Lukewarm on Juneteenth

Colleges and universities are finding ways to commemorate the new national holiday, but Black scholars are skeptical they'll be more than empty gestures.

 
June 21, 2021
 
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Sheryl Heron, professor and vice chair in emergency medicine at Emory University, right, interviews Marion Hood last week at Emory.

Dozens of colleges and universities closed for Juneteenth on Friday, many of them for the first time.

The Texas A&M University system, for instance, shut down Friday on short notice, citing the new federal law making June 19 a national holiday. Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement that Juneteenth is “a special day that originated in Texas and we’re proud to honor it.”

Pima Community College chancellor Lee Lambert made a similar announcement, saying, “We value the opportunity to reflect on the wrongs of the past and press forward with setting things right.” Further, he said, “we pause to recognize and celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans to every aspect of American culture.”

Some colleges have long honored Juneteenth in some way, but 2020 brought a push to make June 19 an official paid holiday. On that day in 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Tex., to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed more than two years earlier.

Several colleges closed last Juneteenth for the first time, citing the recent killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men and women by police. More closed this year, citing new individual state holidays and the federal holiday.

University of Missouri system president Mun Choi shut down all campus operations on Friday, as well, following both the state of Missouri’s and the federal government’s recent moves to officially recognize Juneteenth.

Colleges that closed did so Friday, as Juneteenth fell on a Saturday this year. Some institutions stayed open but asked students, faculty and staff to reflect on the day’s meaning.

“While this liberation happened over 156 years ago, Black Americans continue to feel the effects of systemic racism through criminal laws that disparately impact them, unequal access to education and health care, and attempts to silence their voices and those of their allies,” the Reverend Joseph G. Marina, president of Scranton University, wrote in a campus memo.

Emory University held Juneteenth events last week, including a virtual sit-down with Marion Hood. Emory’s School of Medicine rejected an application from Hood in 1959, returning his $5 fee and telling him, “We are not authorized to consider for admission a member of the Negro race.”

Emory desegregated in 1962, after the Georgia Supreme Court sided with the university in a case challenging a state law against tax-exempt status for integrated institutions. By that time, Hood had already attended medical school at Loyola University in Chicago. He eventually returned to the Atlanta area, where he continues to practice gynecology and obstetrics part-time.

“I was rarely asked a question. Professors and instructors that taught me looked over me,” Hood said of his medical education at the event. “Some looked over me because I was Black. Some looked over me because they didn’t want to embarrass me by me giving the wrong answer. I never got to see the patient first. I always saw the patient after everybody else had seen the patient.”

In the end, he said, “I went into ob-gyn because the professor in ob-gyn asked me questions. So I had to be extra prepared for him. As they used to say, ‘You have to be twice as smart as the next person. You have to be twice as smart, can’t be the same.’”

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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did not close Friday, but the campus’s Carolina Black Caucus group for faculty, staff, students and alumni held a joint celebration Saturday with the local NAACP branch.

Deshana Cabasan-Hunte, a caucus advocacy chair and business services coordinator at Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said that Juneteenth “celebrates a really big moment in history.” What shouldn’t get lost is discussions, she continued, is that Juneteenth “celebrates the end of slavery, but that actually happened two and a half years earlier than when Juneteenth happened. And that’s sort of what history does, right? We have these broad things that happen, but we make incremental, small progress toward change.”

Juneteenth isn’t a lighthearted occasion, given the gravity of what it commemorates. But celebrations at Chapel Hill were this year tempered by a particular incident: the university’s governing board’s ongoing refusal to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and MacArthur fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones. Race is a main factor in this battle, as the white journalists who previously held the faculty chair that Hannah-Jones is set to take were granted tenure easily. And the work for which Hannah-Jones is most known, The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” seeks to recenter the struggles and contributions of Black Americans within U.S. history.

Just last week, the Carolina Black Caucus polled its members at a meeting and found that 70 percent were considering leaving the university due to recent events, and that more than 60 percent are actively looking for a job elsewhere. Three faculty members of color have already announced their departures from the university, saying that the Hannah-Jones case informed their decisions in some way. Lisa Jones, a Black professor who had been in talks to come to Carolina’s chemistry department, also said she could not work there as long as the Hannah-Jones tenure decision stands.

