Oberlin, Be That Safe Haven Again for Black Students

To the Editors:

This year represents 180 years of black students at Oberlin. As African-American alumni, we carry that distinction in our hearts and minds every day. We are proud “descendants,” for example, of George B. Vashon, OC 1844, Oberlin’s first black graduate. We are also descendants of our shero Mary Jane Patterson, the first black woman to receive a B.A. degree when she graduated from Oberlin in 1862. However, after reading a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Professor of History Steven Volk, we found ourselves asking the question, “Do we need to remind Oberlin of its historic commitment to black students and the struggle for social justice?”

In his Jan. 8 article, “A Season of Anger,” Professor Volk chastised Oberlin’s current student activists for their “unrecognized entitlement” and “bullying behaviors.” In the article, he also made metaphorical comparisons to his student activist days, when he and other “college-educated white boys” marched to end the Vietnam War. However, we are not sure that Professor Volk truly understands the war that is going on in this country right now — against black and brown people. And any current black or brown Oberlin student could easily be a casualty of this war, at any time and in any place. To borrow from a popular post on Twitter last year, young black people — even college-educated ones — know that they are just “one bullet away from being a hashtag.”

It is crucial that we not demonize this generation’s young freedom fighters. Let us not forget that, if not for young people across this country taking a stand and literally putting their lives in jeopardy — long before it became popular to do so among older folks — we would not even be talking about Ferguson, Staten Island, etc. as a nation. Therefore, the “bullying behaviors,” as Professor Volk calls them, have been absolutely necessary to bring the current life-and-death issues of racial injustice to our collective attention.

We also feel compelled to note that Professor Volk’s piece is ahistorical in that it presumes that students’ recent behaviors are solely related to recent events on the national scene. They are not. Since 2009, we have seen with our own eyes (and unfortunately via national media outlets) the disintegration of Oberlin College as a safe haven for students of color, particularly black students. And given Oberlin’s history and commitment to freedom and social justice — which drew so many of us to Oberlin when we were applying to college — it has been particularly painful to know that so many current black students feel helpless and unprotected.

Black people around this country are under siege. Many of us are traumatized. Many of the current black students at Oberlin feel traumatized. So, instead of demonizing or chastising them, let us love, support, empower and create a safe haven for them. Oberlin, please be that safe haven again for black students.

–Carolyn (Cunningham) Ash, OC ’91, and Cornelius Graves, OC ’14