In light of our current events and the possibilities that are before us, I would like to share this message I recently wrote to the University of Florida College of the Arts:
Dear students, faculty, staff, and all:
I am a black woman, a mother of three children. My youngest, named for his grandfather, is as tall as me. He is 11 years old. One of the many reasons (personal and professional) that I accepted the invitation to join the UF College of the Arts as its Dean was that I could see that he would be as tall as a man, long before he had time to become one. The informal calculus of age, height, population density, modes of public transportation (and so on), and number of times and how soon when (not if) he would end up in a potentially life-threatening engagement with law enforcement; this informal calculus predominates my negotiations with my lived experience. This is an everyday primary concern in a place where I imagine others (who live a different experience of life in the United States) might be predominantly concerned with a “normalcy” I cannot imagine.
So given that, and against the backdrop of yet more public and senseless killings of black people at the hands of police, against the backdrop of our exhausted, angry, divided, and rioting nation, and against the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic that is also killing black people at disproportionate rates—I search for the will and the words to address the college. I echo Killer Mike in his speech two days ago in Atlanta, “I didn’t want to come, and I don’t want to be here… but I am duty-bound to be here.” WE are all duty bound by the struggles our ancestors made to free this very campus we work on, and the city we live in from their legacies in relationship to slave ownership, Jim Crow laws, lynching and all the many organized systems of racial oppression embedded in the foundation of our society; we are all duty bound to pick up our heavy and grieving selves and get to work. I reach out to you today as a black woman, a mother of three, and the Dean of the College of the Arts and say we must, urgently, right now, get to work on CHANGE.
In the fall of 2018 when I first joined the UF community as the Dean of the College of the Arts we worked together as staff, faculty and administrators to craft a statement that would guide the hiring of all of our new faculty positions. In that statement we asserted that we are a place that “intends to be a transformative community, responding to and generating paradigmatic shifts in the arts and beyond.” We called for new colleagues who “identify as a change-makers.” We actively sought to hire colleagues “who will prepare students to access and unsettle centers of power in a radically changing world,” in order to “position emerging artists and researchers as catalysts for equity on local and global levels.” At that writing, like any document written collaboratively by well over one hundred people, there was ample debate. Questions about its unapologetically active push towards artists seeing and saying what impact we intend to make in the world rose up. I trust that the rationale for urgency in our call to action is now crystal clear for us all. For many of us it was and has been clear for some time, for some of us generations, centuries. For those newly awakened to the reality that racism is a pre-existing condition that is making us all susceptible to the unraveling of our nation: Welcome, we’ve needed you.
As artists, arts educators, researchers, and scholars, we are powerful members of the ecosystems that shape, disseminate, engage people in, and change culture. We influence, reflect, and critique how life is embodied, seen, processed, and shared. And as artists in the privileged halls of the academy, we curate which cultures, and what aspects of those cultures are venerated, sustained and valued by a state funded institution. We also get to decide if and when and where we open ourselves up to being challenged and to learning when members of our student bodies, our communities, or when our colleagues say, “you are not seeing us, you are not hearing us, we matter.” We, as people with the privilege to be multiple kinds of influential gate-keepers, need to be thinking about the cultural milieu of the police officer that knelt on George Floyd’s neck and the officers that stood and watched, and the clerk that called the police, and the person that took the call, and the one that dispatched the call. We need to be thinking about how what we do relates to the culture that shaped each of their perceptions of reality, how they perceive themselves and others, how they perceive black people in the context of humanity. What is present in the way that we as artists and educators are shaping the world that should be removed because it contributes to racism? What is absent that should be included? How might artists contribute to racism? How could the arts contribute to undoing racism? And if we have no ideas in answer to those questions, what do we need to read, to watch, to think about, to learn, so that we start having some… now?
In this profoundly challenging moment, I can honestly say that I am encouraged to be working with the faculty, staff and students in a college that wrote that statement, our “Meta-Narrative,” last year. I am encouraged by the presence of the faculty that we recruited and welcomed with the statement as our guide. I am encouraged to be participating in the finalization of the year-long process of developing our new strategic plan, our “Meta-Strategy,” that will articulate and map our methods for becoming and being a transformative, responsive, catalytic community that contributes to the crafting of a new, better world. And I am encouraged that I am dean of a college where I can say—let’s take a collective deep breath with awareness that it is precious and not guaranteed to all equally, let’s take care of one another, let’s pay attention to keeping our hearts and minds restoring and strong, and let’s get BACK to work. The future is now.
Strength and solidarity to all those who have lost loved ones in this time. May it not be in vain.
Dean and Professor
UF College of the Arts