Back to School: Lessons After #Charlottesville
LETTER FROM THE DIRECTOR
I greet you at the beginning of a new semester, ecstatic to announce that this past June, after decades of petitioning, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies finally became a department! Such was the welcome news of June. That which followed two months later was none so bright, thanks to the “Unite the Right” rally, and the protests and counter-protests it provoked. The violence, terror, and brutality witnessed over August 11th and 12th, thrust Charlottesville into the headlines globally, leaving us with the unenviable task of reckoning with the fallout and plotting our way forward. These have not been easy times, not least because what happened to this city cum hashtag has punctured its much vaunted image as one of the nation’s “best places,” winning distinction in multiple categories. Previously, it had been dubbed one of the “15 Best Places to live in the U. S;” one of the “Top 10 Best Places to Retire;” one of the “Top Five Destinations” in the country; and the “Best College Town in America.” In the shocking aftermath of those two days in August, it became crystal clear that many Charlottesville residents viewed the city in this very light, and were thus quick to claim, “This is not us!” “This is not Charlottesville!” But just as readily others rejoined, “This is not new.” As a Charlottesville native responded to one of the many reporters who flocked to the city for the Alt-Right rally, “Our ancestors been through this before.”
Not surprisingly, as with so many crises our country has witnessed historically, these instantaneous responses were polarized, though not neatly, along the perennial fault lines of race and class, of status and location, of privilege and privation. What both sides held in common, however, was the mutual recognition that we must all go back to school. We must all become students again. Having been “mis-educated,” to riff on The Miseducation of the Negro, written by our namesake, Carter G. Woodson, we must now open ourselves to re-education. We must all become students of history, most especially: the history of the United States, of Charlottesville, and the broader Commonwealth of Virginia. And for those of us who teach, study, and lead at the University of Virginia, we must first be students of our institution, looking its history squarely in the face.
In a recent address to the students enrolled in the newly instituted College Fellows Program, Woodson Institute Faculty Affiliate Robert Fatton posed the critical question, “What . . . can we do as faculty and students in the aftermath of Heather Heyer’s tragic death and the chilling and frightening presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our midst?” He answered his question with a challenge to us all: “We need to do much more than walk down the Lawn to ‘take back our University.’ In my view, the point is not so much to reclaim our University, but to change it.” That change, he went on to say, must “begin by acknowledging the university’s complicity in the creation and preservation of white supremacy.”
This history, which begins properly with the labor extracted from black captives, who built the famed “academical village,” has been reflected across the years in the professors it has hired, the ideas and ideologies some have propounded from the lectern and the pages of their publications; in the policies of exclusion once decreed by its Board of Visitors, which have, in turn, shaped and determined the demographics of its faculty and student body, past and present, as well as circumscribed the possibilities of advancement for so many of its workers. Like so many of its his peer institutions, UVA has owned up to its origins in slavery, but far more self-assessment is in order.
As is often the case, students in our universities are often the goads and harbingers of change, and many young people at UVA have taken up this mantle. The demands issued by the Black Student Alliance and undersigned organizations are but one example of the position our students have taken on the front lines of change. Among the growing list of documents circulating around the country— including, “the Charlottesville Syllabus”, which is the product of the UVA Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation— the work of students, fellows and alumni of the Carter G. Woodson Institute is well represented. I am pleased to refer you to a selection of their responses to the events of August 11th and 12th; let’s call it “Selections from the Woodson Institute’s Syllabus on Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.”
“The Illusion of Progress: Charlottesville’s Roots in White Supremacy,” produced by the Institute’s “Citizen Justice Initiative,” between May and July 2017, had already helped to lay much of the foundation for a university self-study, perhaps knowing uncannily that a survey of the roots of white supremacy in Charlottesville, as well as in the university, would be needed barely two months hence.
Although neither could have foreseen what ultimately came to pass, Aryn Frazier, a Rhodes Scholar, who graduated as an African American Studies Major just this past May, wrote wisely with fellow student and alumus, Martese Johnson, to caution us against “a society duped by [the] distractions” created by the organizers of “Unite the Right.” In “Why the Upcoming Alt-Right Rally in Charlottesville May be Less Important than We Think,” they argued that the KKK and its ilk are but “a spawn of that real, quiet, but deadly injustice” of white supremacy—in other words, the invisible "monuments" not cast in bronze or installed in parks and squares, or lining boulevards and thoroughfares.
