Justice for All, Injustice for None – Let Me Breathe


Dexter Gordon

June 3, 2020

African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Institute


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

In the Time of George Floyd: A List of online resources

We say their names: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dreasjon Reed…

Just a few resources (not remotely a comprehensive list but some good starters) We know folks are always look for places to start.

Resource List was organized by Angela Weaver, Puget Sound Librarian, and compiled by various departments across the campus: African American Studies, the Race & Pedagogy Institute, Collins Memorial Library, Politics & Government, and Environmental Policy and Decision-Making.

From the June 3rd, 2020 Teach In: We Can’t Breathe: 400 Years of Institutionalized Violence

  • Renee Simms Presentation: In Plain Sight (PowerPoint)
  • Wind Woods Presentation: On Breath: B(l)ack at the Edge of the Wor(l)d (Word Doc)

Compiled Lists

  • Anti-Racism Resources for White People


  • Anti-Racist Library and Archival Resources


Teaching Resources

  • A Timeline of Events That Led to the 2020 ‘Fed Up’-rising
    Michael Harriot


  • Teachers Must Hold Themselves Accountable for Dismantling Racial Oppression
  • Facing History and Ourselves:  Reflecting on George Floyd’s Death and Police Violence Towards Black Americans


  • National Museum of African American History and Culture:  Talking about Race:  I am an Educator


  • ‘Teaching for Black Lives’ – a handbook to fight America’s ferocious racism in (virtual or face-too-face) classrooms


  • Police Use of Force Report


  • Black Past
  • Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus — How can we help students understand George Floyd’s death in the context of institutionalized racism?



  • Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex


  • Research-based Solutions to Stop Police Violence


  • Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not


  • Tamika Mallory – The Most Powerful Speech of a Generation- Video
  • 26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets
  • Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot
    Shenequa Golding


  • Everything Is Political, and Always Has Been
    Beth Skwarecki


  • How not to raise a racist white kid


  • The “I’m not a racist” defense


  • A Brief History of the “Black Friend”


  • Charles M. Blow:  How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror
  • “I Don’t See Color.” Then You Don’t See Me


  • White People Are Noticing Something New:  Their Own Whiteness
  • Becoming Trustworthy White Allies


  • Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:  Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge


  • What we’re missing when we condemn “violence” at protests


  • Officials See Extremist Groups, Disinformation in Protests
  • Keeyanga-Yamahtta Taylor:  Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.  
  • Defund Police: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Says Budgets Wrongly Prioritize Cops Over Schools, Hospitals


  • Melvin Rogers:  We Should Be Afraid, but Not of Protestors


  • Roxanne Gay:  Remember, No One is Coming to Save Us
  • Danielle Allen:  The situation is dire. We need a better normal at the end of this – and peace.


  • Cornel West:  America is a Failed Social Experiment, Neoliberal Wing of Democratic Party Must be Fought


  • History Will Judge the Complicit:  Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?


  • Accelerationism:  the obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world


  • Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic

Recommended Books/Reading Lists

  • An Essential Reading Guide For Fighting Racism
    Arianna Rebolini


  • Anti-Racism Reading List by Ibram X. Kendi


So You Want to Talk About Race (Seattle-based Author, Ijeoma Oluo)

How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America by Ibram X. Kendi

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The End of Policing by Alex Vitale (available free electronically here and recent author piece here)

Choke Hold [Policing Black Men]: A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How to Disrupt the …by Paul Butler

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Steeped in the Blood of Racism by UPS professor Nancy Bristow

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad

Locking Up Our Own:  Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (also an interview about the current protests with the author)

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis; there are a few facebook groups on abolition and a new journal https://abolitionjournal.org/

Antifa:  The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray)

Black Skin, White Masks or Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon

In the Wake by Christina Sharpe

Recommended Films

 I Am Not Your Negro

13th and When They See Us – Both available on Netflix

Tulsa Massacre 

Just Mercy – Free during the month of June on streaming platforms

Blogs, Podcasts, etc.

