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Setting the Context: Part 4

February 5, 2014


It has been a year since the University of Pennsylvania’s director of Makuu: Black Cultural Center, Brian Peterson, posed the following 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 their marks?”

Today, these are questions we are facing once again. And I do not hesitate to echo Dr. Peterson and ponder– when our nation and our campus are still very much afraid to indulge in dialogue about racial mistreatment and misrepresentation–the ways in which we are collectively and individually working to get more done now.

But what does “more” mean and what does it look like? In order to answer this question, I think it’s imperative to take a step back and briefly recall some facts about the numerical history of our University :

2014 marks the 133rd year anniversary of the graduation of Penn’s first black student (James Brister, D.D.S., 1881). This historical landmark occurred 141 years after Penn’s founding. Fast-forward to Penn admissions of black students (and keep in mind that the University’s use of the term “black” is quite loose) in 2013, and black students constitute a total of 7.1% of the undergraduate pool on campus.

7.1% out of an undergraduate class of 10, 319 students.

7.1% meaning 732 (University defined) black students can claim Penn as their home.

Let this number float in your mind. And while it’s floating, let’s put it beside another: 665, 471. This was the 2013 census count which reported the total number of black residents living in Philadelphia.

And still, the question permeates: What does it mean to be Black in this space and time–especially when 133 years after Brister’s graduation, both access and opportunity fall far from definitions of equality for all? Moreover, how do these numbers reflect what Africana Professor Camille Charles described as the “cosmetic–[and] not substantive–progress” of Penn’s self-aggrandizing efforts toward diversity?

This post does not scratch the surface regarding the many historical achievements and failings of our University when it comes to the recorded legacies of black students, activism, and excellence. What I hope to shed light on, however, are the ways in which even this small bit of quantitative data illuminates the plight of many Black students on this campus. Not only have we been faced with the gnawing question of how we arrived at this place, in this time, but our journeys on this campus culminate with an interminable question of what we will do to progress while we are here.

The Reflections blog is one of many ways we, the Black students on Penn’s campus, continue to equip ourselves with the histories of those who came and fought before us. What we hope to build is more than a pastiche of numbers, facts, and figures which are only given significance during the month in which they are presented. Rather, it is a staircase that we build in celebration of the past and the present, one way for us to begin a dialogue that will ignite the work we have been called to do in this space right now.

Victoria Ford CAS’15

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