Reflections on Black Solidarity Day (2011)
By Romina A. Green, MA in History (Tufts ’12)
March 26, 2012
On November 7, 2011, Black Solidarity Day exposed a boiling cauldron brewing on Tufts University campus. In the Obama era of politics, when some individuals claim that the United States entered a post-racial beginning and some students who wander aimlessly through campus with their tightly fitted blinders of privilege claim the same nonsense in describing racial realities at Tufts, were awe struck once hearing about an occupation at Ballou Hall (if they heard about it at all). That first Monday in November exhibited a grounded reality of the growing tensions that the Tufts administration wished would just go away: the 42 year struggle for an Africana Studies (originally African-American Studies) Department.
Like any struggle, the fight for an Africana Studies Department is not, per se, a single issue demand. Instead, the long-standing, 42 year endeavor of “sorrow, tears, and blood” (“them regular trademark”) by black students and their allies reflects a deeper desire: a demand for recognition within academia and campus life itself. What does it mean to be black at Tufts? I am not black so I cannot answer this question. But, as a Latina at Tufts, I have often felt out of place, uncomfortable, and unhappy. Why? On an academic level, the majority of the Tufts curriculum is highly Eurocentric and reflects a normalization of colonial apologia. And, within campus life, I have found more obstacles than open avenues in this small liberal arts college. (Since the university’s emphasis is building a strong International Relations program, I believe describing Tufts as a “liberal arts college” is an oxymoron.) Part of the uncomfortableness was knowing that the semester before my arrival there was an incident on campus in which a racist and homophobic student insulted and assaulted members of the Korean Students Association (KSA). Between the whitewashing by the Tufts administration and racist apologist headline by the Tufts Daily (“Alleged bias incident against Korean students prompts widespread reaction”), made it clear that Tufts University was not San Francisco State University (my undergrad alma mater). I was further angered when the Tufts Trustees adopted a “free speech” policy at the end of my first semester which showed that the Trustees are more concerned in protecting privileged white students on campus who use hate speech instead of making the campus a safer space for students of color. The policy was the result of a Task Force on Freedom of Expression (Tufts uses task forces to depoliticize and drag on contentious incidents and issues to tire students out through endless bureaucratic, highly hierarchical, and inaccessible ghost committees.) This task force was the administration’s response to a racist jingle published by the libertarian-conservative campus journal, Primary Source in 2006. I remember a deep feeling of alienation as I walked through campus after reading about the racist jingle and the so-called free speech policy. If I, as a light-skinned Latina, felt deeply uncomfortable and estranged at this campus, I wondered how other students of color felt about the ivory hill.
As preparations for 2011 Black Solidarity approached, I glowed with happiness as I finally found fellow students willing to take action. In the process, I was further educated about the underground activism brewing in Tufts and how a group of 40 students gathered at the 2011 April Open House wearing t-shirts that said “Ask me about white privilege at Tufts” or “Ask me about being a student of color at Tufts.” I also learned that there were many other students seeking allies for a wide range/variety of issues from labor rights, women’s rights, and social justice–our coalescence was due to the formation of Tufts Occupiers in early Fall 2011.
In the early morning of November 7th, Tufts students were greeted by a beautiful wheat paste in Campus Center by art activists who asked: Has your history been highjacked? Hmmmm, YES!
By noon, students gathered in front of the campus center holding on to various banners and signs showing their discontent with the university’s 42 year-long unwillingness to create an Africana Studies Department, which also amounts to a 42 year-long cold shoulder to black students at Tufts. Some signs included: See No Africana Studies (Tufts Trustees), Hear No Africana Studies (Tufts Administration), Speak No Africana Studies (Tufts Faculty). Yes, faculty is just as much to be blame because silence is acceptance.
Another banner was titled “The Comparative Race and Ethnicity/Identity Studies Program Fishbowl,” which was the rumored program being promoted by Dean Berger-Sweeney (Dean of Arts and Sciences, aka DBS). How best to deal with all these complicated identities like queer studies, women’s studies, Asian American Studies, Latin@ Studies, and Africana Studies than to stick them all in one program. Otherness is always safer in isolation (sarcasm). This vision advertised by DBS underscores how far removed the Tufts Administration is in being able to deliver the wants of the students and/or have a grasp on the changing times. Even further, it highlights the Administration’s lack of sensitivity in lumping all “other” identities and ethnicities together who already battle alterity on a daily basis and who feel a sense of exclusion from the dominant male, white, heteronormative society. In that sense, Tufts is promoting the othering of the non-white, non-male, and non-hetero students.
After a well-organized rally by the Tufts Pan-African Alliance, spearheaded by Tabias Wilson and Jameelah Morris, Morris announced to those present that a list of five demands had been prepared by a group of students and anyone present at the rally was urged to join the march up to Ballou Hall to take part in presenting the demands to the Tufts Administration. Some 60 students participated in the occupation of Ballou Hall (the last occupation of Ballou had taken place in 1985 demanding that Tufts Trustees divest from Apartheid South Africa). The occupation was a lovely vision of student creativity with music playing, some doing homework, and another reading Bakunin.
A group of the three students were chosen by those present to take part in negotiations with President Monaco, DBS, and Provost Newell. After two and half hours of negotiating, the Tufts Administration agreed to a mutated version of the student demands. Wilson and Morris played a dynamic role as they stood their ground and made their way through an intimidating and tense negotiation. Through the course of the meeting, the students encountered several roadblocks, especially when any semblance of student power could possibly be legitimized. In other words, students were denied equal representation on committees that would decide upon the future programs and the direction of university curriculum that students were questioning. Still, some invaluable gains were made and an important experience was shared by a group of Tufts students who joined the legacy of radical activism at Tufts. Some students learned that gains are made through struggle and some students learned that a certain level of sacrifice is involved when partaking in struggle. Caring means putting time and energy into a cause that takes you away from the school books and into organizing (which is an art form in and of itself). Is it rewarding? On a personal and societal level it is deeply rewarding. Are you rewarded by capitalist society (in this case by the institution called university)? The answer generally is no—typically, you are punished through lower grades, disciplinary actions, or less obvious forms of punishment disguised in another form. Are you rewarded by your community? Yes, absolutely yes. Is your community strengthened? Yes. Is the battle over? Hell no!
A couple of days after the occupation, I was walking to a class I was TAing that semester and as I neared Ballou I saw one of our banners still hanging from the building. I stood there, on an unusually sunny day, soaking up a sense of empowerment as I realized that I finally found my reward, a community on this cold ivory hill. A community of non-conformists and those willing to fight oppression on multiple fronts. While that feeling of alienation and estrangement that I sensed a few years earlier has not totally dissipated, nevertheless, I found some sense of belonging through the process of human struggle and desire for recognition. The belonging had nothing to do with the Tufts Administration or their partial acceptance of our demands, but it was knowing I had a group of people who had my back. As I looked at the banner flapping audaciously overlooking the campus declaring “The Revolution Begins Within: Occupy Your Mind,” a campus truck pulled up to bring down the banner. Well, the moment of glory was over but at least, I thought, I could rescue our battle flag. So I waited and smiled a few times at the campus worker managing the cherry picker. Once the banner was brought down I said, “I have a question: Can I have my banner back?” The worker looked at me and smiled, “As long as you don’t put it on another building.” “Oh, no,” I said. And it was mine again.