In the wake of the August crisis, Woodson Institute Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Lindsey Jones, wrote to remind us that “Just Calling the White Nationalists at Charlottesville ‘Nazis’ Erases America's Own Racism.” In answer to those who would argue that the members of the alt-right should be termed “Nazis,” and thus deemed “not us,” she counters, “I call them white supremacists, domestic terrorists, Virginian neighbors, and fellow Americans."
Finally, perhaps we can all say “Amen” to the response of J. T. Roane, another graduate of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, recently awarded a Columbia PhD in history. In the thick of the turmoil, he chose to focus, not on white supremacist terror in Charlottesville, but instead, on Black love and the community of students and faculty who sustained him in his years at UVA.
Each of these pieces is shaped by and steeped in the intellectual assumptions and canons of African American and African Studies. At no time has the work of this field been needed more urgently than now amid the din and chaos unleashed by the racist clamoring of those determined, by any means necessary, to “take [their] country back.” It is fitting that I leave you to ponder, not only how longstanding are these references to “my country,” but also how one of the giants of African American Studies challenged them in The Souls of Black Folk (1903):
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.
Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right.
Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse.
Perhaps, if only on the lower frequencies, DuBois speaks for you—speaks for us all.
Deborah E. McDowell
The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies,
College and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences
University of Virginia
August 24, 2017
I was asked by some of my colleagues to say something personal about the ugly and violent events of the past two weeks. The invasion of our community by neo-Nazis and white supremacists armed with guns and blazing torches has left me with a very mixed sense of anger, outrage, bewilderment, and sadness. This sadness was compounded by the devastating loss of Heather Heyer who was killed when a Nazi terrorist drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Heather was a brave and forthright individual, who, as I learned at her memorial service last Wednesday, was not afraid of uncomfortable conversations and of calling people out on their prejudices. Heather exemplified human decency, she simply told us that we should not put up with ugliness and injustice.
We should celebrate her simple and brave form of resistance. In fact, Heather was not alone; a multiplicity of organizations, clergy of all denominations, and individuals of different ideologies and faiths confronted the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis with fierce determination. I found this anti-supremacist and anti-fascist movement empowering. It embodied human decency and it compelled the racists to retreat.
And yet, the question remains: what else can we do as faculty and students in the aftermath of both Heather Heyer’s tragic death and the chilling and frightening presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our midst?
While I appreciated last Wednesday’s candlelight march, it seems to me that we need to do much more than walking down the Lawn to “take back our University.” In my view the point is not so much to reclaim our University, but to change it.
Let me explain. In my view, change must begin by acknowledging the university's complicity in the creation and preservation of white supremacy. For starters, Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” was built by slave labor. As a native of Haiti, I am all too familiar with the views of UVA’s slave-owning founder. Many students are not aware that Haiti was the world’s first independent black nation, the result of a slave revolution against French colonialism. Thomas Jefferson feared that the example of the Haitian revolution might embolden blacks in the United Sates to rise up. As President, he refused to recognize Haiti making it an outcast, a position it has struggled to overcome.
It is not just Jefferson’s slave-holding past with which we must contend. At the turn of the 20th century Dr. Paul Barringer, who served as Chairman of the Faculty—the last to hold that office before the University started having Presidents—promoted eugenics—a racist pseudo-science. In 1921, UVA President, E. A. Alderman welcomed and thanked the KKK for a large donation. We thus need to acknowledge the role of racist donors in the growth of our university. We also need to remember that African-Americans and women were not even admitted to the college until the late 1960s and early1970s.
It is only when we know this history, that we can understand how the torch-bearing white supremacists who invaded the Lawn on August 11, saw themselves as “reclaiming” the University. In other words, if we do not forcefully confront and condemn this racist legacy, we cannot truly claim the University as a place that is welcoming to all.
I do not mean to dismiss recent efforts to uncover the hidden and ugly parts of our University, but only to say that more work must be done. Our current moment provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and create a genuine community. We need a University that is not only culturally and ethnically diverse, but also economically inclusive. For whether we like to admit it or not, most of us at UVA are privileged. We need to reflect on how as an institution, and as individuals, we treat and reward those who are neither faculty nor students. I am talking about the custodial staff, grounds keepers, office staff and hospital workers, people whom we often ignore, but whose work is indispensable for our own flourishing.
Most universities and colleges like to think of themselves as special places. And indeed, they are. We are. UVA is a special place where, if we faculty do our jobs well, you will grow into thoughtful and perceptive citizens. But UVA is also part of a wider world and reflects the problems of our times. You are entering adulthood in an epoch when the global economy has produced massive wealth and obscene inequalities that feed social insecurities and xenophobic sentiments. To paraphrase the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, we are living in times when “the old is dying, and the beautiful has yet to be born.”
