A Letter To My Students

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Agya Boakye-Boaten, Ph. D., Director of Africana & Interdisciplinary/International Studies, University of North Carolina Asheville

 

My Dear Beloved Students,

I speak with a voice you may or may not be familiar with. I was born during the height of military dictatorship in my birth country, so I understand political uncertainty and apprehensions. Equally important, I speak from the perspective of my “truth”, having acknowledged there are multiple “truths”.

Additionally, I have had the humbling opportunity to live in two worlds. A world that regarded my worth because of my education, and my social, political and cultural capitals. A world that accorded me with privilege, because of my status as a royal.

However, I also live in a world where people judge me first by the color of my skin, my accent, and by the way I dress. I am only given the benefit of doubt when I unleash my academic credentials and when my line of work is revealed. Even then, I’m considered to be one of the lucky few who made it out of the African conundrums by the sheer benevolence of this world. So from these spaces, I speak.

The election on November. 9, 2016 was indeed historic. The first female nominee of a major political party, Hillary Clinton, was on the cusp of being elected the president of the United States. Equally fascinating, was the potential election of Donald Trump, a billionaire and reality TV star with no experience in politics, and had never held a political office before this epic election.

The prospect of electing the first female president of the United States on the heels of the first African American president, President Barack Obama, was not only a novel idea for some, but for others a critical change long overdue. Since the birth of this nation, there have been 44 male presidents, of which, one was African American. Finally, a glass ceiling was to be shattered, and the end of history was on the horizon, within reach, culminating in the realization of full women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony’s dream was coming to fruition. Additionally, young girls across the nation could now imagine themselves in the oval office responding to calls of Madam president.

But the most important price of all was the recognition and celebration of a changing nation, a nation, where the mantra of “you can be whatever you want to be” was close to being achieved, perhaps at par with our relentless pursuit of our founding principle, “All men are created equal”.

The euphoria surrounding the election of President Barack Obama was settling into the normal consciousness of a nation, which was birthed on the superiority of one race, and the inferiority of others, a nation, that preferred and treated people differently based on their gender, sexual orientation, and who or how they worshiped. A nation that was trying to correct its tumultuous historical past. A history built on racial and sexual violence, and an intolerant citizenry that had imbibed an illusion of race that characterized the other as a subpar human or not worthy of equal citizenship rights. The ideology of racial hatred was on its last ethos.

The winds of change filled the air on January 20, 2008, when Barack Obama mounted the podium and swore the oath to serve and protect all citizens of the United States as the president. The words of Dr. King were finally manifesting, the nation was now judging a man based on the content of his character, and not by the color of his skin or the kind of hair or the color of his eyes. Many nations around the world erupted in high excitement; the United States will be fostering a new deal with the rest of the world, one that was based on mutual respect, and the fundamental belief that there was potential good in everyone.

Then something cataclysmic happened, at least judging from your reaction to the results of the election of Mr. Trump as the president elect of the United States of America. I remember walking across campus, the mood was somber. It felt like the mourning of the death of our beloved village elder. Difficult to describe, but I could sense it. But what happened on November 9, 2016, was the result of an undercurrent that has been simmering since President Obama’s first day in the Oval office. At the time that the nation was celebrating the election of our first Black president, some segments of our citizens had not fully comprehended the enormity of the changes that had been unleashed in our society.

You see, for the past 8 years, we have pretended as if race, class and gender were no longer a societal problem. We had deluded ourselves into thinking that progress had been made in several fronts. The White House’s occupants were a Black family, the very descendants of an enslaved people who were instrumental in building this imposing and iconic edifice, the official seat of a free society, a society though free, yet thrived on the peculiar institution of slavery of Africans.

There were other seismic alterations in our social arrangements. I will mention a few. The House of Representatives had the first female speaker, the Supreme Court had three female justices, women could now serve in combat roles in the armed forces, Obamacare, “socialized medicine” was born. And then the mother of all, the legalization of same sex marriages. What? This was not the vision of the founding fathers. Along these dramatic changes, were some visceral counter forces. Some of these forces although did not prevail, many were driven underground, and contained by the forces that were enjoying the changing tides, while completely disregarding the building resentment. Don’t get me wrong, although these counter forces may not have prevailed, their displeasure was sometimes registered in a resounding fashion. Remember the 2010 midterm and the 2014 presidential elections.

