Anti-Racism Avoided: School Continues Failing to Support Black Studies Department

Cartoon created by Lianna Maley.

The first Black Studies Departments in America were born from persistent pressure. San Francisco State University was the first to have a department, after five months of student-led strikes in 1968 — the longest strike in history on a college campus. Soon after, in 1969, students and Black leaders on SUNY New Paltz’s campus advocated for the same thing and our Black Studies Department was born. Hundreds of other Black Studies departments were formed after that of San Francisco State University and SUNY New Paltz.

But the pressure it took to form these departments didn’t stop once the departments were formed. To this day, our campus’ Black Studies Department is begging our administration to be treated fairly.

“Black Studies came to be out of struggle and out of protest, out of demand from students. So there’s always been that spirit to fight for what’s fair, just and right because Black Studies is such an important discipline for students of color,” says Weldon McWilliams, interim chair for the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz. “But we look at it like an unnecessary fight: it’s a fight we shouldn’t have to fight. We’re a benefit whether the college or administration believes it or not. We are a blessing to the College. But we feel neglected.”

The Department remains to be underfunded and understaffed.

There are three key requests the Black Studies Department and Black students on campus seem to have been requesting since the beginning of time, yet have been ignored. 

The major issues combine to make it clear that Black Studies is an undervalued department, especially when compared to the supreme value it brings to the college community.

Many Black students can attest that the courses are some of the first times they’ve learned about their own history, culture or diaspora in school. McWilliams himself says, “I never felt relevant in the educational process until I took Black Studies courses.”

The first recurring request is for the Black Studies Department to have an adequate space to be housed in. In 1991, the department was moved to trailers on the edge of campus and told it was temporary housing, according to the chair of the department and other sources. But it hasn’t been so temporary; 30 years later, the department still doesn’t have a permanent space.

In 2018, scholar Jelani Cobb said at a talk on campus: “one of my rubrics for a college campus is where is the Black Studies Department.” Anthony Dandridge, a Black Studies Professor adamantly agrees, saying the space Black Studies has been given is “unacceptable” and “incompatible with the kinds of spaces afforded to other disciplines.” He explains, “Space matters… if we are in a bad space, it says plenty about how we are valued.”

Another space for the Black community on campus that may be taken away is the Shango dorms. Named after the Yoruban god of thunder and protection, the dorm was meant to be a haven for people of color to exist together and escape the pressures of racism on campus. 

​​It also housed the Black Studies department for a period of time. Students advocated for the safe space to exist in the mid 1900s and the murals painted onto the walls by these students, including of Malcolm X and principles of Kwanzaa, are historical and beautiful symbols of the Black community’s legacy. Now the dorm is open to all students, but the murals remain as a reminder of this history.

But the College is currently discussing renovating Shango and says it won’t be possible for them to physically preserve the murals, according to a statement College President Donald P. Christian made to the Oracle. These changes are still being discussed and at least five years away, he says.

“We have photographed them and preserved them digitally for future restoration in another residence hall or appropriate academic space,” Pres. Christian said in a written statement to the Oracle, after promising the Black Studies Department, Black alumni and community members will be included in the process, as well as a living artist of one of the murals.

But a similar request to change Shango was made decades ago, and previous Black leaders made it clear that destroying the original murals is unacceptable.

“We are pleased that the originals have been photographed, but we want to see the completion of phase two of the promise, which is to protect and preserve the originals,” says Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, the chair of Black Studies in 2001. Her statement was written in a preserved news release: “They are an important part of the history of the Black presence on campus… To destroy them is to damage the relations between the College and alumni of color and damage the collective memory of an entire community.”

The second recurring request the Department has been making for decades is for the resources they need in order to hire full time faculty. With only five full-time faculty, each member is overworked and being expected to do more than would be expected if the department was adequately staffed. There are just five full-time faculty members and several adjuncts catering to the needs of the 500 students who are currently enrolled as a Black Studies major or minor.

