Justice for All, Injustice for None – Let Me Breathe

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Dexter Gordon

June 3, 2020

African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Institute

PREAMBLE

You have seen my work and you have heard my voice in spaces across the Puget Sound campus, the city of Tacoma, and across the regions of the Salish Sea for almost 20 years.

You have heard me appeal to our entire campus –students, faculty and staff colleagues, the Board, and our partners in community.

I have written several letters, most of which I have kept to myself and my closest friends. Shared not even with my family.

Eighteen years ago, I started the work of Race and Pedagogy and the building of the African American Studies program with a public letter.

In response to crass racism on campus, I wrote to my faculty colleagues with the simple question – “What does race have to do with the development and delivery of your curriculum”? Alongside colleagues on campus and across our community, I have not stopped probing that question since.

Today, in the name of those who like me had their ancestors stolen from Africa and brutalized across the Americas, and to find my breath because George Floyd could not find his, I feel compelled to share another public letter.


I have started and revised this letter many times. I have had sleepless nights haunted by the image of another Black man laid out in the streets of America, dead. I am worried for my family. I am worried for my friends and communities. I am worried for my students. I am worried for my colleagues. I am worried for myself, for my life.

I have to speak. I have to write.

Should I begin with my outrage that no one should die the way 46-year-old George Floyd died, his body as one more spectacle and a mark of disdain for the humanity of Black people?

Protests have erupted and spread across the country. The police have responded harshly in some instances, but in some cases they have worked to diffuse tensions, most notably in Flint, Michigan. In Seattle, authorities are trying to find their way as they seek to affirm the efficacy of recent reforms in policing pressed for by local communities. The fact that some protests have spiraled into looting and violence, at times in the face of harsh police responses, has pushed the question of the role of violence expressions amidst civil disobedience in the search for justice to the forefront of our consideration. My life and that of my colleagues, committed to education and to social activism, is the testimony of my commitment to collaborative, cooperative, peaceful engagement as the best way to build strong, sustaining, inclusive societies.

But what if I start and stay here, for a while, and like Rev. William J. Barber II acknowledge that “No one wants to see their community burn. But the fires burning in Minneapolis, just like the fire burning in the spirits of so many marginalized Americans today, are a natural response to the trauma black communities have experienced, generation after generation.” This is human grappling, Black humanity grappling.

Perhaps, I should start instead with the long history of the ways in which the handcuffs on George Floyd’s wrists remind me of the chains of enslavement and exploitation of Black bodies, 12-15 million of us stolen from Africa. Or, I could go with the ways in which police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020, reminds me of the ropes used to lynch Black bodies, a practice that was at its heights one hundred years ago in America.

Maybe, I should reach back no longer than 69 years and begin with Langston Hughes’ cry.

   “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

Or maybe, I should pair Hughes with Jayne Cortez’s searing lament from just eleven summers ago.

“There it is.”

My friend

they don’t care

if you’re an individualist

a leftist  a rightist

a shithead or a snake

They will try to exploit you

absorb you confine you

disconnect you isolate you

or kill you…

Or should I go back to the militant Claude McKay, in the incendiary summer of 1919, “If We Must Die,”

with its forecast of 1921and 1923, Tulsa, Rosewood, and before them Atlanta, Georgia; Elaine, Arkansaas, and Colefax, Louisiana.

If we must die, O let us nobly die….

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

I am encouraged that many across the nation and in our own community are joining the incessant call for

equal rights and justice, the call to get up, to stand up.

I have to find words in this moment — for this moment — because as Jayne Cortez warns,

And if we don’t fight

if we don’t resist

if we don’t organize and unify and

get the power to control our own lives

Then we will wear

the exaggerated look of captivity

the stylized look of submission

the bizarre look of suicide

the dehumanized look of fear

and the decomposed look of repression

forever and ever and ever

And there it is

But, still searching, I wonder if I might turn to any of my children’s generation of lyrical expressionists Sa Roc, J. Cole, Jidenna, or one from this new generation. But here comes Nick Cannon, May 31, a bridge voice, who like the lyrical Black voices before and around him testify.

I can’t breathe again.

God damn, I can’t breathe.

Our voices are being quarantined.

Covid-1960s to 1619.

Jamestown choked me sold me.

Shackles hold me tightly by my neck.

And I can’t breathe again.

Still, the words, the words! The anguish. The pain. Will it stay or will it go away.

