Afrikana Community Responds to Bigotry

We, the concerned members and allies of the Oberlin Afrikana community, are sick and tired. We are sick and tired of the blatant disrespect that continues to be perpetuated throughout this campus. We are sick and tired of European Americans referring to us, even through the recitation of a rap song, as “nigger.” We are sick and tired of racist vandalism of our space. We are sick and tired of our elders being grossly disrespected in campus newspapers. We are sick and tired, and if we are ever to feel well again, Oberlin as a community must come to acknowledge and work against the legacy of racism that exists on this campus.

Oberlin tends to focus on its positive attributes. We have institutions such as the memorials to the Underground Railroad that recall the groundbreaking legacy of our town. These are wonderful things to honor and cherish, and we do not discount in the least the significance of their presence. There has been a long history of people in this town who have marched, risked their lives and bled to balance the scales of justice. Afrikan Heritage House would not be all that it is today without that legacy, nor would the Multicultural Resource Center wield the amount of power that it does today.

However, we cannot celebrate the good about ourselves without acknowledging the stark legacy of the bad. Not too long ago in “equal Oberlin,” student Edmonia Lewis was brutally beaten behind Keep while the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed words of hatred against abolitionists and other “nigger-lovers.” Not too long ago in “equal Oberlin,” a group of drunk white Oberlin students chanted every word in Biggie’s “Hypnotize” on their front porch and cried “nigga” as if saying the word was their own ticket to freedom. Not too long ago in “equal Oberlin,” anonymous posters on the online forum Obietalk referred to president Obama as a “nigger,” proposed renaming Obietalk “the Nigger Jungle,” called an upstanding student leader “niggerfaggot” and referred to all black people as “fucking lowly niggers.” Not too long ago in “equal Oberlin,” the predominantly Black section of town was once referred to as “little Africa.” Not too long ago, the town of Oberlin sent Blacks to repatriate in Haiti to cool racial tensions in town. When it comes to the safety and well-being of Black people, Oberlin as a town and college simply cannot be seen as entirely positive. The greater Oberlin community must acknowledge this legacy if we are ever to mature into a society that acknowledges the beauty within all people.

From this ugly legacy of racism and prejudice in our town comes the vandalism of our house. The past two years brought us people who felt justified in stealing and defacing the invaluable works of art that hang on our walls. The fact that someone felt entitled to enter our space, take our belongings and deface them highlights campus-wide issues that must be resolved by the entire Oberlin College community. The fact that someone entered Third World House and did the same thing two years ago proves more outrageous. There are multiple examples of this greatly disquieting behavior, but one in particular comes to mind.

This semester, an unknown community member took the Imani sign down from the walls of Lord lounge in Afrikan Heritage House, placed it on the lawn, and rubbed it in dirt. In the Swahili language, imani signifies creed, conviction, confidence, honesty, trust, conscience, compassion and kindness, but above all, imani means faith. It is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and one of the ideological cornerstones of Afrikan Heritage House. The defacement of this sign is an affront to the entire Africana community. It demonstrates that Oberlin has become a place that accommodates people who would rather act in anonymity than stand by their convictions and face the consequences of their actions.

This is an attack on our culture, our heritage, our intellectual and spiritual traditions and our right to live in peace. These are the foundations of a community that Black people in this country have fought for over hundreds of years as they endured the blows of slave drivers’ whips, the sting of fire departments’ hoses, the bites of police departments’ dogs, the bombings of churches, assassinations, arrests, kidnappings and lynchings. The defacement and theft of our community’s material culture is both an action and a statement that can be heard loud and clear. This action says to us, “the study of Afrikana culture at Oberlin is a joke,” “the spiritual and academic traditions of the Afrikan Heritage House are a joke,” “the history of Black people is fit to be defaced and erased without consequence” and “we do not care about you.”

We can only take the College community’s passive silence upon this issue as tacit agreement. We refuse to believe that Oberlin College is a space where such behavior is tolerated, accepted and encouraged, but our faith is being tested.

This is not an isolated instance, but one attached to multiple instances of ignorance, intolerance and disrespect that have occurred on this campus for over 150 years. As the disgrace continues in 2012, we have almost lost all faith in the Oberlin community. We have almost lost faith in the potential of the greater Oberlin community to show sensitivity for its ethnically and economically marginalized members. We have almost lost faith that people might come to realize a sensitivity of understanding to each other’s cultures. We have almost lost faith that there will ever be a day when the words “freedom” and “equality” might cease to be ideals and transform into realities.

We will lose such faith no longer.

We believe, not that these injustices will not happen in the future in Oberlin, but that if and when they do, they will be overwhelmed by a resounding response of outrage and criticism from the entire College community.

