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Setting the Context: Part 3

February 3, 2013

As the director of a Black Cultural Center on an Ivy League campus, I often reflect on the questions, “what does it mean to be Black in this space and time” and “what can and should our center do to best serve the interests of our students, the university, the city, and the broader world in which our future graduates will leave the marks.”  In 2013 these are not simple questions. But one thing is certain: there is still work to be done.

This past week senior faculty of our schools’s Department of Africana Studies released an op-ed in the campus daily calling to question the university’s failure to appoint a dean of color under the current campus president’s tenure – a president who has publicly made diversity a top priority. Yes, it was just this past summer – with the president’s support – that Africana Studies finally received departmental status. And yes the most recent incoming class had the highest number of Black students ever. So some may ask, “when is enough enough… when will you (people) be satisfied?”

There’s a certain kind of audacity behind such responses (particularly when the word “people” is inserted). In a nation that often avoids critical substantive conversations about race, this is easy to miss. But perhaps some better questions might be, “why did the faculty have to take this stance and craft this letter? Why did they have to put themselves out there yet again – as they have to do on some many levels, in so many ways as faculty of color? How might the university have been underdeveloping itself and missing important opportunities by not having more voices of color in the top administrative positions all of these years?”

Of course, when and if an appointment of color is ever made, there will still be questions and challenges. As one of the op-ed’s authors, Tukufu Zuberi, told me in an interview a few years ago, “Putting Black faces in places may not be enough to transform the space.” He went on to talk about the research of W.E.B. Du Bois while at Penn, and Du Bois’s underlying mission to demonstrate the humanity of African Americans at a time when it was very much called to question. Zuberi called this a “transformation of consciousness” and said that this work must still continue today, both for the minds of Blacks and others in the Penn and global communities, to counter the numerous effects of racism’s continued presence. We must be courageous enough to honestly look back to look forward, ask new questions, and define the future that we want to see for all of us.

This consciousness transforming lives at the center of our course on the history of Black women and men at the university. We hope that our students feel empowered through the stories that they research and share, and understand their abilities and responsibilities to be agents of change. We ask that others throughout the university – from future school deans and high-level administrators, to future Africana faculty in the expanding department, to our partners on campus and in the community, to our students (past, present, and future) – share in this willingness to transform this space, and use that as a platform to transform the other global spaces with which we are connected. We know that there is a transformative power in the human story of Africans throughout the diaspora. We believe that we are all better served when that story is shared, in the community, in the classroom, and within our halls of leadership.

Yes, there is work to be done. Let’s get busy.

Brian Peterson

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