Probably I should stay with today and begin with the observation that trauma piled upon pain and suffering results in grief, anger, and explosive outrage. Since, over the last three months we have lived in horror and fear as COVID-19 rampaged through our communities and our world leaving in its wake death and destruction especially of the lives and livelihoods of Black and Brown people. The pandemic laid bare, long histories of neglect for Black and Brown communities. And then one more public killing.

I am haunted by the image of George Floyd pleading for life. So I consider starting with the ways in which George Floyd’s plea for a single breath, reminds me of 44-year-old Eric Garner gasping in the grip of a police choke-hold. Black people all across the world feel the pain and across America we feel suffocated –criminal justice, economics, health, education. I too feel like “I Can’t breathe.” I too feel the pain, a pain, it is one that connects directly to my own pain and sense of suffocation at University of Puget Sound. This is a subject I have not addressed publicly before.

My pain is born of the sense of disdain directed towards our work and the disrespect I experience from being passed over for opportunities to be appointed to lead in the work of equity on campus, repeatedly, for years, and again in this moment. This is a moment in which the University has decided it needs a Vice President for Equity Diversity and Inclusion, a position I have advocated for since 2007. There would not even be a question in any context of fairness that my expertise, experience, and my record of achievements make me the best candidate for such a role. In a world where equity and inclusion are valued, I would be urged to take on this assignment. Not so at Puget Sound. So even with the strongest recommendations from my peers and senior faculty in the work of equity, the University finds a way to pass me over without even meaningful consultation. Even as I write to survive this moment and continue to teach my classes, I have to be thinking about how to respond to this latest dissing and this continuing act of harm and erasure. As I watch, appointment after appointment, year after year, I wonder! Is there any fairness? Is there any justice?

This is my experience as the senior tenured Black faculty member at Puget Sound. I have provided almost twenty years of leadership on the campus on issues of equity and inclusion. Beginning in 2002, my work with colleagues has included inviting our campus to address the critical issues of race in our pedagogy. Since then, and including six years of significant work with Dr. Michael Benitez, who the university did not encourage to stay, despite his desire to, we have been in the forefront of addressing racism and all forms of inequities on our campus including in 2018 when we invited our campus and hundreds of participants from across the nation and beyond to join us for our National Conference on Race and Pedagogy, seeking to engage deep thoughtful reflection and practical impactful action on “Radically Reimagining the Project of Justice.” Re-imagining campus life. Re-imagining life.

Yet, the connection between the spectacle of another Black person killed while pleading for life, and the record of recent similar events, makes me want to begin with a statement against the killing of Black people by the police, including Black women, gender non-conforming and trans people. I want to declare solidarity with Black families and express sorrow at their loss, at our loss. I also wish to honor the memory of the many victims. The list is too long. The practice of killing is too serial.

George Floyd is only the most recent killing made public. In fact, the very next day, Wednesday, May 26,  in Tallahassee, Florida, a Black trans man Tony McDade was shot and killed by the police. As Laura Thompson of Mother Jones points out, it is worth noting that in 2019, the American Medical Association deemed a surge in the murder of transgender people an “epidemic.” The vast majority of victims are transgender women of color. We honor their memories, alongside the memories of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed, by two white men, while he was jogging in Georgia; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old essential health care worker and aspiring nurse, shot eight times in her home by police. Strikingly, as campus leaders from UC Berkeley note “According to Rutgers University Sociologist Frank Edwards, one out of every 1,000 Black men in America will be killed by a police officer. This makes them two and half times more likely than white men to die during encounters with officers.”

So what does all this mean for us at the University of Puget Sound and the educational enterprise of which we are a part?

To begin, we must acknowledge that we are witnesses to this moment. We must take a position. Neutrality is not an option. We cannot avoid being implicated in this moment. President Crawford, in his May 30 statement, invites us to “make the world a better place, day by day, through our actions, our choices, and our care for one another.” There are also numerous other profound statements available from which to find inspiration. One way or another, to use the words of indigenous and environmental rights advocate, former Green Party vice presidential candidate, and 2014 RPI National Conference keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, “Find your voice. Find your courage.” We must find the will and the fortitude to act in ways that prevent a recurrence of this moment. This is a moment that in a literal sense represents the end of the rope for the many victims of ongoing systemic racism. Some victims are hidden in plain sight on our campus.