  • Democracy in Dark Times – Jeffrey C. Isaac

Trumps Reichstag Moment May Have Just Arrived


The Root

Color Lines

Public Seminar

The Monkey Cage (WaPo)

The Stone (NYT)

Boston Review


  • Showing Up for Racial Justice


  • The Conversation


  • The People’s Assembly


Other Resources

  • 7 Virtual Mental Health Resources Supporting Black People Right Now


Course Reflections

Below are brief reflections about Public Scholarship from the African American Studies students who have been working and learning together over the last semester in order to create this digital space. Spring 2020

Eliza Tesch

In AFAM 399, I felt like a part of the AFAM community for the first time. In this course I met peers who inspire me and can match the passion that I have for learning and for social justice, and had a professor (Dr. Brackett) who cares deeply about the success of all of her students but at the same time pushes us to do our very best work. Without AFAM 399, my semester would most likely have gone very differently. This class was my only class this semester that actually met (virtually) every day we were scheduled to meet, and our (often very lively) class discussions made my day every time. Even virtually, the passion came through from my peers, and we discussed the pandemic, our readings, and current events. Working on the Public has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and I am very proud of what I and my classmates have created. I got to flex my writing muscles while writing about the topics I am most passionate about, and discovered that writing is something I really enjoy and want to pursue further. In summary, the most impactful part of this course has been the community. We have gone on this journey of adjusting to virtual life and school together, and supported each other through this process. This group of people truly give me hope for all of humankind, because if everyone could be as kind, inquisitive, and determined as my 399 class the world would be in great shape. 

Emma Piorier

Participating in AFAM 399 has been transformative. In many ways, the application of the theoretical to our everyday, our campus, our language and the world around us, challenged me to engage in the work of critical social justice in new contexts and broadened my understanding of concepts of justice, power, oppression, community and activism. Through this course and our engagement with Patrica Hill Collins I have grown a comprehension of the larger work I am doing in African American Studies and the context in which it exists within. I have fostered a sense of certainty in my desire to work with theories of public scholarship be it through teaching,writing or speaking outside of the borders of academia. I have felt challenged by my peers, awakened by my classroom and trained to examine the nuances and presence of power and positionality in seemingly small instances of the everyday. I will take these lessons with me throughout my life.

George Jackson

I am very thankful to have taken AFAM 399, Public Scholarship. There are very few classes where I can use what I was taught and put that into immediate use in my life. I took AFAM 399 as part of the African American Studies major not knowing what to expect. Public Scholarship has allowed me to understand the complexities of different issues throughout many different points of view. I have been able to better understand some of the situations I face on a daily basis. Such as thinking about the privileges of those who are not in the minority like myself. As a black male on a predominantly white campus, I do not have the luxury of seeing people who look like myself on a day to day basis. This course has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the power dynamics that occur because of race. I am very appreciative of Dr. Brackett, as well as my peers, for the effort and the relationships I have built through the course.

Isaac Sims-Foster

AFAM 399, for me, was the perfect way to reconnect with a campus that I’ve felt increasingly distant from. After my semester abroad in Namibia, learning about and grappling with the first-hand effects of oppression and racism, I feared that returning to campus would leave me feeling empty; like there was no place for what I had learned to be applied outside of my major. 399 quickly reminded me of how precious social justice oriented education is, precisely for the reason that it circumvents the cultural, political, and societal differences between nations. I found myself again engaging with complex curriculum that elevated my understanding of systemic oppression inherent in our global society’s structures and reconceptualized knowledge as so much more than just what’s published by a university press. The internal and external critical thinking I learned and practiced in Namibia continued seamlessly in AFAM 399, which to me proves the power of social justice literacy and education. AFAM 399 taught me that knowledge has no borders.