The concerns and fears of many Americans, especially many White Americans were addressed at an intellectually superficial level. The winners of these changes were beginning to frame an argument, and forge a society that was very alienating to many, and also restricted the avenues where disenfranchised White Americans could expressing their resentments. They were dismissed and sometimes vilified for standing up to their ideals of a society built on racial exclusivity and masculine superiority. We had turned the tables and created the other, a phenomenon they well understood, because they created them, but now they were at the receiving end. They were now experiencing what our Native American friends have been experiencing since the arrival of the Mayflower, aliens in their own land. We blamed them and globalization for the outsourcing of their jobs.

Many had grown up in an era where they were guaranteed a well paying job after completing high school, debt free, a low interest mortgage, and communities that adhered to strict moral and religious codes. “Progress” was altering the serenity of this tranquil society. Elements foreign and domestic were ruining these carefully crafted social arrangements. Now one needs more than a high school diploma, at a cost, and yet no guarantee of a decent job. But when you were lucky to find one, the starting salary could not compare with what grandpa was making at the steel mill or the furniture factory twenty years ago. The cherry on top of all this, now they have to go to the grocery store with all these “immoral people” who the supreme court, that same court which legalized Jim Crow, and vehemently protected “White Supremacy”, was now legalizing and forcing same sex marriage and Obamacare on them. “This is a travesty!”, my son would say.

White America was becoming heartbroken. And yet, at every juncture, we were more concerned with Twitter, Emojis and the next New York bestseller. We had become self absorbed, and numb to the distress calls of our neighbors, the people who cash us out and bag our groceries, the janitor who cleans our offices, the security guard who has been protecting our children, and the mechanic who fixes our cars without question. We walk pass them everyday in a Walmart or sit across from them and their family in IHOP with little acknowledgement of their humanity and their masked pain and apprehension.

Aiding and abetting in this sacrilegious was the media establishment, which talked about them, and not to them. We described them through our myopic, and arrogant worldview, where the world was calibrated in complexities, and high language, and projected as sounds with irregular frequency.

So November 9, 2016 may have come as a surprise to us but who is to blame? The writing was on the wall, only we were too arrogant to acknowledge. Well, conservative White America did not evaporate; conservative White America was in hibernation, waiting for the opportunity to strike back, and they did, and it was sweet revenge on all these years of disregard and humiliation. They don’t believe that Mr. Trump will build a wall, deport 11 million illegal residents, or ban Muslims from coming to the United States. But at least they have found a president who they think understands their apprehension, and speak to their fears. Someone who respected them, and will restore their diminished White pride. They can now go to Washington DC and believe that they’re home.

They reminded us that America is still White, and race still matters. They reaffirmed their masculine superiority by defeating the first woman presidential nominee of a major political party. History is not important to them, not even the fact that many countries around the world have elected a female president, the bastion of democracy and equal rights for all still grapples with a woman in charge. The saddest part of this saga is the complicity of the media. They lampooned the president elect as a buffoon and characterized his followers as unintelligent racists and sexists. The media even disregarded them in their polling. The media failed to capture their silence, and misread it uninterested.

We had created an utopian post-racial, and gender-neutral society. The normal, White supremacy had been relegated to realms of abnormality. This new illusion had blinded our consciousness and ignited an intellectual dogma, which complicated simple issues and simplified complicated ones. The final stage was set for a revolt, which manifested on Nov 9, 2016, with half of the nation in jubilation and the other half in mourning, completed flabbergasted at their inability to correctly read the pulse of Whiteness and its ability to mutate.

But my White friends, this is not the last of the world. This is what I need you to help me do. It’s called the 3Rs; Re-educate, Re-engage, Re-organize.

First, re-educate. Our high education is meaningless, unless, we are adequately equipped to intellectually understand Whiteness, especially when it goes underground or in hibernation. Our education is meaningless unless we re-educate ourselves to be compassionate especially to people who do not think like us, believe in our values, and more especially those who exist in a different moral and class plane than we are on. A well-educated person is an intellectually compassionate person. Education manifests both mentally and spiritually. These should be complementary. We need to re-educate, so that our knowledge and the power that comes with it becomes a humbling act.

Many have asked me what to do to help? And my first answer has always been, re-educate yourself. You’ve done enough schooling it’s time to be educated. Carter G. Woodson talked about the “Miseducation of the Negro”, I hereby proclaim the Miseducation of the American. We have been overschooled and grossly undereducated. So I entreat you to start your re-education journey by specifically educating yourselves on the Doctrine of Discovery. Re-educate ourselves on the genesis of this nation, and that will spark a genuine quest to understanding Whiteness and its pervasiveness and all its manifestations. To not know is bliss, but to know is power, and power frames humility, and humility leads to understanding and understanding make us appreciate each other.