Another step then is to examine our own home and our own practices. An expression of solidarity with members of Puget Sound’s Black community is a meaningful step. We might then act with Black and Brown voices as leaders. Continually and consistently — not only when it serves as a symbolic gesture of inclusion — we should acknowledge them and their leadership in their areas of expertise and lived experiences. Difficult though it is, we should choose justice over comfort, resistance and rights over reputation. We may then begin to listen, really deeply listen to Black voices. Then believe what we say. We might act to redress historical harms caused to Black and Brown people by our University’s decisions and practices, past and present. We might go further and make sure that institutional actions do not perpetrate ongoing racist practices against Black and Brown people.

Finally, we might truly honor Puget Sound values and commit to the making and remaking of Puget Sound into an institution that acts intentionally to distance itself from the dastardly practices of white supremacy with its deadly surveillance and suffocation of Black and Brown bodies, and instead treat all people equitably and embrace respect as part of our new educational enterprise.

In African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Institute, this is our commitment. So this is where I’ll start.

To our beloved students, to faculty and staff colleagues, and to our partners in community, you matter.

We stand in solidarity with our and all Black communities and we are committed to treating each of you our Puget Sound students, colleagues, and partners with the respect and honor you deserve as part of our practice of education in partnership with you.

But for now

With appreciation for each of you and for every breath I am able to take.

Dexter Gordon

The 2020 Race & Pedagogy Institute’s Strategic Planning Summit: Reflections of a Student Attendee

By Eliza Tesch

On Saturday, March 7th I was able to attend the second day of the Race & Pedagogy Institute Strategic Planning Summit. I had previously attended the Race & Pedagogy National conference in fall of 2018 and I am a member of the Student Association for the Race & Pedagogy Institute, but I still wasn’t sure quite exactly what to expect from this event.

I had a great time at the Summit, and met former students and community members who were just as passionate about social justice and making tangible change in the world as I am, and exposed me to a whole wealth of information I was not aware of about activism opportunities outside of UPS, as well as the history of RPI and previous work that had been done.

Promotional Video about the
2018 Race & Pedagogy National Conference

The attendees of the event included several students and former students, the RPI leadership team, as well as community partners, some of whom traveled for an hour to be able to attend the event. The day I was there we went through learning, reflection, discussion about the current state of RPI, RPI’s vision and mission, and ideas for the future. We also listened to speakers, including the RPI leadership team, community members and Puget Sound students.

Our Strategic Planning Summits are pivotal in the Institute’s work as they serve as major sites where the Community Partners Forum, along with Puget Sound faculty, staff, and student partners and collaborating constituencies beyond the campus and Forum, come together to critically examine the direction of our work within a longer view. Within the context of University of Puget Sound’s new strategic plan, Leadership For a Changing World, this 2020 Summit will examine our achievements and their significance, alongside questions of what do we need to emphasize and re-imagine, and matters of capacity building and deeper embedding of the work of race and pedagogy.


Excerpt from the Invitation letter for the 2020 Planning Summit

Race and Pedagogy Institute Vision and Mission

“In our 18 years of sustained, focused, and collaborative work, the Race & Pedagogy Institute has staged a range of more than 20 summits and conferences, spawned an assortment of collaborations across academia and communities, provided a variety of educational resources for transformative pedagogy on the Puget Sound campus and beyond, brought together disparate communities to generate vigorous thinking about race equity and education, inspired a plethora of initiatives focused on the work of education and equity in both K-12 and higher education, and been one of the voices of change seeking to transform the landscape of education on our campus and beyond. All of this has been undertaken as part of our mission of educating teachers and students at all levels to think critically about race and to act to eliminate racism.” –Race & Pedagogy Website

As an attendee of this event, I had a several takeaways (in addition to my observation that the catered meals were delicious and far superior to SUB food). An event like this summit with two days of programming takes a huge amount of planning and energy to put on, and the quadrennial national conferences take YEARS to plan. What many people don’t realize, is that the leadership team of the Race & Pedagogy Institute is made up of a very small group of people who perform a very large volume of work, through the power of what seems to me to be sheer willpower.

The Race and Pedagogy Institute is an incredible organization that we are very lucky to have on our campus, and in my opinion is not given the recognition that it deserves. RPI has existed for 18 years, and has put on youth summits, the national conference, speaker series, and other important events that have been extremely beneficial to the Puget Sound community and beyond. I highly encourage anyone who is looking to get involved in social justice, specifically working towards a world without racism to get involved in RPI by joining the Student Association for the Race and Pedagogy Institute or attending community partner’s meetings.