Makenna Hess-Fletcher

AFAM 399 taught me the importance of speaking not only to the institution, but to the public. This class reaffirmed the reason I am an African American Studies major, as African American Studies majors do the work!  Creating access to information and resources is ingrained in the work that African American studies majors do. Not only are we scholars but we are neighbors, friends, community members and public scholarship is used to connect these worlds. Through the creation of the digital publication “The Public” I learned that I am capable of partaking in public scholarship even as I continue to work towards my academic goals, that I don’t have to be finished with school to start the work.

Monica Schweitz

This year, I was grappling with a difficult internal dialogue. Several experiences and interactions over the summer and fall of 2019 had made me doubt my choice of major and, on the precipice of graduation, I was beginning to panic. At first, AFAM 399, with its flexible class structure, its relative informality and intimacy of discussion, and the passionate and sometimes vulnerable style of participation it encouraged, for lack of a better word, confused me. This was unlike any other class that I had taken. Was this “academic?” It just felt like honest conversation amongst friends about connections between a text and our lived experiences. But one day, during a discussion on Patricia Hill Collins’ ideas of power and “props,” my perception shifted. I realized that I had been confusing “academic” for dry and dispassionate. My education prior to (and sometimes throughout) college had primed me to accept only that which is written in a textbook as valid knowledge. Burdensome and disinteresting became equated with academic rigor. AFAM 399 changed that for me. Having, sharing, and listening to personal experiences are not just valuable forms of learning, they are, I would argue, the most valuable forms of learning when it comes to the type of learning that precipitates social change. So, of course it is passionate, vulnerable work. That doesn’t mean it’s not scholarship. This realization has left a significant impact on me and is something that I will take with me throughout the rest of my education both in and out of the classroom.

Serena Sevasin

In taking AFAM 399, I have been able to take time to more critically analyze information through the ways in which I validate, process, and share it with others in public spaces. Being a natural skeptic, it was validating to learn that not everything that is shared in masses equates to being legitimate knowledge. This course has helped me expand on what authenticity is, where it comes from, and what authenticity looks like for me. I have been most impacted by the creation of The Public, a publication that has allowed me to expand on my narratives, and more importantly realize just how much they matter. I have had the opportunity to use a column to deconstruct structures of power from a personal lens, and more importantly how to articulate them in ways the everyday student and myself can understand. I find myself grateful for the experience of taking Public Scholarship, and more so knowing the mediums I can utilize to share and expand on information I obtain and experience from other places.

Sofia McLaren

Continuing in this major and specifically in this course (AFAM 399), I have become more confident in my voice. The learning I have done has helped me understand that I can contribute in a meaningful way. We have confronted the topic of positionality which helped each of us realize where we stand in the class, the conversation, and the world. This class has also given me the ability to ask questions I never would have asked. I have stopped taking situations for granted, I am constantly asking myself questions about what happened, why it happened, what could have happened, or what should have happened. I have learned the importance of acknowledging that your perspective is unique to you and cannot be taken for granted. There is no umbrella perspective in this world, each and every person experiences things differently. On a more surface level, this class has also given me the ability and confidence in creating and asking questions. I have always thought I was no good at creating thought-provoking questions that sparked deep discussions; however, because of the weekly questions we had to create and the discussion we had to lead I am more confident in my ability to help people engage critically with materials. This class has also given me general confidence in the decision I have made to major in African American studies. I won’t lie, switching my major was a relief in some ways and scary in others. I knew the classes were engaging and rewarding for me, but it was the outside voices that made it hard. My parents and friends were very supportive, but I got push back from some of the older people in my life, questioning the relevance of the topic and calling it too narrow of an area of study. This course has been an immense solidifying factor for me, it has shown me over and over again the relevance, importance, and necessity of what I have chosen to study. We can not aspire to “check the race box,” we need to live continuously conscious and responsive lives.  