But beware, re-education is disruptive and could be uncomfortable. The discovery of pluriversalism counter universalism, and its decentering is somewhat confusing. You’ll now be entering spaces that have been the realities of many who exist outside the parameters of your intellectual consciousness. Your truths will be converted to the cycles of many “truths”, and that my friends, will be challenging, but very empowering. If anyone tries to convince you that education is about affirmations of the truth, they’re selling you bad medicine, or the check you’ll be trying to cash will come back as insufficient funds. Demand to know all the stories, no matter how painful. Because it’s out of this pain that real intellectual growth will occur.

Second, Re-engage. Our engagement has been superficial and sometimes self-serving. Education may have given us some superior skill, but not a monopoly on intellect and knowledge. In fact, our vulnerabilities are now too visible. We need a re-engagement strategy that accounts for all the entrenched human sensibilities and variations. Our engagement should be guided by mutual respect, and genuine desire to dialogue, especially on issues that seem to divide and not that simply affirm your whim. Additionally, any re-engagement strategy should include some sacrifices on our part, in fact substantial sacrifices. Our money, time and good intentions are not enough.

Our re-engagement should be compassionate, respectful and inclusive, not only to those we agreed with, but more so, those we disagree with. We need to descend from our high horses of moral and intellectual consciousness, to the levels where others exist. We should not only engage when a power plant is proposed to be built miles from our school, or when our beloved tree is to be cut to pave the way to increase needs of modern comforts. I know most of us love animals, but if we care more about the animals than the 29,000 children around the world who die everyday from preventable diseases, then tell me who is the problem.

Look my friends, engaging only in our bubble blindsides us and makes us highly unprepared. What outcomes do we expect when we engage only in a single agenda in a world with many shades of color? Re-engage, this time with a sense of interconnectedness of the world and issues. We should particularly re-engage with those who disagree with us and do not share our values. That is how our engagement becomes meaningful and impactful.

Third, Re-organize. Our organizing skills have been inadequate. Our organization lacks a philosophical base. We organize without a strategic framework. We want changes, but pause a minute to reflect on what that means. Remember, everyone want changes. Some want changes to revert to what it used to be, and other want changes to what they think needs to be. I know you think we know what the outcomes should be. But have we thought strategically through how those outcomes may be impossible with the current structural framework?

I remember when we were excited about the 99 percenters’ movement. What happened to that movement? There are more poor people in this country than rich people, so why haven’t there been any serious conversation and movement to organize and change the matrix of wealth distribution in this country? Why do men still earn more than women in this country? Why are we preserving an anachronistic political system like the Electoral College? Well the answers may be more complicated than the questions, but that is precisely my point, we organize without understanding.

Our miseducation encourages shallowness. We organize without a guiding philosophy because we’re educated on false hopes and empty promises. Our organization is not sustainable because your lives do not necessarily depend on these changes. You have food, you have clothing and you have shelter, what else do you need? Your power doesn’t go out, and you can still get some medical attention even if you don’t have money. You were never promised long term medical care, but the system at least attends to you first before they ask you to pay. So what do you want? My point is whatever informs your calling should be about improving the conditions of all, including those you disagree with and those who do not share your values. Your re-organization should be informed by re-educating and re-engaging.

November 9, 2016 ended our illusion of a post racial society, and ushered us into a new phase of struggle. A struggle that many of have known all their lives. We were awakened from our utopian slumber. Some may be hurt, and others rejoicing, but remember, wherever the chip fell, no condition is permanent. If we can go to the moon, so we strive to deconstruct racism, sexism, classism, misogyny, and all systems that leave trails of tears and hurt in its wake. The only regret should be that we let your guard down, but I have every faith in our resilience and adaptability skills. I will continue to lend my support, and we should all do same. Finally, please pardon me if I was not sensitive to your pain. Welcome to the world!

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  1. Darryl Cannady says:

    Awesome truth professor. .

  2. Mandi Maodzwa says:

    Enjoyed reading this reflective and hope inspiring piece.The tendency towards seismic shifts faces the force of the rummbling undercurrents which on 9 November surfaced like a destructive wave. What this did was to shine the light on the retrogressive forces not just in the USA. The backlash is global. So we wake up from our slumber, our illusions and realise the struggle is real and it must continue!

  3. Mandi Maodzwa says:

    Enjoyed reading this reflective and hope inspiring piece.The tendency towards seismic shifts is that they face the counterforce of the rummbling undercurrents which on 9 November surfaced with the surprise appearence of a destructive wave. What this did was to shine the spotlight on the retrogressive forces not just in the USA, but globally. The backlash is universal. So then, we woke up from our slumber, our illusions and realise the struggle of our forbears is just as real today. Indeed the struggle continues. Aluta continua. I don’t know if victory is certain.