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Talking Truth 

A Conversation About Race on the SUNY New Paltz Campus

Last Updated: 11/01/2021 1:24 am
click to enlarge The October 14 rally on the SUNY New Paltz campus participatory artworks, poetry readings, and calls to action for a change in the conversation about race on campus. - PHOTO BY FRANCES CATHRYN
  • Photo by Frances Cathryn
  • The October 14 rally on the SUNY New Paltz campus participatory artworks, poetry readings, and calls to action for a change in the conversation about race on campus.

Universities are, supposedly, citadels of enlightenment and higher thinking, a place for students and faculty alike to put forward new ideas and experiment with new ways of being. But there’s another way of thinking about American universities: as some of the oldest, and thus most calcified, institutions in the country. College campuses have not been immune to protests against systemic racism that have swept the country, from UMass students protesting a bigoted email that circulated to Black student organizers in October to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill denying tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones this past summer.

Similar to other institutions of power in the United States, racism is often built into the foundations of universities, sometimes literally. An American Public Media report from 2017 detailed how profits from chattel slavery helped fund the construction of such storied schools as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson—who kept more than 600 people in bondage across his personal properties—enslaved individuals constructed campus buildings and served faculty and staff. This legacy of structural racism in academia is not forgotten by students, staff, and faculty, especially people of color who feel the impact of racial discrimination most acutely.

At SUNY New Paltz this fall, students and teachers are back on campus for the first time since the coronavirus shut down schools across the country in March of last year. The return coincides with the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the campus library in honor of Sojourner Truth, the civil rights leader born in Ulster County. The university had planned to commemorate both occasions by unveiling a new, six-foot-tall cast-bronze memorial to Truth in front of the library this September, after previously delaying the ceremony due to the shutdown. But the monument to the famed abolitionist is sitting out of sight, indefinitely.

What should have been a celebratory moment has been complicated by accusations of erasure and racism that began in the Black Studies department and have rippled across campus. In a statement emailed to all faculty and staff on September 14, the Black Studies department called for the statue unveiling to be postponed, writing that it had been excluded from the decision-making process.

click to enlarge Students, faculty, and outside supporters rallied in the quad adjacent to Sojourner Truth Library on the SUNY New Paltz campus on October 14. - PHOTO BY FRANCES CATHRYN
  • Photo by Frances Cathryn
  • Students, faculty, and outside supporters rallied in the quad adjacent to Sojourner Truth Library on the SUNY New Paltz campus on October 14.

“We believe the effort is blatantly rooted in racism, irrespective of its intention,” the statement reads. “Where racism is in part the implicit and/or explicit denial and/or erasure of one’s humanity, and the capacity to express that humanity on their own terms, this situation is expressive of the substantive and systemic way that racism as power functions in the intersections of economic, political, and educational spaces.”

Black Studies was soon joined in solidarity by letters of support from other departments, including the Sojourner Truth Library. Two days later, Office of Development & Alumni Relations Vice President Erica Marks—who had overseen the statue’s accession—issued a formal apology and decision to delay its installation. In the statement, Marks admitted that while she had done the “minimum required amount of due diligence” by seeking feedback from the Arts & Aesthetics Committee, cabinet, and the library dean, she had failed to involve anyone from the Black Studies department or any other faculty or staff of African descent.

The university had previously dealt with the thorny issues around inclusivity, history, and memorialization as recently as March 2019, when the college board of trustees voted to rename six university buildings that had been named after enslavers. That process followed months of protests, community dialogues, and informal debate.

This time around, a similarly inclusive conversation seemingly was not had. “The absence of any significant attempt to include marginalized Black folk and the Black Studies department in the decision-making process is an expression of how many institutions are inadequately participating in this ongoing process of becoming antiracist,” says visiting lecturer Anthony S. Dandridge. 

Adds Black Studies interim chair Weldon McWilliams IV: “To hear the perspectives of not just the administration, but the Black Studies department, or even the Women’s Studies department, could have raised points that perhaps the administration would not have seen or would not have thought about.”

“Under Supported, Underfunded, and Undervalued”

Sojourner Truth was born in New York in an area then known as Swartekill (now the hamlet of Rifton), circa 1797, and lived in bondage for the next three decades. The memorial at the center of the controversy depicts Truth as she is rarely seen in statuary: a young woman, newly self-emancipated. Truth was a renowned abolitionist, fervent women’s rights advocate, and accomplished public speaker. So it would seem like a natural fit to honor her in front of the campus library that bears her name, at the university with the second-oldest Black Studies department in the United States.

click to enlarge Sojourner Truth: First Step to Freedom, 1826 by Trina Greene.
  • Sojourner Truth: First Step to Freedom, 1826 by Trina Greene.

