Some Thoughts About (Student) Activism

sas protest

On Friday September 20, 2013 I participated in a symposium at the invitation of the African American Studies Department at Syracuse University. The symposium sought to explore the history, significance, and future direction of the department. Conceived and coordinated by dedicated scholar activist Dr. Micere Mugo, the symposium involved as participants the former student activists responsible for the establishment of AAS at Syracuse University, professors at the department, and student activists that attended the university throughout the 80s and 90s. Our mandate was to create an oral history of the department’s existence and importance. Naturally these panel discussions were recorded and will become part of the department’s archives for people to view and reference in the future. One panel featured three former students at SU during the 70s who along with their peers, called for the first collection of Black courses which later grew into the African American Studies Department. My panel included one former chairperson of the department, myself, and another former student at SU during the 9s. These panels were highly informative and interesting as they chronicled an over 30-year history of the department and provided information and perspectives many in attendance did not formerly have. In that sense, the symposium was an outstanding success and I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to participate and reunite with former classmates and professors.

In a very personal sense, I was deeply moved – sometimes to tears – as I witnessed for the first time how my own activism and leadership led to such innovation and growth for the AAS department. The Martin Luther King Library, dilapidated and under supported during my undergrad years, now boasted a huge collection of periodicals and books, a top-of-the-line computer lab, and is now widely regarded as one of the finest of its kind in the country; The department now offers a masters degree in Pan African Studies; The department’s Community Folk Art Gallery now has tremendous space, wonderful exhibits, a fully-equipped theater, and a wonderful director (who was a former classmate of mine at SU. Moreover, students in the department can now study abroad in Africa and France, allowing them immersion in other cultures while earning academic credit.

Dr. Janis Mayes, one of my mentors as a student and a brilliant literature professor and French linguist is still going strong as is Dr. Micere Mugo a native Kenyan whose scholarship activism and mentorship is legendary. I can’t tell you how many times professors told me “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have a job here,” or “You are responsible for all of this growth.” Even more current students said, “You are legend,” or “We’re inspired by your courage and activism.” The event in a nutshell, was mind-blowing.

And yet, there were so many things I needed to say that I forgot to address and put into perspective. I want to make sure that the record concerning AAS is accurate. Therefore this article addresses some of the very important information I didn’t have the opportunity to share.

  1. The panelists that preceded me (those who attended SU in the 70s mentioned repeatedly that they did not attend college with the intention of becoming activists, and that they were “there to have fun.” They also framed their desire for Black courses and meeting places in a very personal and apolitical manner. I found these depictions problematic but did not remember to address them. I think it’s fair to say people often don’t intend to become activists. One’s participation in activism tends to stem from a development of sociopolitical consciousness following a personal incident or exposure to ideas or activism around them. The problem with their characterization of their own role as Black college students is that it failed to adequately discuss how their personal ideas and actions were inspired by the Black Power Movement and the national movement to create Black Studies Programs during their undergraduate years. At the time they made demands concerning Black Studies courses and Black meeting and social spaces Black students around the country made similar demands. Hence the demands they made stemmed from a growing consciousness around issues of Black identity, and what we now call Afrocentric education. Far from being unique or particular to Syracuse University, such activity formed a core of demands taken up by politicized Black students on hundreds of white college campuses including those attending Cornell University some 45 minutes drive from Syracuse. Our failure to mention this or to do so adequately robs credit from all of those Black students involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements (or inspired by them) who arrived on hostile and unwelcoming white college campuses and who became active agents in their own liberation by demanding and fighting for an educational experience that was relevant to their culture and lives. And while it may be true that some Black students in the 60s and 70s entered college with a “party” mindset, it is doubtful if this is a fair collective characterization. In many cases these students were the first in their family to attend any college let alone a predominately white one. Again, these students entered college during a national time of intense social consciousness. The Vietnam War led to massive anti-war sentiment amongst our people, The Black Power Movement challenged students to identify with anticolonial struggles, along with issues of poverty, government corruption, racism and imperialism. It is therefore more likely that Black students during that time were politically charged on campus and primed to confront racism within the academy.
  2.  A fellow SU alum whom I deeply respect and admire and whose presentation I agreed with, raised the following issue: Activism is manifested in several ways, not just through direct action, political organizing and protest. She went on to argue that raising children, being creative, and a host of other things also qualified as activism. Agreed. But I need to complicate that point. Activism in personal spheres is important. However creating businesses, educating yourself, and raising families – without challenging the external forces that threaten such activity is not adequate. Had political activists not challenged segregation, job discrimination, and poverty, it is doubtful that we would have much space and freedom in our personal lives. Her point is an important reminder to broaden our thinking around what constitutes activism. It also warns political activists not to be judgmental or dismissive of those less political activists whose activities are important. But the truth is that we live in a society that is still fundamentally racist, sexist and class based. We are free to live our lives as we choose and manifest consciousness in a variety of ways. But someone somewhere must challenge those institutions, laws, and practices that oppress us. In the end, these are the people who make our individual and personal lives more empowered and expansive.

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