Also last week, Chapel Hill’s new student body president, Lamar Richards, who now sits on the Board of Trustees that deferred Hannah-Jones’s tenure vote, in an open letter encouraged would-be students or employees to look elsewhere. Richards, who is Black, began his letter with an anecdote about his arrival to the board meeting at which he was recently sworn in as a trustee.

“I pulled up to the valet and proceeded to exit my car -- at which point, the valet stopped me and said, ‘Sir, this valet is for members and patrons only. Protestors are standing over there.’ Yes, I was in a full suit and tie,” he wrote. “Yes, I had been elected student body president of our university earlier this year. And, yes, I was just moments away from being sworn in as a university trustee. The valet, however, still asked for my ID before walking inside to confirm that I was, in fact, who I said I was.”

Richards said he paused to watch others leave their cars with the valet, and none were similarly stopped.

“UNC has continually fallen short of meeting the challenge of serving each and every one of its students,” Richards wrote. “Students of color must speak twice as loud just to be heard at the same volume; graduate students, especially those of color, are treated as modern-day servants, barely paid minimum wage; our staff and faculty of color are overworked and underpaid, treated like property.”

Cabasan-Hunte said that the caucus is doing what it can to “bring the community to leadership -- we are willing and wanting to do the work” toward change. At the same time, she said, “We are asking to be met halfway.”

Scholars elsewhere have similarly lukewarm feelings about universities celebrating Juneteenth, as Black faculty members and students continue to be underrepresented and face structural challenges across academe. Spreading bans on teaching critical race theory and structural racism also stand in stark contrast to the new national holiday.

Paul Harris, an incoming associate professor of educational psychology, counseling and special education at the Pennsylvania State University at State College, left the University of Virginia this year after an ultimately successful but draining tenure bid. Many of Harris’s supporters believed that race was a factor in his tenure case, as well, as a collegewide review committee said that his work in the peer-reviewed Journal of African American Males in Education appeared to be “self-published.” UVA denied that anything untoward had happened in Harris’s tenure case but reversed his tenure denial in an unprecedented decision.

Harris said recently that he and his family “took this past year to just really reflect on everything that took place, and our path forward there at UVA and what that would look like, and the toll that it all took on us.” Through this reflection and prayer, he said, “we decided that it would be time to close that chapter and start a new season and a new chapter somewhere else.”

As for why he chose Penn State, Harris said he’s under no illusion that a racial “utopia” exists anywhere. But he said that bold, supportive leadership can make all the difference for Black faculty members and students, and that he likes what Kimberly Lawless, dean of Penn State’s College of Education, is doing.

“She has an incredible vision and strategic plan to curate antiracist culture within the college,” Harris said of Lawless. “And she’s demonstrated activity toward that through hiring and other very tangible support of research, teaching and service. The work that I do situates incredibly well in that framework, and that kind of leadership is very rare.”

Regarding Juneteenth, Harris said that colleges recognizing this day or renaming buildings in honor of prominent Black Americans “is helpful to bring to the forefront of our minds our history and increase dialogue about it. It’s hard to say that that’s a bad thing.” Yet, he said, “it’s also hard to ignore similar gestures, over time, that have been implemented without the substantive change that really that needed to still happen.”

In sum, Harris said, “I hope it’s not performative in the sense that the allyship and the co-conspirator nature of what is really needed is left to the side, while these sorts of gestures are held up as doing something -- and these more substantive gaps and dynamics and structures and processes remain. There’s an exhaustion for me, personally, that comes with that.”

Cellas Hayes, a graduate research assistant in the University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy who recently published an opinion piece in ACS Chemical Neuroscience on the barriers scientists of color face, said he’d rather have a day off to vote than Juneteenth.

“This is a time when people are actively passing voter suppression laws targeted towards minorities, even though they are not going to outright say it,” he said. “So for a lot of the Black community, for the most part it’s very disheartening, this empty effort of making it a holiday. What does that actually do? What has it actually changed?”

More important than symbolism, Hayes said, is institutions compensating scholars of color for all their work on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and making sure that DEI plans include specific goals and targets to which they’ll be held accountable.

“Either you pass or you fail,” he said. “And if you fail, you find out why.”

 

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