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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Speaking Truth to Power: Black students at PWIs

indexI went to a southern PWI ( Predominantly White Institution) more than ten years ago as an administrator just certain that I was on a mission of truth, justice and the un-American way of social justice. I was not on campus long before both blacks and whites with my best interests in mind began sidling up to me telling me to be careful what I said. Their message was basically one of, people are listening to you and if they don’t like what you say they will get rid of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

I was happy they liked me and wanted me to stay, but puzzled by this seeming fright that if I said something the people in power did not like they would get rid of me. After all, I was a diversity officer, wasn’t part of my job to point out injustices, work against injustices and advocate for change to remedy injustice? The veterans, those who had worked there for a while, knew what it took me several years to find out. The administration was only interested in protecting the status quo–white supremacy–not in making changes. They were however, very interested in getting help pretending to change things or to care about about social justice.

During my tenure I was fascinated at the cooperation of the black folks on campus with this charade. Not only did they do what they were told, they usually pretended to like it. When I asked them things like why there were not more black professors or why some of the programs like study abroad seemed to be virtually without minority representation or why women kept getting leapfrogged by men who had been their subordinates until those men were now their superiors, they all tsk-tsked and shook their heads, ducked and covered and collected their paychecks.

So, this missive is to black students at PWIs. You are on your own. In the vast majority of circumstances the black people on campus as powerless. They have choices, keep their mouths shut, please their superiors, always a white person, and keep their jobs, or advocate for real change and be sent packing. They are not bad people, they want to do better, they simply are not allowed to, it is a binary situation: Stand up–get removed, go along-keep your job. They are powerless and kept that way on purpose. If you do not believe me ask them to give you a list of what they have changed for black people on their campus in the last five years. Do not be fooled by ” We hired a new black director of…..”, unless you see evidence that the new black director of …..has actually done something besides be the new black director of…..As one sage said sometimes we have met the enemy and it is us. In my home school district of Xenia, Ohio we hired fewer black teachers when we had a black head of personnel than before or since. Because he was in the position he was able to help make the district proof against discrimination. “See we are not prejudiced, our personnel manager is black!” Of course, the fact that principals actually do the hiring and the personnel head only rubber stamps was ignored. Thus it is on your campus. Look to see who actually hires and what kind of people they actually hire.  The black head of……. is only as good for the rest of us as he or she is allowed to be, again they are generally powerless. If they really try to effect change they are going to be marginalized or removed.

You on the other hand are not powerless. You can raise questions about why there are so few or no black professors, why things do not change, why committees are formed and people are hired without anyone of color being involved in the decision. You will have to do your homework, of course. Ask questions frequently and of anyone you can find who might listen. Ask why there are no black trustees, or blacks on the board of visitors , if that is true. If there are black folks on these bodies ask them why there are so few black professors or other staff. Ask they why the names of slave owners and klan members adorn some of your buildings without comment, ask them where the voices are of black folks on the campus. Ask they why certain areas of study are considered more scholarly than others, like African American Studies. Ask  any question that comes to mind about the state of black folks on the campus, and for that matter what are they doing to foster and promote and encourage and effect social justice on campus, in the state, in the country, in the world. The fights these days are more subtle. There are no signs that say ” no blacks allowed”, but look around your campus and see how many clubs, choirs, organizations, honors, etc, are monochromatic. Who sits in the fancy boxes at football games? Whose kids and grandkids get to be ball boys and ball girls at the basketball games? Whose pictures are hung in the hallowed halls? .

Our white administrations are good at making pretend changes with pretend front folks ( we called them house niggers in my day) who assure you all is well. Yet, when you are in class and find yourself the only black in class,expected to represent your race as all faces turn towards you when the subject of race comes up  is all well? When you have been at an institution for four years and have never had a black professor, is all well? When honors days come and go without anyone black being on the podium is all well?

Beware the grateful blacks who think they do not belong at this prestigious school and are lucky to have been admitted. Quite a lot of them work there. They are convinced they have been honored to be allowed to sit at the foot of the table and they show up at reunions singing the praises of the school, forgetting the times they were insulted, ignored, passed over, denigrated and devalued. They too will tell you all is well, you just have to try your hardest and love your institution even if it does not love you back.

