, play, and party and build for it.

A Luta Continua.  The struggle continues.  This is your time in the tradition.

Adam J. Banks

Associate Professor

Department of English

Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media

 

*I will add one additional point here out of a desire to be fair to the person I cited but did not name.  The administrator I mention cited Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi” and the example of a Black man actively altering white stereotypes of him by whistling Vivaldi’s (and other nonthreatening artists’) music to put those people at ease.  Steele’s book attempts to explain the effects of stereotypes on our thinking and action, showing that all groups are affected by them.  I believe the administrator’s comments were not just about making white people more comfortable and thus able to influence their stereotypes of Black people, but to suggest that Black people, women, and many other groups can exert more power over their situations by choosing not to be caught up in or deterred by others’ stereotypes of us, by focusing on what we can do in difficult situations rather than what others have done.

Even with this additional gloss of the citation and what I believe the person might have intended, my horror remains at hearing it used at the end of this event with no additional comments beyond this advice, or no words telling students what the university could do to respond to their requests.  I stand by my reading above and the opinion I express about the episode.

The Talking Book blog post was reprinted by permission of Dr. Adam J. Banks

 

 

 

Believe it or not, the student protesters had a gospel choir, though this was not them…this was one of their favorite songs.

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