As protests continue and emerge across the U.S. and around the globe in response to the killing of George Floyd, and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we write to express our anger and grief. We write to acknowledge that the protests unfold not only because of these killings but because of the accumulated history of Black death at the hands of law enforcement, vigilantes, and the violence of structural inequalities. We acknowledge and mourn too many deaths, from Eric Garner to Jonathan Ferrell and Nina Pop, from Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Pamela Turner to Patrick Dorismond, from Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson to Amadou Diallo, from Sandra Bland and Korryn Gaines to Atatiana Jefferson and Shantel Davis and Trayvon Martin and so many more human beings across time and geography. We acknowledge that these protests unfold also because of the toll of COVID-19 that has fallen disproportionately upon Black people because of the long-term effects both of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. We write to support Black Lives Matter and other national and local movements for justice and to commit to actions as well as words.
We write to support Black students who in both the physical and digital world must navigate Geneseo. We witness the excellent academic and creative work of the Black students in our classes, students able to thrive and innovate even while Geneseo’s spaces, like those of other predominantly white campuses, accumulate everyday careless and gratuitous insults and other obstacles to Black students’ achievement of a public liberal arts education.
As Geneseo English alumna Evelyn Mendez puts it, “Black individuals are dying inside and outside of jails and because many of us are afraid to seek help because of systemic racism.…We aren’t at peace. All we want is to no longer live in fear.” We write, then, in response to her and her peers: we write to affirm the shared responsibility of our Community Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and particularly to “sustaining and expanding the diversity of our community and to making equity for all members of our diverse community a measure of our success.” That is, we write to acknowledge we can and must do more and better to fight actively against anti-Black racism.
As faculty members who study and craft literature, we rely on the long record of evidence that Black artists, scholars, and cultural critics have woven into stories of the fight against fear and the fight for peace that cannot be unpartnered from justice. These are narratives that, in the words of Geneseo English alumna Dr. Jacqueline Monique Jones, can “help us better understand the world that we’re in and the world that we want to see.” We strive in our courses to offer specific historical and cultural contexts for the texts that we teach, understanding both that art does not lie outside of history and politics and that complex stories and rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship inform the transformative Black art and activism we witness today. Such transformation is possible even and especially when it feels impossible; indeed, as Geneseo English alumna Sabrina Bramwell put it during her 2019 Senior Oration, “A core characteristic of interdisciplinary thinking is being willing to value a thought that differs from your own and use it to foster growth. With this mindset, the fear of difference is transformed to intrigue, the unfamiliar is now admired, and inclusion—the desire to hear different opinions—develops more naturally.” Discomfort is not there to be avoided but rather to be explored, not singly or by a few but by a community committed to equity as essential to inquiry.
As teachers and scholars, our commitment is to be listeners: to learn, to reflect, to educate ourselves and others. In the wake of the 2016 election, Mariame Kaba wrote that “Humility is in order across the land. It’s really OK to say that you don’t know the answers. You don’t have to pretend you do.” Kaba’s words guide us now. We commit to taking action, and in doing so commit to making Black lives the center while not asking those most affected by anti-Black racism to take on more emotional labor. We commit to be accountable for the sources, words, images, and narratives that we spread in personal and digital spaces, especially as Black Lives Matter warns of misinformation and disinformation targeted at the movement. We commit to take action within our various spheres of influence. We refuse saviorism, white and otherwise. We offer what we have and can in service to building a more just world.
Above all, we are called to commit to behaviors and structures for care and caring rather than behaviors and structures that exist only for calling to order, as Fred Moten has termed it. Such commitment must be careful. As Saidiya Hartman has affirmed, “Care is the antidote to violence.” Yet also as Geneseo English alumna Davina Ward has affirmed, “Care can exist as violence. Violence can exist as care.” We see this over and over where police, whose charge is to “care and protect,” target Black people with violence. Resources devoted to continuing such violence (such as the $230 million paid out in claims against the NYPD in 2018 alone) must be reallocated to structures for public health, mental health, and public education.
As faculty members who teach and craft works of the imagination, we must not fail to work to build the different world that protestors and students are imagining through their demands. Indeed, rather than just saying Black lives matter, we should actively work on what Geneseo English and Philosophy student Emma Mandella identifies as a new model for reparations. Citing the work of Roy Brooks, in “The Ills of American Capitalism: A New Case for Reparations,” Mandella argues for reparations in the atonement model, demanding revolutionary structural change to support Black citizens. As an alternative to settlement reparations, the atonement model emphasizes long-term efforts to address structural inequalities and systemic inequities.
We close with words from Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who notes a truth that emerged from her experience coming into what she calls her “full power” as an adult human being during the Civil Rights Movement:
Sometimes you really need things to be thrown up in your community, everything to be turned over in such a way so you have another chance to look at what you have put together. And in any culture, any people, any history, throwing things up gives you a chance to be selective about what you will carry forward.
All Geneseo students and alumni invoked in this statement have given their express consent to their work being included in this context.