With this letter, we declare an act of supreme courage and fearlessness. That is, we declare an act of faith. It is an act of faith that rests only as a grain of sand on the continuous seabed of activist work wrought by the hands of our ancestors at this nourishing mother of justice, Oberlin College. We have this active faith, because if we do not, the window for these things to come to pass will have been forced closed by our unwillingness to accept our dreams’ possibility. We will work tirelessly to ensure that these acts come to fruition.

We have active faith that the administration will recognize and commit to realizing Afrikan Heritage House as an environment maintained by and for people who request to live there, and not as a place to simply stick students into as overflow from the housing lottery.

We have active faith in the student body to increase its efforts to advocate for Afrikan Heritage House as a wonderful place to live to incoming first-years.

We have active faith that Oberlin will acknowledge the ways that race, class and gender interact with the built structures and layout of this campus, specifically with regards to the imaginary but very real divide between North and South campus.

We have active faith that white people on this campus will no longer need to rely upon the reactions of people of color to know when they have transgressed.

We have active faith that white people will feel deeply the potent legacy of the transgressions of their ancestors, acknowledge how this legacy interacts with the lives of everyday people of all races today, and take the painful but rewarding road to redeeming these faults, lest they stay within the tepid territory of inaction.

We have active faith that the academy will cease to be “post”-anything or “pre”-anything, but just be right now.

We have active faith that the oppressed peoples of the world will cease their infighting and join in polyphony to create systems, networks and structures that might shine as easily through the confusion of injustice as a ray of light might pass through clouds on a rainy day.

We have active faith that Oberlin’s communities of color will cultivate and illuminate innumerable fruits of creativity and leadership.

We have active faith in an Oberlin community so strong that no imbalance, no matter how deep, will go without fully sufficient response and aid from all members of the community.

We have active faith that Oberlin College as an institution will acknowledge the trials and tribulations traversed by communities historically targeted by injustice and the members of those communities who attend this institution.

We have active faith that there will be official institutional acknowledgment and denouncement of the disrespectful and prejudiced acts of vandalism at Third World House and Afrikan Heritage House.

We have active faith that this institution will help us all to realize the radical extents to which we have been indoctrinated into the racist, prejudiced, Eurocentric modes of thought that pervade and dominate American discourse.

We have active faith that white people will understand the causes and implications of the passion people of color express in discussions of race not as a means of personal attack, but as a means of vigorously shifting discourse away from a position that has for centuries ignored the concerns of the marginalized.

We have active faith that we will all in turn respect the real limitations of experience that enable the spread of disrespectful statements and actions, in an effort to neither vilify nor demonize those who transgress, but to address the underlying falsehoods which cultivated such actions. In doing so, we aim to honor each other with the same compassion and respect we each expect and deserve, in dedication to the greater struggle for us all to enjoy the liberation that comes with truth and understanding.

We have active faith that the College will passionately pursue the implementation of courses in African languages, Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine, Chinese medicine, Black and Latino agricultural and medical history, community activism, non-European philosophy and classics, and other means of decentering the overwhelming whiteness and Eurocentricity of the “impartial” studies of Science, Philosophy and Classics. We also have active faith that the Conservatory of Music will make a deliberate effort to move away from Eurocentric exclusivity in its study, appreciation and canonization of the human force of music.

We have faith that the Oberlin College community will take to heart that Eurocentricity is an intellectual grounding that predicates the same white supremacist American racism that killed Trayvon Martin and caused people in the South to hang from the poplar trees.

Above all, we have thriving and active faith.


Concerned Members of the Afrikana Community and its Allies

Joshua Moton, 2013;
Alexandria M. Phillips, 2014;
Michelle Jahnke Raygada, 2012;
Lilah Larson, 2012;
Ambre Dromgoole, 2015;
Sarah Cheshire, 2014;
Meredith Diamond, 2012;
Cornelius Graves IV, 2013;
Jessica De Paz, 2014;
Cameron Sweet, 2014;
Alex Howard, 2014;
Peter Freeman, 2013;
Gabriela Garcia, 2015;
Andrés Feliciano, 2012;
Malachi R. Thomas, 2014;
Brooklyn Demme, 2012;
Jocie Sobieraj, 2015;
Marlee Blasenheim, 2013;
Trinidy Combs, 2015;
Tony C. Mosley, 2015;
Cecilia Ruane, 2014;
Ashley Parish, 2015;
Maya Iverson, 2012;
Si Wang, 2015;
Kathryn Malone, 2013;
Kara Mahon, 2015;
mandy hogan, 2013;
Noa Fleischacker, 2015;
Anais Stewart, 2015;
Nicollette Buckle, 2013;
Jacob Ertel, 2015;
Brenda Alvarez, 2015;
Jaye Harden, 2015;
Jennifer Murdock, 2014;
Ariel Powell, 2014;
Taylor Rankin, 2015;
Rachel Ishikawa, 2014;
Sarah Smeltzer, 2014;
Deirdre Molitor, 2013;
Melissa George, 2012;
Amber Marie Felton, 2013;
Lissette Lorenz, 2012;
Leanna Frye, 2013