Injustice at Agnes Scott College

As I walk around Decatur, Georgia where I reside, the spaces close to Agnes Scott College are decorated with Black Lives Matter signs.

Black Lives Matter sign near Agnes Scott College

If Black Lives really mattered to Agnes Scott College, Black and Brown students of the college would have the support and encouragement to fulfill their stellar intrinsic potential. These students would be surrounded by faculty and staff that affirmed them, that welcomed them into their offices without reservation, serving up intellectually challenging but uplifting discussion, encouraging words, a chai if need be, providing courses and learning spaces in which their brilliance was able to shine. If Black Lives Mattered, then the retention and promotion of Black faculty would be a priority. If Black Lives Mattered, then the College would have addressed larger issues of reparations for the enslaved labor used by its founder, (Confederate) Colonel George W. Scott. If Black Lives Mattered, then active participation in the education of Black women in the surrounding community would be a priority, it would be evident in a vibrant Beacon Hill (a Black enclave of Decatur adjacent to campus) community.

From the Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 2. Isn’t it time for reparations?

Gayatri Sethi, my partner, was laid off from Agnes Scott College three years ago today. Dr. Sethi unfailingly and generously served up the affirmation and advocacy so critical to making Black Lives Matter.

The explanation given as to why she was dismissed was “budget cuts”. Then as now it rings hollow, like the punitive actions taken against so many Black and Brown women in academia whose stories are now coming forward in places like #BlackInTheIvory on Twitter.

For going on ten years, I witnessed her put heart, love, and soul into the education of women at Agnes Scott. She taught classes in Feminist Studies and Education as an adjunct and then was hired to help design and roll out a global studies program named Summit. She put all the skill and meticulousness that had earned her a Stanford Ph.D. into crafting the program, going beyond the “drive by” cultural exoticization which so much of global learning — crafting the classes and preparation that would prepare young women for transformative and meaningful experiences abroad. Experiences centered on shared humanity, the ability to understand people for who they are. I watched as she developed partnerships with communities in Trinidad, and challenged her colleagues to decolonize their instruction.

She, and by extension, we, paid a hefty price for that much needed boldness.

After the election of 2016, she was an advocate and trusted advisor for Black, African, Muslim, and South Asian students. Being an advocate, and trusted advisor for young women in crisis was not viewed positively by the administration, but seen as a direct threat to the very core of the college. She was told to end her unapologetic Black Lives Matter work, and cease public support of Muslim student protestors on campus. These activities she was told, reflected poorly on the college administration.

As the travel bans came into effect I could barely contain the rage I felt as they attempted to prevent her from showing basic human compassion to her students, silence her from speaking from her lived experience of traveling through interrogations and harassment for the crime of holding an African passport while Brown. For her to be dismissed as an “agitator” for the offense of showing academic and human integrity.

I witnessed over those days prior to her dismissal what seemed like an endless parade of Black students whose existence, competence had been questioned and attacked by faculty, only to be raised up by her words, by the meditations she would slip in, the way she would center them in classes. The crushing of Black spirits that I witnessed her intercede in was hard for me to watch — I witnessed those tears and heard the fears in the phone conversations.

I think that my anger was made even greater by knowing the depth of the injustice. I knew things didn’t need to be this way. I attended Morehouse as an undergrad, I went to nursery school at Spelman College (a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta) during the late 1960’s, was cared for by Black women student activists who were changing the world, and I had known and been raised by Black and African women who’d attended Spelman and other historically Black colleges. I am living proof that it is possible to educate Black people, Black women without destroying them. That all to say, that I am a witness to the confidence and nurturing of spirt that an all-women’s college could be. Time and again, I witnessed that potential betrayed at Agnes Scott.

I saw Black women on the staff come and then go. The same modality of repression. Tears and frustration. Yet saw my partner offering the same compassion and solidarity and empathy with those colleagues.

After word got out of my partner’s dismissal, many of her students came to rally together. They appealed. They wrote petitions. They used the hashtag #ThankYouDrSethi to call attention to what they had experienced. They were silenced, disciplined and ignored.

In partnership with many of those students, a community of support called Alt College was created. I watched many continue to flower as budding designers, scientists, health professionals, and activists. This in spite of the college. Alt College and the ensuing community provided the kind of safe and uplifting place that they and others like them so desperately need in these times.

I took the photos in this post on a day — June 7, when there was a Black Lives Matter protest in Decatur. I briefly pulled into a side street on campus after taking a photo, my car’s hazard flashers on. All of 20 seconds. Within that amount of time, a campus police officer started running toward me with a grim face. White protestors streamed by, many walking across the campus. If I had stayed until the officer had arrived, would any of the woke protest participants bothered to question things? I didn’t wait to find out.

Today, academia is being unmasked and challenged and held to account for its participation in white supremacy. The ShutDownStem site has resources that will aid you in confronting and ending racism in academia. I thought that it was time to say something, to add my voice to the many who’ve come forth.

