A Letter from the Department Chair: Taking Action Against White Supremacy

Dear ACS community (colleagues, students, alumni, and friends),

Child chalking a driveway with protest slogansLast week I wrote to share my sorrow at the murder of George Floyd and described the impact of white supremacy and police brutality on my own family.

Since then, witnessing local and global protests has rekindled some hope and a renewed energy for the work ahead of us. More people are waking up to the need for change. Floyd’s murder has renewed calls for justice in our community and beyond. I have been learning from the African literary community, Black academics tweeting about their experiences of racism in academia, Africans drawing attention to their countries’ histories of police brutality, and one-on-one (virtual) conversations with my colleagues and graduate students. Many of the organizations with which ACS members are involved have issued statements condemning Floyd’s murder, including the African Studies Association and the African Literature Association.

We need action more than we need another statement. For more than fifty years, our department has been engaged in educating about the histories, cultures, languages, and arts of Africa, Africans, and people of African descent. Our many faculty and graduate students who are from Africa or of African descent make us one of the most diverse departments on campus, but this also means that many members of our department are directly impacted by anti-blackness. We must continue, and strengthen, our efforts to make the department and the wider university a truly welcoming place for everyone in our community and to change policies that hamper these efforts. We must fight white supremacy and colonialism in all their forms.

I write today to share some concrete actions my colleagues and I will take to address these issues in our teaching and research over the coming year.

  • Later this month, Professor Reginold Royston will moderate a departmental forum, primarily for our graduate students, to discuss recent events and possible actions we can take in response.
  • In my Islam in African and the Diaspora course in Spring 2021, I will draw on the collective Black Islam Syllabus curated by Dr. Kayla Renee Wheeler to develop a unit on Muslim anti-blackness, intersections of racism and Islamophobia, and recent anti-racist efforts among American Muslims. I am rethinking my current book project, which examines the role of language in nonconformist Muslims’ creation of inclusive communities, to include discussion of how these communities are reflecting on their own anti-blackness and engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement. I am also volunteering with the planning committee of the Teaching Academy’s Fall retreat on the theme of “Inclusivity and Race,” and have invited students and colleagues to join me.
  • Professor Vlad Dima is teaching a course on soccer in Africa in Fall, and he intends to include conversations about protesting and kneeling before (and during) games all over the world.
  • Professor Damon Sajnani will use his First-Year Interest Group (FIG) seminar to explore how Senegalese youth use HipHop not only to fight for social justice and democracy but also to a diasporic African sensibility that transcends borders. His graduate seminar will examine the origins and politics of the African diaspora in relation to race, colonialism, and modernity.
  • Professor Luis Madureira will be on sabbatical in 2020-21, but he shared with me how he has included materials related to the contemporary struggle for racial justice in the U.S. in his past classes. He wrote, “As a matter of pedagogic practice, my reflex is to draw relevant comparisons between the apparently ‘remote’ contexts of our class readings and the present-day U.S., especially when it comes to issues of colonialism and race.” While on sabbatical, Luis plans to “continue to listen and learn, and, above all, seek to take concrete action to address systemic racism both in the university, the Madison community and beyond.”
  • In Professor Matthew Brown’s upcoming undergraduate course on “Poverty Porn,” he will include representations of state violence against the poor and marginalized—including Black people the world over—as well as representations of poor and marginalized people counteracting political, economic, and social violence. While most of the course focuses on Africa, it will also address the African diaspora, including people in Wisconsin and Madison. In Matt’s graduate course on “Reading and Writing African Cultural Studies,” students will learn not just to write for academic audiences and platforms, but also at communicating ideas through different modalities, including online platforms, lecturing, and media production. They’ll also examine how academics can amplify the messages of activists without co-opting them.
  • This past Spring, Professor Nevine El Nossery taught a graduate seminar entitled “Decolonial Narratives of Africa,” in which her students examined various African cultural productions that offer new geographies of liberation that can “decolonize minds.” The seminar concluded, Nevine wrote, “by proposing notions such as ‘pluri-versality,’ which encompasses many worlds, as opposed to universality, where only one world is at the center of knowledge production.”  “‘Decolonization of the mind’ requires telling many stories from many different perspectives: even if those worlds do not yet exist,” her students learned. Nevine shared that the next time she offers the course she will incorporate “this current phase of the worldwide pursuit of social liberation against inequality, discrimination, exploitation, and domination.”
  • In her Fall sociocultural linguistics course, Dr. Adeola Agoke plans to include readings on language and racism to help students understand how we perpetuate and/or respond to racism through language use. Chimamanda Adichie’s reading of Ifemelu’s blog on race and racism in America and Ewing’s “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side” are some works she plans to explore with her students.
  • Under Adeola’s supervision and training of our teaching assistants, our language classes will be introduced to vocabulary relating to race and racism in the target language through diverse activities and class discussions. Depending on students’ proficiency levels, we will encourage our language instructors to explore resources that emerge from the ongoing protests. For example, students in intermediate or advanced Swahili courses might read this Swahili article about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have followed, while Yoruba learners might watch a Yoruba-language video about systemic racism and discuss how to work against racism in their own communities.
  • At Nevine’s suggestion, I hope to work with our Events Committee to bring in a speaker who can address connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to decolonize African Studies. While we may not be able to get together on campus because of COVID-19, social distancing gives us an opportunity to host a virtual presentation that can be recorded and shared with those in our wider community. If you know someone who would be a thought-provoking speaker on these issues, please share your ideas.

Individual department members are also donating time and money to various organizations and actions.

  • My 8-year-old son and I attended the Been Hard To Breathe- March For Maternal Justice last weekend, and later today we’ll be heading downtown to attend Pride for Black Lives. My spouse and I have been donating to the ACLU, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, and, locally, Freedom Inc.
  • Luis continues to donate to the local branch of the NAACP as well as its Legal Defense Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Bail Project.
  • Reginold participated in #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia for Black Lives on 9 June and used the auto-reply feature of his email to educate others about these strikes.
  • Matt shared with me that his training in African Studies has made him skeptical of NGOs in general, but that he is learning to be more supportive of and involved in organizations that help clarify and move crucial policy proposals forward. He has recently been donating to and volunteering for the Movement for Black Lives and The Grassroots Law Project at the national level and Freedom Inc. at the local level.

We are also continuing to learn.

  • I’ve been working my way through Justice in June, a list of learning resources for each day. My kids and I watched and discussed the CNN/Sesame Street Townhall on standing up to racism.
  • As she prepares for the revamped version of the course described above, Nevine said her readings for the summer include James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race, Deborah Grays White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, and Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, among many others.
  • Vlad and Nevine both recommended Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Because of Vlad’s current research, he told me he finds Frantz Fanon’s classic book Black Skin, White Masks “soothing.” He also recommended Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics (2019).
  • Adeola shared her efforts to understand how to best communicate the subject of racism to kids. She purchased some books from this antiracism resources guide, and her daughter is currently enjoying The New Kid.
  • Matt shared that he finds many of the recently-circulated curricula focused on anti-racist solidarity very inspiring, but also familiar. “As I learn new things from some of them,” he wrote, “I am also focusing a lot lately on the racist history of African Studies, particularly in the United States. I am reading and re-reading important essays—which in some cases are more than twenty years old, yet not discussed widely enough—by scholars like Oyekan Owomoyela and Deborah Amory that I may also choose to discuss in upcoming graduate courses.”

I know that individual actions are not enough. When we are back at work in the Fall, I am sure that we will develop additional—perhaps more radical—actions to collectively sustain our efforts to eradicate systemic racism. I look forward to doing this important work with you.

In solidarity,