On Sept. 14 the Black Studies department released a statement on their Instagram account @blackstudiesnewpaltz outlining their protest of the Sojourner Truth Statue unveiling and a list of the reasons they aren’t in support.
“The Department of Black Studies as the institutionalization of the Black experience, should have been afforded the following with respect to this issue, and we were not,” reads the statement. “[A.] Notified by the committee of an interest to build a statue of a prominent Black American woman, who is an integral individual to Black History and the discipline of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz…[B.] Consulted about the selection of who the artist would be to project, manage, and facilitate the creation of this sculpture… [C.] Included in the establishment of a timeline of how and when this process would occur.”
The statement was also emailed to all faculty and staff members at SUNY New Paltz.
“We believe the effort is blatantly rooted in racism, irrespective of its intention,” the statement continued. “As a department, our exclusion from this process exhibits disrespect.”
The petition also took the opportunity to express other grievances on behalf of the Black Studies Department that weren’t exclusive to this issue. “Our department, not unlike Black people, has been under supported, underfunded and undervalued.”
The Department would consider changing their stance on attending the event if it was postponed until a more inclusive ceremony could be planned and if Black Studies could become a more central discipline to the New Paltz education, the statement explains.
If they had known of the ceremony they would have used the time to honor Dr. A.J. Williams-Meyer, “an intellectual GIANT” in the department and New Paltz community who recently passed away.
In 2019, sculptor Trina Greene came to New Paltz offering to create the Sojourner Truth statue, if the college would cover the costs of fabrication and installation.
The campus Art & Aesthetics Committee was engaged and approved the work and its location; the SUNY New Paltz Foundation agreed to take on securing the needed funding.
Years later and the statue was set to be unveiled in September.
On Sept. 16 both the Vice President Erica Marks and President Donald P. Christian released a statement of apology.
“We saw the design and were excited too by the prospect of giving this gift to campus, and, moreover, to do so coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the naming of the Sojourner Truth Library. The artist had several friends who offered to underwrite a large portion of the cost. My blinders went on, and I moved forward with gusto and energy, thinking that everyone would be similarly delighted,” said Vice President Erica Marks. “Did I ask the Black Studies Department or other colleagues of color on campus? No. I am filled with regret and am very, very sorry.”
Further on in the apology Marks responds to the conditions asked of her to meet by the Black Studies Department, “We will postpone the installation and unveiling until a ceremony inclusive of all can be planned with the input of and collaboration with Black Studies and other faculty, students, and alumni. Outreach to Black Studies is already under way.”
In the same email President Christain shared his thoughts on the matter saying, “Our enthusiasm for the project and our intentions may have been honorable, but as campus leaders we must own the impacts of our approach. I deeply regret the way we undertook this project, and extend my most sincere apology for the pain we have caused. We endeavor to do better.”
In response to whether the College would adjust the diversity requirement to more strongly integrate Black Studies into students’ curriculum, a statement from College Spokesperson Chrissie Williams expressed that the administration wouldn’t be stepping in.
The diversity requirement is meant to encourage students to take courses that educate them on diverse populations. But the vague qualifications allow many to take classes entirely unrelated to race or gender. In Spring of 2021, there were roughly 68 available courses students could take to fulfill the diversity requirement. Only five of them were in the Black Studies department. Of those classes, the courses don’t always seem to have strong reasoning. “Introduction to Black Studies” and “Introduction to Africa’’ do not fulfill the diversity requirement, yet “History of Rock” and “Psychology of Adjustment” do fulfill the requirement.
“[Courses fulfilling the diversity requirement] should educate students about the history and contemporary legacies of slavery and other dynamics of race and inequity in America,” the statement said.
“But the President and Provost have also been clear that they respect that faculty have primary purview over the curriculum and, as supportive as they are of those goals of curricular revision, it would not be appropriate for the administration to mandate courses in Black Studies or any other discipline,” she says. “For these reasons, they encourage Black Studies faculty and faculty governance leaders to work together to address these issues.”
“We have received the message from the Black Studies Department and hear your concerns,” the Office of the President responded the following day in an email to faculty and staff. “We will be reaching out to the Department of Black Studies today in response to the letter to the campus community so that any response from campus leadership can be well-informed, thoughtful and respectful.”