As I walk around Decatur, Georgia where I reside, the spaces close to Agnes Scott College are decorated with Black Lives Matter signs.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Students, faculty and staff everywhere can demand accountability in the promotion and retention of faculty and staff of color.
- 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.
- 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.