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The Carletonian

An open letter to President Byerly: Save Africana Studies at Carleton

Author’s note: Around a month ago, I sent President Byerly this email, to which she has since replied. My concern is a perennial one: since well before my time at Carleton and through the past two years since my graduation, the college has engaged in an often antagonistic relationship with its ethnic studies and area studies programs, most of which remain small, underfunded and bureaucratically remote.

In particular, the tireless work and years of activism brought to expand Africana Studies offerings are now under grave threat. Many students have no doubt heard of disappearing professors, canceled classes and hushed meetings—more than I can say as an alumnus—but, indeed, as a member of that often apathetic group, I’d like to make it known that many of us, a sort of inverted silent majority, remain sick of administrative decisions, though we are now powerless to protest them but in withholding donations.

I hope that this letter reminds my fellow alumni and current students alike that it is never too late to rake the muck. To protect privacy and avoid pettiness, I will not reprint the President’s reply, but suffice it to say, I found her words unsatisfactory.

Dear President Byerly:

As a recent graduate of Carleton and a white person living in the United States, I feel it is incumbent on me to share my thoughts on the recent policy changes toward the Africana Studies department. As you are no doubt aware, Africana Studies has had a troubled and narrow history at Carleton. It took many years of student activism for the program to become anything more than that. I have had the good fortune to take classes with Professors Willis, Burden-Stelly, Owusu and many others affiliated with the field, each of whom has greatly influenced the trajectory of my time at Carleton and beyond. Professor Owusu in particular advised me well for three productive years.

But I am not writing about specific professors alone. You are—and I know I speak for many Carleton students, alumni, staff, faculty, parents, and, critically for your purposes, donors, when I say this—making a grave error in gutting this central department. Toni Morrison was surely correct when she said in Playing in the Dark that we cannot understand American history without understanding the specters of white and black. Only through serious inquiry can we begin to understand our role in that.

For a college that prides itself on the liberal arts and regularly sends me tedious messages about “antiracist training,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion programs” and other buzzwords, two years post-graduation, it galls me that the college’s new tack could so flippantly disregard such a wide and diverse array of fields so central to its mission. How can a college begin to call itself antiracist, or even aspirationally so, without a department that even makes lip service to that end?

The fact is that even in my time at Carleton—dare I say the only time Africana Studies stood a chance of survival in many decades—it was only the shell of a department. Three hundred million people live in what we so arrogantly call “America”; five times that of those on the African continent, to say nothing of its diaspora and the outsized effect they have had on the world. Perhaps you are unaware of this; perhaps, in studying Victorian literature, like a swollen portion of my own department, you have neglected the fact. Did you know many new historicists now believe Heathcliff Linton was the child of Africans enslaved in nearby Liverpool? Do you think many students in classes on the Brontës ever learn that? How would that change our view of the canon?

It is critical work, I assure you, and work that we must integrate into the broader liberal arts. I know it may be fairer to call Carleton, like so many of its over-endowed peers, a STEM college, one that shunts students into professional and corporate careers where they may, now and then, turn to a popular academic to remind themselves of their better years. But, as long as we may study, we ought to pay attention where we can. Carleton has invested heavily in the digital humanities as of late, it has rebuilt a science complex and installed geothermal wells. If the future of this college, as its administrators see it, requires such immense overhauls of its infrastructure, surely it can make room for Black people as well.

You have said that Black students are only twelve percent of the college’s campus, implying that might justify gutting the already meager program. But how many Russian students do we have, how many Greek and Hebrew speakers, how many “medievalists”? Surely we can make room for one more arch-field, surely it merits at least as much attention as computer science, or medieval Christianity, or early modern English literature, or linguistic syntax, all of which Carleton has rightfully permitted multiple minds to study on campus (and there are far more Black people than Greeks in the world, I assure you).

That Carleton may “only” have twelve percent of its campus be Black is not a measure of necessity so much as an indictment of an environment that, time and again, has proved itself racist. If you wish, prove me wrong. Prove us all wrong. Anyone I know could point to dozens of counterexamples. If you care about Black students, admit them, but do not only admit them—accept them, welcome them, support them and care for them. Give them their heritage to study as white students have been entitled to have at Carleton for fifteen decades.

But I would be loath to suggest that Africana Studies serves only Black students. I am immeasurably richer for having studied the field. Any white students—dare I say any students—would be as well. If the department serves only a small subsection of the campus, why is that? Why is it unwelcoming? If we taught only one course on the European middle ages would it be well attended?

Public policy advocates call this trend the death spiral. To reap returns you must invest. What you invest in will shape not only the future of current students, but generations to come who will live with the fallout of our troubled present. This is Carleton’s legacy to its children. It is your legacy. Guard it well; it has not been sealed yet.

We are all waiting.

Jacob Isaacs ’20


English Major

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    Paul Czyzewski '76 or soApr 19, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    It’s completely understandable that so many people would declare computer science but I’m curious about how many non-STEM courses those CS majors end up taking. Also, what percentage of a CS major’s class load consists of required CS and math courses, and how much is left for, say, humanities courses?

    PS, thanks for this publication.

    [English major who has worked at computer companies for the last 40 years after attending Control Data Institute (ancestor of a boot camp).]