January 23, 2011

Don’t Cry for Me, Africana

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Throughout its 40 year history the Africana Center has employed two narratives to explain its status on this campus. As befits an organization with a “transdisciplinarian approach” (their term), these two narratives are complex, confused and, ultimately, contradictory.

The first is that the University has consistently disrespected Africana’s “autonomy,” a term cherished by the militants whose brutish tactics helped create the Center in the late sixties. This was voiced most recently during protests over the Center’s merger into the Arts and Sciences College, after previously existing under the supervision of the Provost. Citing everything from “systemic racism” (Professer N’Dri T. Assié-Lumumba) to “structural racism” (Professor Carol Boyce David) to “institutional, systemic, societal racism” (Director Robert Harris), the Africana community maintained that the University should withdraw its grubby, bureaucratic hands. Former Ujamaa residence hall director Ken Glover put it best: “Leave me the f–k alone.”

The second asserts that the University has done too little for Africana. From this perspective, not only has Cornell’s administration provided insufficient funding, but it has also cemented the Center’s marginality by keeping it all the way down Triphammer Road. What’s required of the University, according to this narrative, is full-throated support and intervention — like the 2005 renovation and expansion of Africana’s facilities.

Neither one holds up. The first, of course, is patently ridiculous. The obsession with “autonomy” seems to forget three relevant points: One, the University is a business; two, Africana is a subsidiary of that business; and three, if the Africana Center really wants full autonomy it should solicit funding from outside sources, drop the affiliation with Cornell and become a wholly independent institution. That seems more honest than simultaneously demanding funding and that the University leave them the well, you know what, alone.

The second is equally absurd. Africana remains isolated due to the its faculty’s choices, not decisions made by University administrators. As a former Cornell professor recounted to me, during the 1980s, Day Hall announced proposals to move the Center closer to the main campus. Africana’s response? They characterized the proposals as — you guessed it — a threat to their autonomy, and rejected them outright. They, and not the University, cemented its pariah status.

Furthermore, the University’s half-heartedness about providing funding for the Center is neither surprising nor unjustifiable. After all, this is an organization that from its inception in 1969 has consistently questioned the University’s legitimacy, whether by means of building takeover or malicious rhetoric. Would you give them money?

So neither narrative fits the reality. But we’re still left wondering how Africana manages to switch between the two with such apparent ease. Ultimately, I think, there’s a charitable explanation and a number of uncharitable ones.

The charitable explanation is that there’s general confusion as to Africana’s ultimate purpose, which makes mixed messages inevitable. Since it’s not clear whether it should serve as a haven for black students and cater exclusively to their needs — as the first narrative presumes — or whether instead it should engage the broader University — as the second does — the use of both is understandable. However, we’re still left wondering why this is taking so long.

The uncharitable explanations, on the other hand, clear away any ambiguity. One is simply that they’re hypocrites: They posture for autonomy when it suits them ideologically, but favor intervention when they need the cash. Given natural human selfishness, in addition to the sense of entitlement so often professed by Africana’s students and faculty, this isn’t too improbable.

Another, suggested by Nathan Glazer in reference to the student activism of the 1960s, is far more cynical. It suggests that the Africana faculty and staff don’t really care about achieving any concrete objective, be it better facilities or greater independence from the University. Rather, they would actually prefer to lambast the University without any end goal in sight. Why? Because the Willard Straight Hall takeover taught them that the ultimate goal of activism is not to improve society — because the militants believed that our institutions are irredeemably corrupt — but simply to create more opportunities for activism.

With this reading, there’s no reason for Africana’s faculty to work towards any concrete goals because, as they never tire of telling us, Cornell is “institutionally” racist. If this is actually the case, then no renovation or administrative concession can completely satisfy them. By definition nothing can, save the complete restructuring of these corrupt institutions.

If this is what Africana truly believes — and given its tendency to instinctively reject any sort of reasonable proposal, I think it is — the University is under no obligation to consult with them, let alone make any concessions. This conclusion is actually justified no matter which reading we choose; indeed, they all suggest that Africana has not been playing straight with the University, and probably never intends to.

The University must not engage with Africana’s rhetoric; rather, it should proceed, unfazed, to make the Center more efficient and accountable. As it turns out, Ken Glover had it right the whole time.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin