“In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection…I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”
How do you feel when you read this quote? Are you disgusted? Outraged? Or are you driven to defend those words? To defend that ideology as part “of the time.” Forget the name associated with them — the successes that might overshadow the ideology. Ask yourself, if someone said that aloud today — would that be worth commemorating? We have the ability to recognize terrible people who do extraordinary things as geniuses. That recognition is deserved, but glorification, dedicating our highest awards in their honor and likening them to greatness — of morality, of unwavering commitment to the entire community, as the pinnacle of character is not only undeserved, it is immoral.
How could you read those words and feel comfortable giving an award named after the one who uttered them regarding a person of color?
It is time for the College of William and Mary to recognize that actions prove belief, not just words. It doesn’t matter if one says slavery is wrong if they never free their own slaves. If one, like Thomas Jefferson, does not believe in slavery because black people disgust them and want to ship them back to Africa due to their inferiority, ranking them lower than ‘savages’ with no capability to be ‘developed,’ then they are not ahead of their time. They are still a staunch racist. By no means is Jefferson the only problematic president commemorated on this campus, but at least George Washington left instructions to free his slaves when he found the practice troubling.
We ask you to empathize with us and pose the question: how might you feel constantly being in a building, receiving an award, or being a member of a department named after someone who could’ve owned you? Who could (and according to history likely would) have beaten and raped you without a second thought to your humanity; who would not have recognized that humanity in the first place? How would you feel being at an institution that idolizes these men? Might that contribute to a sense of not-belonging and imposter syndrome? Do you think this is why we see spades of minority students who feel this way?
The College consistently claims diversity and boasts about its related efforts. Still, the changes being made are almost entirely due to minority students’ hard work — the same work that the administration often contests and slows down. We have had to create niche organizations to feel safe, and the administration continually tries to capitalize off of their formation by gathering us for “important conversations,” tokenizing us to prove and perform their “wokeness.”
We are tired.
Our faces are ceaselessly used as marketing tools to lure in other diverse students. Like fish to a hook, these students face a sad reality when they arrive, and the campus is not the beautiful picture of inclusivity the website promised. We, the very people in these photos, do not even feel welcome in this space, so how can we expect new students to feel welcome?
While outwardly the university may appear to have been responsive in the past year to the needs of Black and Brown students, it’s essential to consider the timing. The university responded to our outcries only after the multiple police brutality crises that swept the whole nation. They had no choice. The last three times that the College has begun making strides forward have followed a national outcry surrounding the murder of a black man. This time it was George Floyd. When they met with Black Lives Matter in early 2017, it was following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In February 2015 when they formed the Task Force on Race and Race Relations it followed the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the end of the previous year. Considering this very convenient timing, how can we as students know that the responses are genuine and not just to keep up appearances? Simple, we don’t. But yet, we are still expected to feel comfortable in this environment and accept the mediocre efforts put into action.
Sure, we have outstanding initiatives, such as the Lemon Project, that explore the College’s history of cruelty and oppression so we can commemorate the critical, diverse figures and hold the school accountable. As usual, the administration claims the Lemon Project as their own, but we know it only formed because of students who did the hard work pushing for it in 2008. After all of these years, the university still has not responded to the needs of the community without first having to be pushed to do so.
Even the efforts that have been initiated have made little progress. The Working Group on Principles for Naming and Renaming began last June, yet they’ve only renamed two halls, only one of which is on the main campus and previously received little visibility. Meanwhile, the University of Virginia has renamed over six halls and landmarks on their main campus — many named after Confederates who were treasonous to our nation — but we’ve yet to do the same. Simultaneously, Washington, D.C.’s naming & renaming efforts resulted in 21 schools and buildings being renamed in just three months, including locations named after Founding Fathers which the Board of Visitors has made off limits to the PNR. Our nation’s capital can recognize that merely being a Founding Father cannot justify the enslavement, murder, rape, torture and generational harm they caused. Why can’t we?
Perhaps this significant discrepancy in progress is due to the weight that the D.C. and UVA committees give to the encouragement of oppression and perpetuation of systemic racism that these groups of men represent and stood for in their evaluation procedures. Perhaps their committees are motivated by action rather than pretty, useless words. Perhaps their Boards are a little more cognizant of the severity of the impact that those actions and stances have made on the present day. Perhaps their Boards are a bit more understanding of the environment they create by glorifying these men as though they are not in direct opposition to the values that sold students on their institution in the first place. Perhaps their Boards care about their BIPOC students.
It seems ours doesn’t.
Black Student Organization
Xi Lambda Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.
African Cultural Society
Nu Chi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
African American Male Coalition
National Pan-Hellenic Council
W&M Chapter of the NAACPA
Xi Theta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.