Resolve to be part of that new birth! Mobilize, organize, and work for the beautiful. In the process, take a frank look at the past in order to better grasp the present. Study hard, debate vigorously, and think critically about how best to advance the common good. And then move forward with conviction and humility.
Thank you and welcome to UVA and Charlottesville.
August 24, 2017
August 21, 2017
In the wake of violent attacks in Charlottesville from white supremacist organizations on August 11-12, the Center for Teaching Excellence compiled a list of resources to help faculty and instructors address critical inicidents in their classrooms. In support of the Center for Teaching Excellence's response, the Woodson Institute reprints its list of resources below, the original link can be found here.
Responding To Critical Incidents
Following the hateful and violent display of racism, bigotry, white supremacy, and Neo-Nazism that occurred in Charlottesville on August 11-12, we offer the following resources to help instructors address this and other critical incidents in their classrooms. Formal research and UVA students tell us that students want faculty to acknowledge critical incidents in the classroom. If we don’t, students may assume that we do not care about them and/or the issue. A simple acknowledgement can normalize feelings of distress, ease a sense of isolation, and signal that you care. Here are a few things to consider.
- It is important to acknowledge the violence of August 11-12 and that we are all likely to be upset and affected in different ways. Communicate your care through a gentle tone and manner and by being clear that you condemn the aggression displayed in our city and the University. We encourage you to be specific and name racism, bigotry, white supremacy, and Neo-Nazism while expressing your commitment to the values of diversity, inclusion, and civic discourse.
- Be honest and humble. You can admit that you are also muddling your way through this and are unsure what to say. Explain why you may not have an in-depth conversation (e.g. “routines such as going to class can be helpful as we process”) and point to resources for students.
- Indicate your interest for students’ well-being. Tell them that they should feel free to take care of themselves in whatever ways they need to do. Offer to speak with students during office hours, particularly encouraging students whose work may be affected by the incident. Consider offering flexibility regarding assignment deadlines. You might also review student safety guidelines and support offices.
There are many additional ways to support students and turn the incident into a teachable moment. Your strategy will likely depend on factors such as your personality, experience, and comfort level with the issues at stake, as well as class size and subject matter. Possibilities include:
- Consider inviting your students at the beginning of class to free-write about a prompt such as the following: “How do you make sense of the current events and your emotions in light of your values? Who do you want to reach out to later in the day for more processing and support?” Such reflections allow students to intentionally process the incident and plan to seek support if needed.
- Depending on students’ inclination and your comfort level, you can devote class time to discussing the incident, also being sure to let students who choose to process less publicly know that they are free to leave and take care of themselves. Consider the resources below as you plan to discuss critical incidents.
- Explore different philosophical approaches to difficult classroom dialogues. Adopting and communicating to students a particular pedagogical stance can guide your decisions and the conversation.
- Be proactive. Plan for inclusion. Review your syllabus. Create classroom community. Set ground rules.
- Tend to your own self-care needs and remember that different members of our community are doing different kinds of emotional labor. Support those who experience a disproportionate strain for supporting students in this challenging time.
The following select resources can help equip you to respond in your classrooms to critical incidents affecting the community:
- Take Back The Lawn Notes offers frameworks, suggestions, writing prompts and resources; working document curated by over one hundred staff, graduate students, faculty, and administrators from across the University
- Charlottesville Syllabus developed by Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation
- Blog posts from the University of Michigan:
- Start talking: a handbook for engaging in difficult dialogues. Landis, K. (Ed) (2008)
- In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy by Huston, T.A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In Robertson D.R. & Nilson, L.B. (Eds.). To Improve the Academy, 25 (207-224).
- What We Need from UVA Faculty, open letter from UVA students to faculty in the aftermath UVA student Martese Johnson being injured by ABC officers
- Supporting Students Through Political Discussions, from Portland State University written after the presidential election, but applicable to other contexts
- FAQ sheet from the American Association of University Professors with frameworks for making decisions about what ideas to share in the classroom and how
- “Free Speech on Grounds” by Leslie Kendrick and other UVA resources on free speech
We would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 434-982-2815 or request a confidential consultation online.
The CTE is committed to the values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and education.
August 15, 2017
To Students, Faculty, Alumni, and Friends of the Carter G. Woodson Institute:
Still reeling from and wrestling with the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally of this past weekend, I write as Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, to join others in condemning the unspeakable terror and brutality unleashed on our community. Along with my colleagues, I extend my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who will be long remembered for sacrificing their lives in defense against this latest iteration of bigotry and white supremacy. In the name of free speech and the right to assemble and protest, the rally’s organizers—both graduates of the University of Virginia—drew on time-worn tactics of terrorism and intimidation.