For more information on The Race and Pedagogy Institute check out their website.

https://www.pugetsound.edu/rpi

Angela Weaver: Fine and Performing Arts Librarian

By Sofia McLaren

Angela Weaver is the Fine and Performing Arts Librarian at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) who was hired at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic school year. On campus, she is in charge of library services for African American Studies, Art and Art History, Classics, Music, and Theatre Arts. She is also the only African American Librarian on the UPS campus making her arrival here very significant. I had the privilege of interviewing Angela Weaver about her life before UPS and while at UPS so far, as well as the things she enjoys outside of her professional environment.

When I asked Angela if she had always wanted to be a librarian she laughed and told me that, when she began her academic journey, she didn’t know that she was going to be a librarian. She went to undergrad at Duke University in North Carolina and majored in Psychology with a minor in English, thinking that she would become a psychologist. However, during her four years at Duke she worked in the library. When she graduated, she was still working in the library and decided to go to library school, but actually ended up going to graduate school at the University of California in San Diego for play writing, another passion of hers. However, with a practical mindset she knew as soon as she graduated that she would go to library school instead of struggling to make a living through playwriting. Library school at Rutgers University in New Jersey would allow her to combine her love for libraries and drama by becoming a drama librarian. New Jersey was a strategic move on her part, allowing her to intern in New York City, “Theatre central.” Her dream job in the beginning was becoming an archivist for the New York Public Library (NYPL) for the performing arts, where she interned during library school. During the highlight of her internship at NYPL, she had the opportunity to process an archival collection belonging to a playwright and screenwriter who wrote for the Marx brothers movies and also testified during the House Un-American Activities trials.

Despite her idea of being an archivist, she ended up becoming a research librarian and working for different universities, always with a concentration in the performing arts. The first university that Angela worked for was the University of Mississippi in Oxford Mississippi, “where there is nothing else except for the University of Mississippi and William Faulkner’s House,” according to Angela. Preceding her time at UPS, she was the head of the drama and art libraries at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle starting in 2004. The commute from Tacoma to Seattle was a “nightmare” compared to what it had been when she lived in Federal Way. Luckily, she was able to give up the long commute by coming to UPS. She heard about the job at UPS because the head of the UPS Library, Jane Carlin, sent her an email asking if she knew any grad students who were graduating and would be interested in the job. Angela responded saying, “I don’t know any grad students, but me! I live in Tacoma, this would be great.” She wasn’t looking for a job, but this one came right to her, and she couldn’t pass up the offer. Her commute went from 2 and a half hours a day to about 20 minutes a day, she told me, laughing. 

I asked Angela about the differences that she has noticed from working at a larger, public institution and now working at a smaller, liberal arts university. One of the first things that stood out to her was that, despite the fact that she was the head of two different department libraries and in the buildings that housed others working for the department, she, “still had met more people here at UPS than at UW,” within a week of arriving on campus. After a week of being at UPS, she had met all of the Classics professors who were on campus for the fall semester, a number of the music faculty, at least two of the African American Studies (AFAM) professors, as well as faculty in the Art department. Angela was shocked that within a month she had met a significant amount of faculty, as well as students, and she had not simply met students once, but had been able to recognize them in multiple different settings. She remarked about how, at UW, there were so many students, “even the ones in drama that [she] saw more often, [she] could remember their faces but didn’t remember their names because there were so many and [she] didn’t really get to talk to them.” She talked to me about how she admires the level of engagement here. It’s, “better because it’s so much smaller and [the librarians] are so much more involved with the classes.” 

With the level of engagement being different, there have had to be some adjustments from how Angela was used to doing things at UW; she teaches a lot more classes at UPS and is more involved on a class level. While working at UW, she was used to only teaching about two to three classes each year, and at UPS she teaches about 15 or 16 per semester. She has really enjoyed working with students individually on their projects and getting to delve deeper into topics that students are excited about. 

Angela has also been pleasantly surprised at how much she has enjoyed working with the Music department. Having no training as a music librarian and not being a musician herself, she was slightly nervous about having to work with the Music department and the prospect of disappointing them since she had no background in music. In the interview she said with a smile, “I like music, but I’ve never studied music.” However, she followed that up by saying that working with the music classes has been really fun, and that the students have had some really unique and interesting projects. Angela has particularly enjoyed working with the newly hired ethnomusicologist, Dr. Ameera Nimjee and her classes such as World Music and Women in Music. Recently, Angela helped teach a podcasting class, showing them how to create podcasts that incorporate the research they had done. Another professor, Dr. Gwynne Brown, focused on American Spiritual Music, which Angela also had a lot of fun with. She talked about what a welcome surprise it was to go in and discover the creativity surrounding projects, stating that, “they [the students] have really interesting topics and that it’s not just Beethoven, Bach, or Brahms, but music that [she] actually know[s] something about and enjoy[s].” Many of the projects touched on other interests of hers, such as playwriting, because some students were tasked with writing their own plays and pieces of music instead of just writing a paper.