Rachel Lorentz

Going into my Public Scholarship class, knowledge found in academia and “the real world” seemed like two completely separate things to me. Throughout this course, I have learned that Public Scholarship is where the rubber meets the road in academia. It focuses on how to make knowledge created in academia accessible to the public in a way that is useful and understandable to us all. Without Public Scholarship, the impacts of higher education would never reach those who are not fortunate enough to be in academic spaces.

Moose Abdirahman

I am very appreciative of this course, my peers gave me a new insight in life and in my community here at the University of Puget Sound. I have enjoyed creating accessible information and content, not only to show our growth and passions about African American Studies but also to build connectivity amongst each other in the midst of this pandemic. AFAM 399 has really widened my understanding of social justices, and black feminism. I enjoyed the structure of the class and how it prompted critical thinking and empowered a deeper understanding of our own experiences.

One Final Assignment: This is your Seventeen-Years Moment, Celebrate it!

Written and Spoken by Professor LaToya T. Brackett

Listen to this letter in audio form. Be sure to open in a new tab, to read along.

A Prelude: I love being a professor, at times I loathe being both a professor and an empath, and a trained counselor. I loathe it because I often pick up on things that many of my colleagues do not, or if they do, the intentionality of responding is not always there. I loathed seeing my students on virtual classes after our spring break. But mostly, I loathed seeing the removal of joy in my seniors. And as professors, we all did, I am sure. But at moments I would feel the depression they had, and their removal of excitement—excitement that had been building and worked towards for seventeen years, and some change. It was gone—almost. And I couldn’t allow that. So I sat down to write this letter to you all.

My Dearest Class of 2020,

The reality is… these are moments you will remember.

Since childhood you’ve thought about what college you would attend. What friends you would make. Wondering what you would major in. Places you would go for breaks. The type of freedom you would feel away from home. And most likely, you dreamed about what it would be like to walk across that stage, with your cap and gown, in front of your families and friends. The moment you knew would represent seventeen years of schooling, seventeen years of homework, seventeen years of being tested, seventeen years of new friendships, broken friendships, and forever friendships. Seventeen years of awesome teachers, teachers that did the best they could, teachers who changed your life, teachers you would like to forget, and teachers you can’t wait to tell, “I did it!” For many of you, college has been a part of your future since you knew what a future was.

Well guess what, that future is now.

Those seventeen years of yearning are coming to a close. Unfortunately, your culminating moment comes in a time of crisis, of uncertainty, of quarantine, of social distancing in a time where social over-exaggeration is THE requirement, you are in a pandemic—Covid-19. And this virus, that has no vaccine, or guaranteed cure, is out there removing your seventeen years of accumulated joy. And we have come to know that the only cure for this vaccine, is to have patience, perseverance, unknown health strength, and perhaps quite a bit of luck;

My Professorial last assignment to you, is CELEBRATE.

That’s right, I’m assigning you more homework. You thought you were finished. Well you’re not. I reserve the right to alter the syllabus at any time (professor humor, I know you might not be laughing). This assignment is required, it is not extra credit. Because this is a moment you will remember. I won’t allow any incompletes, because This. Is. The. Moment.

I know many universities are doing their best to prepare in-person graduation celebrations for the class of 2020 in the future—we still don’t know what the future looks like—so these celebrations (like the one at our university) are slated for a year after your original graduation date. And this is wonderful, it really is, and I hope all of you get to participate in that moment. But trust me, that moment, one year later, is not your Seventeen-Years moment. It will be a great moment indeed, but not like the one you are in right now. This pandemic-moment that you knocked out of your way to finalize those requirements for your college degree, is your Seventeen-Years-and-a-Pandemic moment. No one else has had a moment like this, and trust and believe no one has had a final semester/quarter of college like this. You are the novel graduation class of 2020 (sorry perhaps I shouldn’t use a pun so soon… but it is the truth). You spent seventeen years (and some of you, seventeen and some change, and you better know it doesn’t matter, the degree does), reaching for the same moment your friends from the class of 2019 had, your parents from the class of (they won’t tell you), because they showed you pictures or you joined in their pictures of their moment, and it was joyous. It was extreme social over-exaggeration, and they loved it and you yearned for one more year to get yours. Well, guess what, compared to their years, yours probably still feels like… To Be Determined…

My assignment to you is to be determined to make your moment positively memorable.

