In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.
Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.
Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.
Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.
Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.
In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.
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