Sojourner Truth: First Step to Freedom, 1826 was designed by Trina Greene, a local artist who also created a monument in Port Ewen in 2013 that depicts Truth as a young girl in bondage. Greene approached the university with the idea and offered to build the artwork at no cost, asking only that the school raise the funds to cover materials and installation. After seeing the design, Marks and university President Donald Christian excitedly green-lit the project. “My blinders went on, and I moved forward with gusto and energy, thinking that everyone would be similarly delighted,” Marks wrote in her apology letter. “Did I ask the Black Studies Department or other colleagues of color on campus? No.”

Dandridge says that this type of oversight isn’t exclusive to SUNY New Paltz, but is a “stubborn norm” of life as a person of color. “This kind of non-participatory erasure is nothing less than those kinds of inadequate measures that overwhelmingly maintain colonizing systems of oppression,” he says.

To the Black Studies department, it also felt like the latest in a long line of slights. “Consistently, disproportionately, and unreasonably, our department, not unlike Black people, has been under supported, underfunded, and undervalued,” the department’s September 14 statement reads.

According to Assistant Professor Blair M. Proctor, examples of this type of systemic devaluing of Black Studies faculty starts with where they’re put on campus: in temporary structures. “Though we have a room within the trailer that includes books, media, and research-related materials, that does not consist of an adequate library,” he says. Proctor contrasts that with the setup at Syracuse University’s African American Studies department, where he used to lecture. “There, we were housed in a permanent building, and had our own library.” 

Second, there are more adjunct faculty than full-time, which Proctor says limits the department’s ability to grow and which has forced tenure-track junior faculty members to take on duties and tasks usually managed by senior faculty. That creates a “sink-or-swim” experience within the department, he says. “This department would not be able to stay afloat if it were not for the dedication, hard work, and support from our adjunct professors who are dedicated to educating and serving our Black Studies majors, minors, and students’ concentration in Black Studies.” 

Consequently, Black Studies stated that its faculty would not attend the official unveiling unless SUNY leadership postponed the event until a ceremony “that is more inclusive of the Black Studies Department and other departments who may want to play a role” could be planned. The department also requested a 15-member commission to “study the anti-Black racist epistemic colonialism on student development,” faculty training, and that the university make some Black Studies courses mandatory.

While the unveiling is on hold per Black Studies’ request, university leadership believes it is up to the department itself and faculty governance to address how race is taught in the SUNY curriculum. 

“The President and Provost have been clear that they respect that faculty have primary purview over the curriculum and, as supportive as they are of the goals of curricular revision, it would not be appropriate for the administration to mandate courses in Black Studies or any other discipline,” says college spokesperson Chrissie Williams.

But passing the responsibility for centering Black Studies as a discipline back onto Black faculty just perpetuates the same cycle that led to the protests in the first place. “Living in a world where marginalized Black folk have to demand inclusion and justify its value where the evidence about its impact is readily available is at best tiring and dehumanizing,” Dandridge says. “Yet the realities of racism compel us to be aware of how the evidence is rarely enough, in a world where power intersects with privilege and irrationality.”

Sometimes when groups of people are left out of a conversation, however, those same people start their own, louder one.

On a still-warm fall evening in the middle of October, dozens of students, faculty, and outside supporters rallied in the quad adjacent to the library on campus. The event was coordinated by student group the Eddy along with the Samuel L. Dorsky Museum of Art, Black Student Union, Black Studies Department, Black Lives Matter at New Paltz, Faculty Development Center, and the Sojourner Truth Library.

Participatory artworks, tables with information on Truth’s life and materials from the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center, and screen-printed fabric flags bordered the crowd. A banner reading “Sound Your Truth” hung behind a stage, where speakers shared their experiences of discrimination in classes, read poetry, called others to action, and showed solidarity with the Black Studies department and students of color at New Paltz.

Among the speakers was Bri Hicks, Council of Organization Chairperson for the Student Association and third-year student taking spoken-word classes with Professor Dandridge, who led the crowd in a participatory reading of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Hicks saw the rally as an opportunity to lead a change in the conversation around race at SUNY. “We’re here,” she says resolutely, “and we have a right to speak our truth and not be afraid that we’ll be persecuted or penalized for our journey.”

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