In the spirit of offering something concrete for those to come, a few suggestions:

  1. Black parents students who value their education and safety have to be discerning about where they and their loved ones go to school. This attitude has to start long before college. Demand figures on
    graduation rates, the number of Black students that have received meaningful employment after graduation, and acceptance to graduate programs. Do the research on students that have left the institution. Talk to the people that have gone there. Look beyond the numbers and get to the lived experiences.
  2. Students, faculty and staff everywhere can demand accountability in the promotion and retention of faculty and staff of color.
  3. Students, faculty and staff everywhere can demand that the faculty, staff and students harmed by racist and anti-Black policies be recompensed for the damages done.
  4. The Decatur community, Agnes Scott alums, and those who currently work there can demand that Agnes Scott College institute reparations to address the the exploitation of enslaved African Americans by founder George W. Scott and anti-Black gentrification that still persists in Decatur.

Black Lives Matter.

4 thoughts on “Injustice at Agnes Scott College

  1. Yes!! Yes!!! How do I make the font bigger in a comment? I guess by repetition. YESSSS!!! Yes!!!!!!!!!!

    Thank you Charles for discerning it to be time for your voice to step up. Much appreciated. We’re all different, like everyone else. All similar, each unique. Maybe no-one is born equal, though we’re all born with equal value as human beings. Rather than equality, shall we make a move towards equanimity?

    I’m reminded of of a professor showing up at the Black Belt Tae Kwon Do Class I was instructing in college for P.E. credit — read in: wage theft under the guise of credit completion, honor back then, I didn’t yet know better at 19. Though, kinda the wrong environment to show up making trouble, though hey, some people are also trained to have a pre-Approved Darwin. Award Application. I laugh, it was straight out of a Kung Fu Theatre movie with someone coming in the challenge the Mater, except here, humorously, with no martial skills… or even a thoughtful demeanor.

    In shoes mind you in the dojo, she jumped the knee wall and bolted across the floor towards me spewing All the while with words I won’t repeat here how I needed to remove the 2 black people and 3 Korean people from my class or else! Smiling, calm as a daisy, though not going down like one, “Madame, this class is based on a system from Korea, and occasionally the way I teach it, from China. I’m not sure of your geography acumen other than knowing how to get to a fanatical church, so I’ll throw you a bone. Koreans, Chinese, and Africans are closer to this art’s geographical origin than you or me are here. Maybe we should both leave and stop wonderment and curiosity and experience and serendipity and exchange from continuing to poison the world.”

    I still smile. She SO wanted to agree because I stood her up while the other hand yanked her carpet from under her, though you also saw the check mate on her face. “Hmmmmmpopphhh.” And, she spun, and was gone. She stopped and turned around to which I, “Madame, there are rules that are made to be broken. So, next time you visit, make sure to take off your shoes.” 🙂 She bolted out as fast as she came in. Guess her fanatics sent the wrong busy body. I turned… “Class, can we agree that the last one to get to class lock the door?”

    One of my students, ironically higher ranking than me (another story) chimed in, “Mr. Hoggard I thought you said that conflict wasn’t the point, not to pick fights, and you just destroyed her with words.” 🙂 “I did say that. One part of not picking or allowing fights is… Be peaceful, but know when to let motherf***ers know. I should clarify further about violence. To yes or no it requires thoughtfulness… hmmm. Class, Man who have mosquito land on testicles learn very quickly that violence it not the best 1st course of action. That’s how got rid of her as the mosquito.” They all laughed, and we got on with class. Though, things like that happening? Unacceptable. Of course it was Texas Bible Belt, Lubbock, the class I was teaching itself was an academic minority.

    Like Lewis Hamilton expressed when asked recently if he thoughT racism was getting worse. “No, I don’t. WIll Smith said it best. Racism isn’t getting worse. Now, it’s just being filmed.”

    Charles, shall we go all culturally hardwood and tile so there are no more carpets to sweep things under?

  2. It was well known by minorities not to attend ASC, from its foundation up to the 1970, 80, 90s.
    It is one of the most racist institutions that are still being financed. To think of removing the Stone Mountain Memorial, and not Agnes Scott College?
    Goes to show how our youth has been badly educated. Not to mention they write history as they deem convenient. But we all know better.

  3. It was well known by minorities not to attend ASC, from its foundation up to the 1970, 80, 90s.
    It is one of the most racist institutions that are still being financed. To think of removing the Stone Mountain Memorial, and not Agnes Scott College?
    Goes to show how our youth has been badly educated. Not to mention they write history as they deem convenient. But we all know better.

    1. Hopefully the removal of Confederate monuments is a warm up for more impactful and necessary truth and reconciliation. Who knows Nelson, we still have a few months left in 2020.
      Thank you for commenting.

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