I remember my Seventeen-Years moment. I remember all of it. The good and the bad—but my bad came on suddenly with no warning, my bad couldn’t have been altered into an outlook of “damn, I finished those classes online, in quarantine, with uncertainty, and now I’m getting that paper. King, Kong ain’t got nothing on me,”—moment.

The reality is, I remember all of my graduations, high school, college, and graduate school. And the reality is, my moments were not so great. I did not always feel like some of the members of my family were there to cheer me on. At two of those graduations there were moments they proved my worries were right. I could tell you the torrid details of those moments, because guess what they are memorable, even more so, because they were in my Seventeen-Years-type of moments. But I won’t. I will tell you what I know to be true because of those sad memories.

I remember my joy before the unfortunate moments.

I remember my walk from the Arts quad, behind the Pan African flag with my friends to the field, where they told us to stand and move our tassel from one side to the other and we were thus graduated. I remember who I sat next to. I remember the people I greeted for the very last time ever. I remember trying so hard to find my best friends, but our Seventeen-Years moments were happening at the very same time and their Seventeen-Years moment cheerleaders socially overexaggerated around them. And I got pictures with each of them separately. But the day before we got one good picture before the amazing storms of celebration and joy that descended on our campus on the hill. I remember moments like this for my doctoral graduation as well, different type of level, different type of joy, but good memories. And for me, to still remember the great in those moments, when the bad still makes me wish for a do-over, means you can make your Seventeen-Years moment count too. And guess what, you already know what the worst aspect of it will be—all things covid-19.

I wanted a do-over of my moments, and there will never be one. I could attempt to put on my cap and gown today and walk across that stage, but all the energy that led up to when I earned my degrees, are no longer tingling and itching to get out. I worry that a year from now, my graduating students will no longer have that tingling and that itching, and walking across that stage will simply be protocol. And the reality is, the class of 2020 is beyond protocol. So, despite the reality that we must quarantine in your Seventeen-Years moment, be creative and celebrate like you never would have thought before.

We are all virtual now. That teacher from the 5th grade that told you how great you were at math, and gave you the confidence to fall in love with numbers and equations, can be at your virtual celebration. The professor that made you realize that you wanted to study something that you were excited about, can be there. Your grandparent who can’t travel anymore, can be there. Your friends from all over can pop in to say congratulations at any time. People you met on your study abroad to Ghana can be a witness too. So be creative.

I spoke about that tingling and itching you have right now to be finished with school, to have your university bequeath that you have met the requirements for your degree, and I wish to speak about it again. Don’t let go of it, not quite yet. Don’t let your worries about the world delete this feeling. Not until you’ve done the things that you always thought you’d be doing in celebration of this Seventeen-Years moment.

I’d like to share a story about one of you seniors. A senior told me she hadn’t taken any senior pictures. When I asked her for a picture to put up for our department’s virtual graduation celebration to recognize her, she felt she was falling short. She felt like, her picture she sent was not good enough for her graduation recognition moment. And that was an honest feeling. And I reminded her, this is the moment you have been waiting for, for a long time. She, like me is first generation, and she spoke about how her entire family was looking forward to her moment, because as many of us First Gens know, our success is a collective success. She was still living on campus while taking virtual classes, and I told her to go take her senior pictures. That’s right. I told her go get dressed up, and capture some memories. I suggested she ask one of her classmates in my course to help her—I knew just the right person with just the right amount of positivity in this uncertain time to make her senior pictures moment fun. And I told her, “no one is on campus, and no one will be looking at you funny as you pose—however you wish to pose.”

She took those pictures. She told me thank you. She told me her family was so excited to see her senior photos. She said it felt like she finally had a sense of closure on campus. 