Angela has gotten involved in other ways on campus, besides her role in the library. She reached out to Ellen Peters, the Associate Provost for Institutional Research and Uchenna Baker, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, to talk about student retention on campus after having read the report that UPS sent out. Angela was disheartened that there were so many students who don’t feel like they belonged at UPS, and Angela said, “being a student of color who went to a private, predominantly white university, I kind of understood how they feel,” even though her own experience had been much different because she had found a sense of belonging at Duke. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent us all off campus, Angela got involved with a group called the Student of Color Community Initiative (SOCCI), a task force trying to establish first-year housing for students of color. Unfortunately she was only able to attend one meeting before Spring Break and the switch to online school, but she is hoping they will reconvene in the summer or fall to think about their next steps. Angela was really grateful for the opportunity to work with undergraduate students Christina Mills ‘22, Becca Lumbantobing ‘21, Mara Henderson ‘20, and Colin Noble ‘19 on this initiative that they had worked so hard to create. She raved about the, “incredible 20 plus page report,” that they had written to go along with the initiative they created.

As I continued to talk with Angela about her time at UPS, I was interested in discovering how accepted Angela has felt on the UPS campus and in the library being the first and only African American librarian at UPS. She responded saying that, “librarianship is a pretty liberal profession full of mostly women,” so she has felt accepted. However, she did tell me that, “the profession as a whole has a problem attracting librarians from underrepresented groups,” something of which I was completely unaware. As a result, Angela herself has been involved in programs and leadership institutes for librarians from underrepresented groups and is currently mentoring a grad student who is a member of an underrepresented group as part of a program. She laughed and told me that, “librarianship as a whole has been trying to improve its diversity because it knows it has a problem.” Therefore, she explained that everywhere she has gone as a librarian it’s been a similar situation, with one or two African American librarians. She noted that, when she arrived on campus at UW there was one African American librarian, but when she left there were several more who had been added to the team. Again, she emphasized that it is always that way in libraries, assuring me that, “UPS is not unique in that way.” Angela Weaver is well practiced in the art of, “coming in and being like, ok I’m here!” She also told me that, surprisingly, the University of Mississippi was the place she has been with the most diversity. 

Closing out the interview, I asked Angela about some of her favorite things and favorite pastimes. When I asked about her favorite play, she said, “it changes all the time,” and instead listed her favorite playwrights: Suzan-Lori Parks, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Jose Rivera, and Lynn Nottage. She also shared with me that she used to run a group called Women of Color, Women of Words, as well as head a website as a graduate student project while at Rutgers. Angela graduated from graduate school in 1996, right as the internet was just starting. She had a class on creating websites, and she decided to create a website dedicated to female playwrights of color. The website included, “different biographical information about the playwrights, their plays, where to find them, how to purchase copies, which anthologies had their works, and critical resources around the different plays.” The website is no longer active, but while it was still up and running, many professors had reached out about how helpful the site had been while teaching their students because there hadn’t been as many resources as there are now when it came to learning about diverse women playwrights. The e-group that she started still exists on yahoo, but is not very active today, however during its active time even Lynn Nottage, one of Angela’s favorite playwrights, had joined the group.  

Now, Angela Weaver is working from home like many of us, but she is still busy teaching classes and attending meetings. However, she is also passing the time by listening to lots of Prince and doing Christmas crafts because she starts early and has a theme for each year. She jokingly told me that she, “will be finished with Christmas this year by the end of summer.” She makes Putz houses, which used to be very popular in the 50’s, and her theme for Christmas this year is vintage, while last year’s theme was Marie Antoinette, and a past year was 1960’s modern Christmas. The Putz houses are made from paper and cardboard, and she has made about 4 so far using 50’s architecture. Angela is a wonderfully creative and intelligent woman and an extremely valuable member of the UPS community. We are very grateful she has felt welcome by and happy with the interactions she’s had and the projects she’s been a part of while at UPS.