While we do not seek to inflame the tensions of this moment, it helps to be reminded of the words and work of the African American, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), who devoted her life to campaigning against the racist violence and terrorism of lynching. Writing in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases (1892), she makes two instructive points, which may serve to guide us in the days ahead: 1) “the people must know before they can act” and 2) “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” As an investigative journalist, Wells-Barnett was advocating in these passages for the role and power of the press as “educator,” but also for the importance of an informed citizenry. Armed with knowledge of Charlottesville and its history, we need not resort to the simplistic question posed by journalists, politicians, and pundits alike over the last 48 hours--“How did we get here?” Rather, we must ask, “What next?” Answering the latter question often requires that we “know” before “we act.” On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to assert the fact that we are a unit of African American and African Studies within an academic institution, believing in the transformative power and value of knowledge. As we have done time and time again in the face of national and local crises, we reaffirm the moral and intellectual value of our commitment to diversity, tolerance, civility, and justice, both at the University of Virginia and beyond.
In the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, we append to this statement a series of links to suggested resources for further study and future action, beginning with “The Illusion of Progress: Charlottesville’s Roots in White Supremacy.” In preparation throughout the summer of 2017, we share this document, still in progress, which was produced by the “Citizen Justice Initiative” of the Carter G. Woodson Institute. Sponsored by the Strategic Investment Fund of the University of Virginia, it represents the research conducted by a team of student interns from Charlottesville-area high schools and undergraduates from the University of Virginia, along with the director and managing editor of the project. Their work establishes that the legacies of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy in our community are yet to be conquered, despite signs of incremental progress. In the days and weeks ahead, we must do our part, individually and collectively, to battle those forces that bid to set us further back, working in solidarity with groups and coalitions on initiatives already underway. Following this document are links to other resources pertinent to the work that lies ahead.
Yours in struggle,
Deborah E. McDowell
for the Carter G. Woodson Institute,
College and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences
University of Virginia
Statement from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies Regarding President Trump's Executive Order on Immigration
Statement from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies Regarding President Trump's Executive Order on Immigration
January 31, 2017
All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.
--Martin Luther King, Jr. “The World House”
At this moment of distress and consternation, in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on immigration of last Friday, it is useful to turn to “The World House,” the final chapter of King’s last book, Where do we Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967). There King began by referencing the papers of a famous novelist, containing a list of possible plots for future stories. The most prominent on the list, King noted , was this: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” He goes on to say, “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interests, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies affirms King’s statement, along with his famous axiom that “Together we must learn to live as brothers [and sisters] or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” We further affirm the moral and intellectual value of our commitment to diversity, tolerance, civility, and justice, both at the University of Virginia and around the world. As scholars, researchers, and teachers of race, ethnicity and culture across the African Diaspora, we have a special understanding of the wide variety of cultural, historical and religious experiences that make up and bind together the human family globally—and inextricably. For this reason, we denounce any policy or plan, whether at local, state or federal level, that bids to sever this connection, whether through word or deed. Therefore, as citizens of the Commonwealth and scholars of the university, we assert our commitment to the creation and cultivation of a just society where intolerance, injustice, prejudice, and hate will not prevail. We believe we are all the richer by that racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic pluralism that has distinguished and sustained the American experiment since its founding.
March 21, 2015
We—the faculty, faculty affiliates, students, fellows, and staff—of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies express our outrage at the brutal arrest of third-year student Martese Johnson by agents of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Department. We want you to know that we share the frustrations and pain expressed by the broader black student community. We want you to know that we stand steadfast with you, our students, in your desire to create a just, inclusive and socially conscious university.
We are well aware that many of our students are also calling on the Woodson Institute for greater support. As faculty members, we want to assure you that we remain resolute in our mission and that we remain faithful to longstanding principles anchoring the Black Studies tradition. Our commitment to these principles often operates outside the public eye. But while our advocacy may not always be visible, rest assured that it expresses itself on various fronts. Moreover, that advocacy is always motivated by our fundamental desire to support you while advancing the broader imperatives and legacies of Black Studies.
In these times when anti-black violence, whether physical, psychological or intellectual, wracks and divides our nation and finds a home at our very University and its back door, it is critical that we work together to unify our fractured community. Such unity begins with mutual respect, dialogue and cooperation. We invite our students to partner with us in our quest for healing and justice. We will be working diligently in the upcoming weeks on action items to repair our community. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact us, to let us know how we can best support you at this terrible time. Our doors are open.