Speaking truth to power is rarely, if every, popular, but it is necessary if things are going to change for those who come after you. At one point in our history black people stood up and demanded that places supported by common monies serve everyone and serve them equally. We have now sold out to the point where success is not making progress for your race or your gender or your sexual orientation or citizenship status, but whether or not you can make money. If you cannot fight for social justice and make money then you should not fight for social justice. Or, put another way, it is better that I have a nice fat paycheck and the hell with the rest of y’all.

Audre Lorde said ( read her if you are unfamiliar) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The black people you have on most campuses are the master’s tools. If they were not they would not be there. That means if you see things that you believe are unjust you have to be the power that changes it. It can be done. Even on the most docile campuses there are some folks, and they may not be black, who will help you. But, you need to lead and you need to be heard. Think something is wrong? Change it.  Think something is missing? Say so. You are standing on the shoulders of people who did or you would not be there.  Make up your mind whether you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.

Don’t join the ranks of grateful blacks unless you can be grateful that you made real change, change that will benefit future students, faculty and staff of all colors by making the institution more equitable and welcoming and not afraid to take a stand for what is right, even if it costs.

 
 

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Tales of Xenia: The tornado

Xenia LivesForty years ago we were a young family. Mike was 6, Chris was three months old and Nicole had not been thought o yet. We were looking forward to a lot on April 3, 1974. We were going to visit Wayne’s sister Gloria in Alexandria, Virginia during Spring Break, which was the next week. Her husband was working at the Pentagon and we were going to do the DC tourist thing. Take Mike to see the sights and spend some time with family members. Besides that to look forward to ( it may have been the first time Mike was going to fly and definitely the first time for Chris) we were getting a second car that day, Wayne was picking it up after work.

The day was uneventful, typical Ohio spring, warm to hot one day, cold and snowy the next. Shortly after 4:00 Wayne pulled in with the new car and Mike and I, with Chris in arms, ran out to see it and inspect it. It was not really new, but used, but a nice car and new to us. We were standing outside looking at the car when the weather got odd. A strange stillness seemed to be in the air, and then an odd kind of high whistling. Our house was at the end of the cul-de-sac or dead end depending on your view, and surrounded on three sides by trees. We looked towards town, I am not sure why and saw an enormous black cloud that seemed to be roiling. It did not look anything like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz, it was just a huge, huge black cloud that appeared to be full of things tumbling and turning.

Mike, of course, had a basketball in his hands and was bouncing it in the driveway and heading towards the goal Wayne and Bud Walker , our neighbor, had put up at the end of the street so that Mike and Randy Walker could play basketball. i called him back and said ” We better go in the house.” By the time we got in the house the noise became incredible. Tornadoes really do sound like freight trains, at least that one did, but it also had a high whistling whine which seems to accelerate the closer it got. We  did not have a basement so we went into the bathroom since I had heard that that was one of the safest places because of the large amount of plumbing that would help stabilize the walls.

I got in the bathtub with Chris, Wayne sat on the closed toilet and Mike sat on the floor still bouncing the basketball. I remember thinking that if that noise got any louder we were in serious trouble. Soon we heard the snapping of branches as the tornado hit the woods, then breaking glass, groaning of wood, the Florida room that my parents had added to the back of the house when they bought it in the 1960s was torn away with a humongous sound of breaking things. Things began to hit the house, the roof, windows were broken out, the train was upon us.

Then as suddenly as it had come it was gone. The eerie silence following that tornado is still with me today. We went out into the rest of the house. There were broken windows in the living room and kitchen, there was a hole in roof where something had hit it and there was water everywhere since the windows were broken. We went outside to a scene that was incredible. Looking towards Rte 42 we realized that the house and barn that had blocked our view of the road were now gone. The closer to the highway and the fewer trees around the houses the worst the damage. The Dudgeon’s house on the corner was down to the basement, no house left. The Smith house facing 42 was no more, the red barn was leaning almost to the ground. The Wray’s house on 42 was also down to the basement. We took off running to the Wray’s because they ran a daycare and we envisioned toddlers in the rubble, but they had gotten them all to the basement.

Going back home I decided to do some cleanup. I started to put Chris down on the couch, Wayne was inspecing the cars, including our main car that the carport had collapsed on. Fortunately I looked first, the couch was covered with broken glass, twigs, leaves, etc. None of our bedrooms had been damaged so I put him in his crib and was mopping up the kitchen when my mother burst in the door crying. Of course the phones did not work, she had been trying to find out if we were okay and people have told her that Tremont Road was flat, the houses all gone. Which was true if they only looked at the top of the street. She had flattened all four of her tires trying to get to us. I’m sure she was happy we were okay but a little nonplussed to find me mopping the floor.

