Section: Opinion

Michelle Alexander talk must prompt a discussion on Black Studies at Kenyon

“Like… most young people who come up through educational systems in the United States, I didn’t graduate from high school with any deep understanding about black history… And then I go out into the world wanting to be a civil rights lawyer and activist…” 

–Michelle Alexander

Two weeks ago, the College celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Union (BSU) with a remarkable series of events attended by Kenyon students, faculty, alumni, administration, guests and members of our extended community. The four-day reunion provided an opportunity for attendees to reflect on the ways the BSU has impacted their lives at Kenyon and beyond.

A personal highlight for me was Friday night’s main event, “An Evening with Michelle Alexander.” This was not simply because I had the chance to share the stage with a scholar whom I’ve long admired, but also because her words captured a very critical element of the BSU’s formation: the realization that Black life—in its raced, sexed, gendered, localized, nationalized and globalized formations—is dynamic and requires critical attention in all disciplines of study.

I was disappointed to see the low level of attention Professor Alexander received in the Collegian’s Oct. 3, 2019 issue. Alexander is a legal scholar and New York Times columnist. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, generated much of the energy around contemporary criminal justice reform efforts. Her profile is among the highest of speakers that Kenyon has seen in recent years. In front of a packed Rosse auditorium, beautifully filled with the kind of diversity the BSU founders dreamed of, Professor Alexander spoke eloquently about the major social and political issues of our time. She graciously stayed beyond her scheduled time in order to meet and mingle with all who attended the reception that followed.

In spite of the minimal attention given to our conversation, one important point the Collegian did manage to capture was the “multitude of issues” we covered. Though most recognized for The New Jim Crow, Professor Alexander’s writing and expertise reaches far beyond policing and racialized “systems of control.” Our topics included mass detention and deportation, the silence surrounding Palestinian oppression, rape, and the legal and health ramifications of abortion policy. This broad coverage was meant to reinvigorate the spirit of activism carried by the BSU’s founders and use that energy to ground the various activist causes we see on our campus today. I hoped that even those who do not see themselves as activists—perhaps people who want to create and shape policy—could become aware of how these topics came together to guide a great American scholar who has influenced policy.

On stage, I very deliberately opened up our conversation with a question about Black Studies. The creation of a Black Studies program was one of the original demands of the BSU in 1969. It was also a growing expression of Black Power, manifested on college campuses throughout the country during that era. I suspected that Professor Alexander had been greatly influenced by Black Studies, which she confirmed in her response when she noted that “the kind of literature and research that Black Studies has made possible has completely informed my own work.” Without this foundation, she could not make sense of the data surrounding mass incarceration, and she would certainly have lacked the historical context necessary to connect this system to Jim Crow and slavery here in the U.S. and to issues of national security and foreign affairs.

By glossing over the details in our conversation, the Collegian missed a very important point. Black Studies (or, as we call it here at Kenyon, African Diaspora Studies) is an essential area of study with the power to create the kind of critical foundations necessary to address the social, political and economic issues we face today. Kenyon has a very fine African Diaspora Studies program: It offers courses in all four academic divisions and in other interdisciplinary programs, illustrating the aforementioned dynamism of black life.

Students who dream of shifting political discourse and influencing public policy can follow in Professor Alexander’s footsteps and explore the robust offerings of African Diaspora Studies here at Kenyon. I cannot think of a better time to stress this point as we mark the 50th anniversary of the BSU and as students prepare to select courses for next semester.

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