Thoughts on the Aftermath of Recent Events
I have been president of Kenyon for seven years now, and I have lost count of the number of community messages or events mourning the loss of Black lives to police or vigilante violence. We’ve had faculty panels, marches, candlelight vigils. I’ve written letters and blog posts. We’ve had guest speakers and group readings. Yet this summer the tragedy continues to mount: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. And while I watched the video of Mr. Floyd’s life being senselessly and brutally extinguished, my deep sadness was exceeded only by my powerful anger. After nearly seven years of many of us asserting that Black Lives Matter, America consistently presents the Black community with evidence to the contrary. The nationwide protests are an expression of that anger, as well as a reflection of voices that have long been ignored or silenced.
I know that many of you share this feeling of sadness and anger. There are not many words I can offer that can address this adequately, nor should there be: This is one of those moments when some may need to feel the anger for a while before it can be fully processed and focused.
Yet no one becomes an educator, or pursues an education, without having some enduring optimism that can help us move beyond anger. The acts of teaching and learning are intrinsically about the future, about generations of students reaching their full potential and through their success improving the world around us. That is not an easy path, nor a straight one; and all of us make mistakes along the way. But undoubtedly, we were all drawn to Kenyon because we have hope, not only for a more just future, but for our ability to shape that future.
In that spirit, I do have some suggestions on actions to take to help process our anger.
Dissent is a critical component of a liberal arts education. Protest is a powerful form of expression of dissent; march if you feel moved to do so. Please be safe: There is guidance for safe practice at protests (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) here, here (PDF) and here. If marching is not for you, write, speak, talk to others, find ways to make your voice heard.
If you are not familiar with the deep history and legacy of violence against the Black community in the United States, and how this has a powerful impact on the lives of all Black Americans, this is a good time to study. For history, I’d recommend Ibrahim X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning” or Jill Nelson’s “Police Brutality: An Anthology” as places to start. For policy proposals to reform policing, see Campaign Zero. If poetry is where you’d like to start, read Claudia Rankine's “Citizen” or Evie Shockley’s “can’t unsee.” If you prefer podcasts, try this episode of Code Switch, or an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast on health disparities by race. Or, take one of the great courses from our faculty in African diaspora studies.
If you have the means, lend support to those who are struggling. This can take the form of simple outreach and emotional support (“I am here for you”). It can involve volunteering for efforts to reform the justice system and make it more equitable. It can mean contributing to efforts to support protests or support communities that have been impacted by the protests. Moreover, there is still work to do to make the Kenyon community more inclusive, and we can use the lessons of these events to examine and propose change here in Gambier.
As I wrote in the aftermath of the Tamir Rice shooting in 2014, “all of us at Kenyon make a commitment to lead well-examined lives, to understand the complexity behind tragic events, to learn lessons from both history and present-day, and to apply these lessons as we move beyond the Hill. The study of the liberal arts is not intended to be an exercise in self-indulgence. Rather, we engage in the study of the liberal arts because of an ancient belief that an understanding of the humanities, of art, and of the sciences (natural and social) makes us better citizens.” Keeping this in mind, here in 2020 we can formulate a short-term path for moving forward: Raise our voices in dissent, educate ourselves about the matters at hand, and find ways to take concrete action, beyond Gambier and here on campus.