At SUNY New Paltz this semester, students and teachers are back on campus for the first time since the coronavirus shut down schools across the country in March of last year. The return coincides with the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the campus library in honor of Sojourner Truth, the civil rights leader born in Ulster County. The university had planned to commemorate both occasions by unveiling a new, six-foot-tall cast-bronze memorial to Truth in front of the library this September, after previously delaying the ceremony due to the shutdown. But the monument to the famed abolitionist is sitting out of sight, indefinitely.
What should have been a celebratory moment has been complicated by accusations of erasure and racism that began in the Black Studies department and have rippled across campus. In a statement emailed to all faculty and staff on September 14, the Black Studies department called for the statue unveiling to be postponed, writing that it had been excluded from the decision-making process.
“We believe the effort is blatantly rooted in racism, irrespective of its intention,” the statement reads. “Where racism is in part the implicit and/or explicit denial and/or erasure of one’s humanity, and the capacity to express that humanity on their own terms, this situation is expressive of the substantive and systemic way that racism as power functions in the intersections of economic, political and educational spaces.”
Black Studies was soon joined in solidarity by letters of support from other departments, including the Sojourner Truth Library. Two days later, Office of Development & Alumni Relations Vice President Erica Marks—who had overseen the statue’s accession—issued a formal apology and decision to delay its installation. In the statement, Marks admitted that while she had done the “minimum required amount of due diligence” by seeking feedback from the Arts & Aesthetics Committee, cabinet, and the library dean, she had failed to involve anyone from the Black Studies department or any other faculty or staff of African descent.
The behind-the-scenes protests at SUNY New Paltz are playing out against a backdrop of racial reckonings in the workplace, on college campuses, and in other institutions of power in American society. The university had previously dealt with the thorny issues around inclusivity, history, and memorialization as recently as March 2019, when the college board of trustees voted to rename six university buildings that had been named after enslavers. That process followed months of protests, community dialogues, and informal debate.
This time around, a similarly inclusive conversation seemingly was not had.
“The absence of any significant attempt to include marginalized Black folk and the Black Studies department in the decision-making process is an expression of how many institutions are inadequately participating in this ongoing process of becoming antiracist,” says visiting lecturer Anthony S. Dandridge.
Adds Black Studies interim chair Weldon McWilliams IV: “To hear the perspectives of not just the administration, but the Black Studies department, or even the Women’s Studies department, could have raised points that perhaps the administration would not have seen or would not have thought about.”
“Under supported, underfunded, and undervalued”
Sojourner Truth was born in New York in an area then known as Swartekill (now the hamlet of Rifton), circa 1797, and lived in bondage for the next three decades. The memorial at the center of the controversy depicts Truth as she is rarely seen in statuary: a young woman, newly self-emancipated. Truth was a renowned abolitionist, fervent women’s rights advocate, and accomplished public speaker. So it would seem like a natural fit to honor her in front of the campus library that bears her name, at the university with the second-oldest Black Studies department in the United States.
Sojourner Truth: First Step to Freedom, 1826 was designed by local artist Trina Greene, who also created a monument in Port Ewen in 2013 that depicts Truth as a young girl in bondage. Greene approached the university with the idea and offered to build the artwork at no cost, asking only that the school raise the funds to cover materials and installation. After seeing the design, Marks and university President Donald Christian excitedly green-lit the project.
“My blinders went on, and I moved forward with gusto and energy, thinking that everyone would be similarly delighted,” Marks wrote in her apology letter. “Did I ask the Black Studies Department or other colleagues of color on campus? No.”
Dandridge says that this type of oversight isn’t exclusive to SUNY New Paltz, but is a “stubborn norm” of life as a person of color. “This kind of non-participatory erasure is nothing less than those kinds of inadequate measures that overwhelmingly maintain colonizing systems of oppression,” he says.
To the Black Studies department, it also felt like the latest in a long line of slights. “Consistently, disproportionately, and unreasonably, our department, not unlike Black people, has been under supported, underfunded, and undervalued,” the department’s September 14 statement reads.
According to Assistant Professor Blair M. Proctor, examples of this type of systemic devaluing of Black Studies faculty starts with where they’re put on campus: in temporary structures. “Though we have a room within the trailer that includes books, media, and research-related materials, that does not consist of an adequate library,” he says. Proctor contrasts that with the setup at Syracuse University’s African American Studies department, where he used to lecture. “There, we were housed in a permanent building, and had our own library.”
Second, there are more adjunct faculty than full-time, which Proctor says limits the department’s ability to grow and which has forced tenure-track junior faculty members to take on duties and tasks usually managed by senior faculty. That creates a “sink or swim” experience within the department, he says. “This department would not be able to stay afloat if it were not for the dedication, hard work, and support from our adjunct professors who are dedicated to educating and serving our Black Studies majors, minors, and students’ concentration in Black Studies.”
Consequently, Black Studies stated that its faculty would not attend the official unveiling unless SUNY leadership postponed the event until a ceremony “that is more inclusive of the Black Studies Department and other departments who may want to play a role” could be planned. The department also requested a 15-member commission to “study the anti-Black racist epistemic colonialism on student development,” faculty training, and that the university make some Black Studies courses mandatory.
While the unveiling is on hold per Black Studies’ request, university leadership believes it is up to the department itself and faculty governance to address how race is taught in the SUNY curriculum.
“The President and Provost have been clear that they respect that faculty have primary purview over the curriculum and, as supportive as they are of the goals of curricular revision, it would not be appropriate for the administration to mandate courses in Black Studies or any other discipline,” says college spokesperson Chrissie Williams.
But passing the responsibility for centering Black Studies as a discipline back onto Black faculty just perpetuates the same cycle that led to the protests in the first place. “Living in a world where marginalized Black folk have to demand inclusion and justify its value where the evidence about its impact is readily available is at best tiring and dehumanizing,” Dandridge says. “Yet the realities of racism compel us to be aware of how the evidence is rarely enough, in a world where power intersects with privilege and irrationality.”