A disturbing, appalling, and revealing incident that occurred at Cornell University two months ago is finally receiving the spotlight and shame it so utterly deserves.
Professor Grant Farred, a professor of English and Africana Studies from South Africa, invited two of his advisees, both African-American female graduate students, to a conference in early February on Black Studies at the University of Rochester. When they arrived at the conference, they walked in on a panel that had already begun.
Farred walked over to the two students, lowered his voice and said, according to the Cornell Daily Sun and an inside source, “When you both walked in, I thought, ‘Who are these fine Black bitches?’”
The two Black women were visibly shocked at his remark, coming from the then-director of the graduate studies of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC). Noticing their absolute dismay, Farred changed the subject before quickly walking away. The women later informed Farred that his comment was offensive. He apologized, saying he did not mean any harm, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.
Last week, 39 alumni of Cornell’s ASRC issued a blistering open letter not only condemning Farred’s insensitive words but the inaction and intransigence of the current chair of the center, Professor Salah Hassan.
“Over the past year, there have been an increasing number of racist and sexist incidents at the Africana Studies and Research Center; actions which, in previous years, would have not only been intolerable but would have been unthinkable,” the letter read. “Yet under the current chair … these events have become routine and commonplace. In fact, they have become so notorious that alumni such as ourselves, who are scattered across the country, have received word of these episodes and now feel compelled to speak out.”
Cornell officials apparently are investigating the matter (even though Farred has openly admitted to using the phrase). But the letter blasted them as well. “How could you, members of the University leadership, remain essentially silent in response to an incident of this magnitude? We are particularly shocked by the inaction demonstrated by President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs given the commitment you pledged to diversity through the formation of the University Diversity Council.”
In response to the letter and pressure from the campus community, Hassan, ASRC’s chair, after two months of silence spoke up, formally condemning the remarks of Farred. He also reported that Farred had been removed from his post as graduate studies director and was disallowed from participating in the center’s 40-year anniversary celebrations, which, ironically, are just around the corner.
However, those punishments may not be enough for the alumni. They concluded their open letter with the proposition: “In our view, a thorough investigation and effective resolution should truly grapple with the question of whether a faculty member who has created such a hostile and untenable environment for students, faculty and staff should be allowed to remain a professor at Cornell.”
Africana Studies, in addition to being a viable academic discipline, is supposed to be a crucial space of refuge—a cultural and social haven—a political sanctuary. People who inhibit the space are supposed to know the politics and the history of the phrase “fine Black Bitch,” which carries racial, gender and sexual connotations of the historic and current exploitation and denigration of the Black female body. Students can be left off the hook for not knowing—they are there to learn—but faculty, especially an error this immense, should not, can not.
To me, in order to demonstrate and sustain the credibility of an Africana Studies professor, it is just as important for that person to be personally sensitive to the issues emanating from the content as it is for them to be knowledgeable and endowed with degrees (and other academic credentials). The motto of the National Council for Black Studies is “academic excellence and social responsibility.” When they do not demonstrate that sensitivity and are socially irresponsible, it is equivalent to them not having the knowledge or academic credentials.
Through removing Hassan from his position as chair and ejecting Farred, this Africana Studies center will make a dramatic statement that would be heard throughout the discipline—a statement echoing that Africana Studies does not tolerate, under any circumstances, sexism and offensive statements to women. Cornell administrators need to push for these personnel moves, making a statement of their own—that under no circumstances will the school allow any manifestation of racism or sexism or sexual harassment.
Africana Studies in particular and a collegiate institution more generally is a space that is supposed to expose and challenge those ideas and practices, not house them.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.