I’m glad I gave her an assignment. I’m glad she embraced it. Because now I am embracing my role to share with the class of 2020, that this moment is memorable, and it will be remembered. How do you wish to remember it?

Assignment Title: Class of Covid-19

Assignment Prompt: You are the class of 2020, and in a decade or so you will probably be referred to as the Class of Covid-19. I hope you will embrace it, as it reiterates how amazing you truly are. But it is not yet a decade from now. For my students, May 17, 2020 was the date you were to participate in the official commencement ceremony on our campus. As of March 23, 2020, you found out that in-person commencement was postponed, and it will be held one year from now.

The first part of this assignment is to respond to the following questions:

  1. What were you most looking forward to for commencement?
  2. What things did you plan to do prior to commencement in preparation for it? (ex: buy a new outfit, get a fresh haircut, figure out how your hair would fit under that cap, buy a pair of shoes that your family could see from the stands, decorate your cap, send thank you cards to family, friends, professors, remind your family to purchase the cake that says “you did it!”, take senior pictures, grab a meal with your closest friends, send out invitations, look at yourself in the mirror and say “I made it.”)
  3. What things did you plan to do after your commencement ceremony? (ex: go out to dinner with family, have dessert, go to a party with friends, pack up all your stuff to move out, take pictures with your family, friends, and favorite professors, bask in the joy, shed a few tears at the bitter sweet, try not to worry about what’s next, experience the now.)

Secondly, now that you have responded to these questions, highlight the things you STILL CAN DO. Remember be creative. Enlist your family and friends for help. Brainstorm. Use all of those critical thinking skills you gained in your college career, and after seventeen years of homework, don’t let this one be late.

Congratulations to the unique, novel, resilient, determined, unapologetically celebratory, college class of 2020.


Professor Brackett


As a professor of African American studies, as a first generation student, as an African American woman, who never knew she’d be where she is today, as the graduate who worried about how her family would be able to afford the trip from Virginia to New York and later Michigan, as the sometimes three-job-having college student who worried how to afford my cap and gown, my new dress, my hair style, and the gas to drive myself back to Virginia, as the granddaughter of a grandparent who was incapable of walking from the stadium to north campus, as the black girl with a middle name she worried wouldn’t be pronounced correctly, as the First Gen who knew she would have to translate all the college speak for her family, as the dream and the hope of the slave, as the code switcher, as the girl who would tell people she graduated with honors from Cornell University and would often receive tones of congratulations that have the sound of surprise… It would be disrespectful of me to close out this letter without speaking for those often unheard.

I see you. I know that your future narratives from childhood don’t always look like what our society tells us it should. Your families may never have spoken about college. You may not have a family. Your seventeen years of schooling may not have looked like what our society defines as average, and this often means you are above average, but no one ever told you that. They told you something was wrong with you, they told you graduating from college probably wouldn’t happen. They said you would never make it. But you did. And this is why I get a tingling when I see you all, those often unseen, walk to commencement through our line of cheers as your proud professors. I get overly excited to see your joy. Your moment is most precious to me. So precious that I gladly wear my regalia each year, hat included, and sit as they read your names, and stay on campus until the tent of refreshments has no one left to refresh. I’m happy to hold the camera and get many photos of your entire crew in one image, or I’ll keep pushing the button until you captured the perfect graduation picture for all of your social media accounts. Because you won’t get this moment back. Because I know.

You are probably more likely qualified to survive this pandemic because your lives were required to have patience, perseverance, unknown health strength and some luck. Many of you ask yourself from time to time, why me? Why am I the one that got out? Why am I the one that made it?

I worry about whether you will be able to return to campus a year from now to participate in the commencement ceremony set to replace the one you are missing this month. I worry that your family can’t or won’t make it. I worry you will not want to return to a campus, a place, that you spent four years and maybe some change at, and still felt unheard and unseen.