The third recurring request is for the university to truly invest in the Black Studies Department. For the Department to offer all the courses that are on their catalog, the school would need to invest enough money for them to hire enough full time professors.

Pres. Christian says the amount of students and credit hours in a discipline are part of what determines funding and faculty, saying, “Whenever we think about the faculty numbers in a department, we have to look at the number of majors, the number of minors, the number of student credit hours generated.”

But Black leaders say in order for those numbers to go up, the department needs an initial investment.

“If the university invested more in Black studies, you would see a bigger return on the back end as far as an increase in majors, an increase in minors, an increase in the courses that we are offering,” McWilliams says. “Don’t just say you support our department, invest in it.  An investment says you have faith you’ll get a return on the back end.”

Additionally, the school should mandate courses that specifically address race relations in America, as the BSD expressed in a statement weeks ago.

The School mandates a course in diversity, but the highly flawed diversity requirement system doesn’t increase the attendance of Black Studies courses as much as it should.

Many students opt to take courses that fulfill the requirement but don’t cover topics related to racial diversity, which is concerningly easy. “History of Rock” and “Psychology of Adjustment,” for example, fulfill the diversity requirement, yet “Intro to Africa” and “Intro to Black Studies” do not.

Of the 19 Black Studies courses offered in the Spring 2022 semester, only four sections fulfill the diversity requirement. But five sections of music classes fulfill the diversity requirement (four of which are History of Rock).

It is easier to get a seat in a music class to fulfill the diversity requirement, than a spot in a Black Studies class, a clear result of underfunding. Yet, campus leaders imply it’s simply up to students to take Black Studies courses and keep the department afloat.

Several sources who have asked to remain anonymous reported to the Oracle that advisors encouraged them to take courses within their major or “history of rock” to fulfill the diversity requirement instead of Black Studies. One attests a campus tour guide told them not to worry about the diversity requirement — “you can just take music!”

The definition of diversity has become meaningless; there must specifically be a race-related course requirement.

“I’m sensitive to the fact that there are many aspects of diversity that need to be dealt with in the curriculum, but race is one that I think too often is given the short shrift,” says Pres. Christian. “It’s possible for students at New Paltz, given the way the diversity requirement is structured, to be able to take a course that satisfies the diversity course and never touches in a meaningful way on the history and legacy of racism and racial justice in America… I can push and encourage that but it really falls on the shoulders of the faculty.”

Meaningful change and taking steps towards being an anti-racist campus have been, and continue to be, clearly articulated yet ignored.

“We all want the same thing,” says Jade Jules, a fourth-year sociology major and Black Studies minor, as well as the event coordinator for the Black Student Union. “We all want a sense of belonging. We all want more people of color on campus. We all want to fund Black Studies.”

In order for these changes to be made, administration must come to the Black campus community to really hear, absorb and take heed to the requests the student body is asking for. 

“I would like to see the administration reach out to the Black Student Union,” says Black Student Union president Nayyir Strasner. “I was upset to witness that the administration was not present in this year’s Black Solidarity Day. That was a good opportunity to be an ally.”

When asked what she wanted to see on SUNY New Paltz’s campus, BSU President Strasner says, “The administration can start with adding Black Studies classes to the General Education Requirements. I would also like to see more Black faculty hired and more Black and Latinx students enrolled in the university.”

The requests repeat. The demands haven’t changed. It isn’t difficult to figure out what the Black population on campus wants. 

The only thing that has changed is the amount of time Black people on campus’ needs have been ignored. 

“I believe that we are headed down a track where instead of celebrating the traditions of Black Studies, Black Studies will just be habit here at SUNY New Paltz. At best, I believe its presence is taken for granted, or, at worst, maybe its presence is no longer wanted,” McWilliams said at a speech during Black Solidarity Day. “We need your advocacy. We need to let the university know that it’s not enough to just have a Black Studies Department, but the students of SUNY New Paltz deserve a flourishing, top of line, top notch Black Studies Department so that we can learn about, partake in and share in the Black experience.