Preparing to Cross the River

Preparing to Cross the River

When I was growing up in Falmouth, Ky., I can remember my grandmother singing a song that put me to sleep and awakened me. The title of this song is “Shall We Gather At the River.” The final chorus still lingers in my mind:
 “Shall we gather at the river,
 Shall we gather at the river,
 Shall we gather at the river,
 The beautiful river of GOD.”
As Black faculty, staff and students who have previously been affiliated or are currently working and or studying at predominantly White colleges and universities, we are now standing on the banks of a “river” that divides us from the new millennium.
Yes, there are those of us who have made it to this riverbank and there are those who have expired en route. Many have served tirelessly, never acknowledged for the valuable contributions they have made to these predominantly White institutions – even after death. Our efforts have assisted thousands of students, especially Black students, to reach this river bank, through the establishment of special service programs such as Upward Bound and Talent Search; ethnic and Black studies programs, minority affairs and multicultural offices and multicultural and Black cultural centers. We have assisted by establishing, administering and/or contributing to race-specific scholarships. We have been surrogate mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, and friends and acquaintances to our students and colleagues. We have been consulted and intervened in romantic, monetary and parental conflicts; rape and other sexual abuse cases; systematic oppression; Black on White and Black on Black conflicts as well as many other situations too numerous to mention.
We have fought Congress for an increase in student financial assistance and the continuation of equal opportunity and affirmative action in higher education. We have fought the system even when no one else, on or off these campuses, would fight along with us. We have been accused, abused and misused for standing up for justice. It was our struggle on these campuses in the ’60s that caused them to become more tolerant and lucrative, in large measure by luring more of our students to them, especially Black athletes. Most of all, we have widened the path to the river and paved it with opportunity, fairness, professional examples and love.
In order to truly appreciate the lyrics and rhythm of my grandmother’s song, we have to think about the heroes and sheroes who have brought us to the banks of the river. We must recall the sacrifices that were made and the discrimination these warriors endured in order that we might stand on these shores.
Within these ivory towers of higher education, Black students and staff have had to fight segregation, mental and physical abuse, White supremacy, sexism, the attempt to eliminate affirmative action and many other oppressive forces. Thank God for their courage. Through their efforts we have learned to defend and arm ourselves for the attack that sadly is expected to continue into the next millennium.
Now, as we who are at predominantly White campuses prepare to cross the river and into the new millennium, the question remains who will lead us across? Who will fight the continuous attack on affirmative action? Who will fight to maintain race specific scholarships? Who will fight to recruit and retain more Black students and staff? Who will fight for Black faculty tenure? Who will fight White supremacy, sexism, homophobia and other oppressive forces that have limited our opportunity on these shores? Who will be there for our future generation of students and staff?
As in this century, it will be those faculty, staff, and students who have prepared themselves to take the oars of responsibility, chart the course of action and courageously glide across to the other side of the river.

—Dr. P. Eric Abercrumbie is director of ethnic programs and services as well as the African American Culture and Research Center at the University of Cincinnati. He is also president of the John D. O’Bryant National Think Tank for Black Professionals in Higher Education.



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