Please for the often unheard, and often unseen, read between the lines, because I write this especially with us in mind. This is your Seventeen-Years moment, with seventeen years worth of doubts from others and yourself, and you made it. You made it. So celebrate it.

And it is you that made me say, I must write this. You won’t get this moment back. And you will always remember it. So make your Seventeen-Years moment positively memorable.


Here’s a link to a celebration that showcases: This is how we do it.

Ohio State Med School grad's 'walk across the stage' seen all over the world

Since he was a toddler, Trent Johnson Jr. says he knew he wanted to be a doctor. Now, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are watching him "graduate" from Ohio State medical school, thanks to a dedicated family and a cell phone video on Twitter.https://bit.ly/2yvGh6w

Posted by The National Desk – TND on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Citations Still Matter: For the credit and links to the Cap Designs, see list below, by number from top left to top right, and bottom left to bottom right.

1. Ancestors Cap 2. Dream & Vision 3. Chemistry 4. Si Se Pudo 5. Black Girl Magic 6. Ho’omau 7. Migrated 8. First Gen 9. Bball

Disappearing Act: The AFAM Class I Signed up for was Canceled, and Here’s Why

By Sofia McLaren

Last semester I decided to enroll in AFAM 375, Harlem Renaissance, however, before I could enroll the class was taken down and no longer being offered. The cancellation of classes was a phenomenon I had not experienced before signing up for a class in the African American studies program. I don’t think I even knew it was a possibility, but it seems that the resources in the program can’t always support the classes that professors would like to teach. I immediately mentioned it to Professor Renee Simms, a professor in the African American studies program as well as the English department. Professor Renee Simms explained to me that this kind of thing happened, that they had to delete a specific section of 101 as well because they didn’t have the resources to make it happen. I had other friends who were planning on taking the section of 101 and were also unable to do that. I was irritated, not only because this had happened to a class I wanted to take, but that it had happened in the African American Studies program specifically.

“The identity based programs continue to be the smallest programs on campus and because they are small they don’t get the title of department on the University campus.”

Why was it that I was only hearing about this happening in AFAM? I spoke with Professor Simms about the resources in the program and how the allocated resources are similar to the Gender and Queer Studies program (GQS) as well as Latino Studies. In these identity based programs there tends to be a greater need for and use of adjunct professors which changes the allocation of funds in the program and is an indication that these programs are in need of growth. The identity based programs continue to be the smallest programs on campus and because they are small they don’t get the title of department on the University campus.

“I discussed it with friends and no one else had experienced this in their prospective major departments.”

The deletion of classes was a new thing to me, but I couldn’t believe that I was only hearing about it in the African American Studies department. I discussed it with friends and no one else had experienced this in their prospective major departments. African American studies has had a rollercoaster of a ride at University of Puget Sound (UPS), being part of the curriculum in the 1970s and then being nonexistent from about 1978-1999. However, in the 1990s Dr. Nancy Bristow was hired in the history department and Dr. Hans Ostrom was hired in the English department, both saw the importance of African American Studies and it was approved as an area of study in 1994-1995. The minor first appeared in the bulletin in 1999. Although this was a victory for the field of study, the problem that remains today can be seen with professors housed in other departments helping to round out the African American Studies department or the other way around. An example of this today is Professor Renee Simms, who was hired in 2011, although she is listed as an associate professor in the African American Studies program, she is also a contributing faculty to the English department and works with the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching (CWLT), meaning less classes that can be taught in African American Studies. She was originally interviewed to be part of the english department and ended up being hired for the AFAM program and has enjoyed the focus she has been able to allocate to the black diaspora.

Professors have a set salary and that means that they are expected to teach 3 classes a semester, however, there are so many other things going on in the African American studies program, therefore, not all the professors have the opportunity to teach 3 classes within the program, or 3 classes at all. The program is dedicated to actively involving the community and contributing to the University in meaningful ways that they greatly enhance the University in other ways, besides teaching classes. Professor Simms is an example of this, she works in the CWLT as a faculty advisor, which gives her a course release. Course releases can be given for being a faculty advisor in a specific area, grants for research, directing projects, and various other reasons. Due to Professor Simms’ course release she teaches a 3:2 year, meaning she teaches 3 classes during the fall semester and only 2 during the spring semester. The course releases exist to give professors an opportunity to allocate time in other areas besides their classes, showing their dedication to bettering the University in multiple ways.