I am not sure what we thought the aftermath would be, but in a couple of days when the roads were clear enough so that we could take the new car ( thank goodness it was not damaged and was not under the carport yet) and go to town the devastation was amazing. We did not have water, or heat, but my Mom’s house on Lexington Avenue had both so we shut up the house as best we could and went over there.  All kinds of aid was coming in, you could pick up fresh water at several places, the national guard was in town. religious groups form all over came and repaired and rebuilt houses, it was a giant outpouring of help both from Xenia citizens and others, but the broken trees, the downtown that was virtually in ruins, the smell–those who have been through a devastating tornado will never forget the smell, and the worst, not knowing who was alive and who was dead.

I was teaching at Warner Jr. High in those days. Warner sits in the Arrowhead housing development, one of the hardest hit areas of town. Listening to the radio announcers reading lists of people who were missing was excruciating since some of the names read belonged to my students. Fortunately, none of my students were among the dead, although some of them were injured, but I did not know that for quite a while. Electronic media was in its infancy as far as communications and we had no way of gathering information from people who had simply left town because their houses were no more.

We decided to accelerate our trip to DC and get out of town for a few days. Those were different times, it only took one call to the airlines to change our reservations from Monday to Saturday,  We left Wayne to deal with at least boarding up the house and Chris, Mike and I flew off to DC where there was no rubble, no smell, they had hot water and you could go home without the National Guard stopping you to see if you legitimately lived there.

When we came home to the house the lights were back on, the water was hot hot again, we had heat. But, there was no way you could forget the storm, from the buildings being gone, to the piles of rubble everywhere, there were lots of reminders.

The woods that surrounded most of our house had been damaged, but had stood up to the storm well overall. They looked as if they had been toilet papered. Aluminum siding ripped from houses all over town was deposited in the trees, draped over the branches of nearly every tree. The trees were also festooned with clothing, all of it with the sleeves ripped off. It looked like some avant garde arboreal fashion statement. On the ground we found papers, deeds, birth certificates, bills, letters, all sucked out of houses and deposited at the first barrier that could pluck them from the maelstrom.

There was, of course, no school. XHS was gone, Central Jr. Hi was gone and several elementary schools were either destroyed or damaged. We finished the year teaching in the evenings at Fairborn high school about 8 miles from Xenia. My main memory of that time was that the Fairborn students decided to indulge in the current fad of streaking and we could count on looking out of our classroom windows in the disk and seeing a few of them running naked across the lawn.

The town has never really recovered from the tornado. Our spirits are good, but the demographics changed. People who had money and owned nice homes that were destroyed often decided to take their insurance and federal disaster money and move to Beavercreek or Kettering or somewhere where the houses were all standing already rather than build. Some homeowners fixed up or rebuilt but the town definitely lost some of our higher professional residents to greener pastures. The downtown, which used to have a J. C. Penny store, a Kresges, a Montgomery Wards, all the small town staples, along with local businesses, at least five women’s clothing stores, from Lord’s at the bottom of the spectrum on up to Singer’s which carried designer clothes. There may be one clothing store for women left but I think it specializes in formal and wedding wear. We had four furniture stores, Adairs, Daums, Blacks and Cherry’s.A few days after the tornado Cherry’s furniture store, where we had bought our living room furniture, our first new furniture, blew up.  We never had to pay a dime, although we inquired about it afteward. We were told the insurance would pay for anything outstanding since the records had been lost in the blast. Now I we do not have a place in town where you can buy new furniture. Of course, locally owned businesses in small towns were soon to be gobbled up by Malls and Walmarts anyway, perhaps the tornado just hastened our fate.

The decision to turn the middle of town into a strip mall was ill advised. About all small towns have to offer these days is their charm. We are trying to bring charming back and I am somewhat encouraged that there does seem to be a new spirit of “can do” among some of the folks in town, including some fairly young people, but I am afraid it will never be the vibrant, successful, bustling small town it once was. Many small towns are endangered species, but we can hope that between bicycling and our historic district we can at least keep up the fight.

After all as the signs said that were posed days after the tornado, XENIA LIVES!

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Uncategorized