Campuses Unite to Understand National Tragedy
For many, terrorist attacks hit close to home
This generation may have been dubbed “X,” but some observers say its response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies merits nothing less than an “A+.”
The outpouring of emotion and demonstrations of unity on campuses across the nation have been impressive:
n At the University of Virginia, more than 1,000 students crowded into a Sept. 13 “teach-in”— a number so far beyond the capacity of the hall that the event had to be moved to a nearby outdoor amphitheater.
n At Nashville’s Tennessee State University, a memorial service Sept. 14 drew a capacity crowd of 3,000 weeping, praying students.
n Similar observances at University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley drew 5,000 and 12,000 respectively.
Campuses large and small have responded with prayer vigils, memorial services, blood drives and fund-raising events. But there has been a dark side to the outpouring of solidarity as well.
At the teach-in at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, one student, Yusef (who did not give a last name) was part of a long line of students who took the microphone to discuss incidents of hatred and harassment. His brother, a Sikh, was the target of stone-throwing youths in Northern Virginia.
“They said, ‘You damn Muslim! Get back to your own country!’ ” Yusef said, adding that his wife is afraid to leave the house.
And indeed, her fears may be justified as the accounts of backlash incidents multiply. In the week following the hijacking attacks, more than 400 anti-Muslim incidents were reported to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. According to news reports:
n Upward of 400 angry marchers in a Chicago suburb headed toward a mosque waving flags and shouting “USA! USA!” Three were arrested as the mob was turned back by police.
n In Northern Indiana, a gunman was shot at an Arab-owned gas station.
n Sikh, Arab and Muslim cabdrivers in Cleveland are staying home from work after reporting harassment and refusals of service by fares.
n Schools in Jefferson Parish, La., were closed after Arabs and Muslims were taunted by their classmates. A Muslim academy in Birmingham, Ala., was closed as a precaution.
n Three men have died in apparent hate crimes: An Indian immigrant, a Sikh, was murdered at a gas station in Mesa, Ariz.; an Egyptian Christian was murdered at his grocery store in Los Angeles; and a Pakistani Muslim was murdered at a store he co-owned in Dallas.
America’s college campuses are emphatic in denying that anti-Muslim incidents are occurring on their watch.
“Just across the street from us at Florida State, the scenario may be categorically different, but I don’t at all get the sense that that’s happening here — after all, there’s no one in the world that knows the impact of racism and stereotyping better than we do here,” says Dr. Sharon Dennard, director of the Florida A&M University Center for Human Development, which has been providing crisis counseling in the aftermath of the hijacking attacks.
And as for verbal attacks reported in the Wayne State University student newspaper, officials there denied that any of the incidents had occurred on campus. The university has a large Muslim student population — in part because Detroit has the world’s largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East — as well as a large African American population.
“And I think overall, anyone sitting here — for example, at the Unity Forum, which was attended by students and faculty and people from the Muslim community, from different organizations all around town — would be so proud of these kids,” says Molly Brauwer, a public information officer at the university. “I’ve been very impressed.”
But while the initial campus response appears to have been overwhelmingly generous, Dr. Eric Abercrumbie, of the John D. O’Bryant Think Tank for Black Professionals in Higher Education, cautions that it’s what comes next that will really count.
“I have a lot of questions about this generation: What are they concerned about? Have they thought about what a mandatory draft will mean? Are they even politically aware of what the issues are,” surrounding the terrorist attacks and President Bush’s declaration of war, Abercrumbie asks. Abercrumbie says African American students in particular have trouble “thinking globally,” seeing their struggles reflected in those of people around the world.
Now, he adds, “They’re faced with the greatest challenge of all, the challenge of figuring out whether or not I serve, whether or not our government is right.”
“The world better be looking to these campuses,” Abercrumbie says. “The only group which really can challenge the system are college students and if they don’t do it, then it’s just business as usual.”
Unwilling Witnesses, Victims
The newly named president of Mississippi’s Tougaloo College says he was an unwilling witness to history on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
“My wife and I have an apartment about eight blocks from the World Trade Center with a clear view of the two towers — well, the former two towers,” recalls Dr. James Wyche, who just stepped down as a professor of medicine and associate provost at Brown University.
“We were standing together and watching it all unfold, and I tell you,” Wyche pauses, his voice faltering slightly, “it was something to behold.”
Miss Tennessee State University, Mia Evans, was in Nashville — far away from the terror that rained from the sky on that tragic day. But her eyes were fixed on the television and her thoughts were full of anguish.
“My sister Marla lives in New York and worked 12 blocks from that building,” she says. None of her panicked phone calls to the city went through. “I had to go to class, take notes, feeling … feeling so heavily weighed down,” she says.
When Marla finally called, the sisters wept together. “So many people lost family members, husbands,” Evans says. “At times like these, the only thing you can do is hold onto your faith.”
A week after the terrorist hijackings that resulted in more than 6,000 deaths in New York and Washington, the initial shock — and the crisis management response on campuses across the nation — has quieted. But experts agree that the ripple effect of the tragedy will be felt for some time to come.
“The initial phase is shock, alarm,” says Dennard of FAMU’s Center for Human Development. “But it will be later, as people have confirmation that they’ve lost friends and loved ones, that’s when the real impact will be felt.”
Dr. Horace Morris, an English professor at Howard University in Washington, is still waiting for the horror to sink in.
Morris’ wife, Odessa, a budget analyst for the Army at the Pentagon, is still reported missing, following the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:45 a.m. that Tuesday.
“I consider it like a movie I’m watching,” Morris says. “I can’t comprehend it. I’m in a daze.”
Morris and his wife, Odessa, 54, had been married “25 years to the day” Sept. 11. Indeed, he was planning to pick her up from work early so that the two of them could spend the rest of the day together and go out for a celebratory dinner later.
Ever since the chair of the English department tapped on the door to tell him to dismiss his class, Morris has been waiting by the telephone. He’s managed to glean bits of information. He learned, for example, from a co-worker who survived that at least two others from his wife’s floor made it out of the inferno: A man who was badly burned and a woman who leaped from a window to safety.
The co-worker who gave him the news had actually spoken to his wife that morning. “Odessa stopped by her desk that morning to tell her about the anniversary, about our plans,” Morris says.
The Morrises have three children — daughters ages 24 and 22 and a son who is 17.
“I’m just so happy they’re not babies — that I don’t have to struggle to make them understand,” he says.
But he adds that it will be quite a struggle to return to normal. Morris had plans to return to the classroom the week following the attack.
“I have no idea what I’m going to say,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com