“The AFAM professors allocate great amounts of extra time to the University, investing in the future of this campus and the students that are enrolled here. It is time for the university to fully invest in the program.”

Dr. Dexter Gordon is another professor in the department with immense responsibilities and projects. He was hired in 2002 as the director and has remained the director of the African American Studies Program, director of the Race and Pedagogy Institute, and a professor in Communications Studies. These roles all take time and dedication and make it difficult for Professor Gordon to teach as many classes as other professors, therefore, he is given course releases for this extended service. The program has managed to stay grounded and in 2015 became designated as a major. The AFAM professors allocate great amounts of extra time to the University, investing in the future of this campus and the students that are enrolled here. It is time for the university to fully invest in the program. The investment in the community that the AFAM program works so hard on is one of the many reasons that the program is valuable. Community involvement is pivotal for getting ideas circulated and giving the University the right recognition. For the amount of investment the AFAM program puts into the University it is time to see the University investing in them.

“The lack of classes is exactly how programs disappear and the AFAM program needs to stay, it is a vital connection for this campus to the community.”

The designation of African American Studies as a major was a huge victory because it was, and still is the only major offered in African American Studies in the state of Washington. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to major in an area of study that I care about, however, I want to know why there is such a struggle to offer enough classes. The battle has become the ability to offer enough classes in the program so that students can achieve the major. Two years after the major was designated, the University hired Dr. LaToya Brackett, a 3-year visiting professor who has now interviewed for a tenure track position and been hired. This interview for a tenure track position came after years of proposals to the university, years of extra work. While these are great accomplishments, the fact remains that the department continues to cancel courses because they do not have the resources to teach them. The lack of classes is exactly how programs disappear and the AFAM program needs to stay, it is a vital connection for this campus to the community. As a community we can not let the program become invisible and slowly disappear, it is our job to make sure the program continues to get stronger.

Upon further questioning, I discovered that the professor who was going to teach the Harlem Renaissance course this semester was Dr. Juli McGruder who retired from the Occupational Therapy Program here at UPS. Dr. Juli McGruder would have been an adjunct professor and that costs more money for the program which is partly why the class was designated to be cancelled. Dr. McGruder did not study African American studies, however she has been very active within the program because, as Professor Simms said, she is “an independent scholar and has a love for Black literature and arts.” The decision for the teaching of the class by an adjunct professor was made by Juli Christoph, the Associate Dean, who also made the decision to cancel the class. According to Juli Christoph there are “usually quite a few (50-100) course additions, deletions, and corrections that happen in the month leading up to registration.”

“The interest and dedication in the program needs to continue to grow because that is the only way to ensure its permanence. The University needs to do their part in helping the AFAM program grow and continue to thrive on this campus, that does not include continuing a pattern of cancellation.”

Although they had found a professor to teach the class, they weren’t able to have a professor from the program teach the class. This shows that even with hiring a visiting professor, now a tenure track professor, the program is still in need of professors and needs to continue to grow in its capacity. In the words of Dr. Gordon, “The future of African American Studies depends, as it always has done, on the work of scholars, students, and communities of interest.” It is important that as a University community we recognize the areas of the institution that need support and relevance on a larger scale than is being offered now. The interest and dedication in the program needs to continue to grow because that is the only way to ensure its permanence. The University needs to do their part in helping the AFAM program grow and continue to thrive on this campus, that does not include continuing a pattern of cancellation. We as students also need to continue to advocate for the program and share the amazing experiences we’ve been given by being a part of the program and by taking the classes taught by incredibly engaging professors.