June 15, 2020
Dear Students, Alumni, and Members of the Amherst Community,
Like many of you, the faculty members of the Black studies department have been filled with sadness, outrage, fear, and grief in the weeks since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While we are all processing simultaneous feelings of hope and despair, we memorialize those who have been unjustly taken—Jamel Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jamar Clark, Michelle Shirley, Sean Reed, and many more. These acts of remembrance have become political in and of themselves. As Christina Sharpe argues, movements like #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, and #BlackTransLivesMatter act as vital forms of “wake work.” They tie those who are gone to the living, through practices of care and remembrance. And she challenges us to affirm how such forms of care preserve self and community:
What does it mean to defend the dead? To tend to the Black dead and dying: to tend to the Black person, to Black people, always living in the push toward our death? It means work. It is work: hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying to ease their way, and also to the needs of the living. (Sharpe 2016, 10)
We know that a logic of death and domination characterizes white supremacist violence and police brutality, as well as the global experience of colonization, imperialism, and slavery across the Black diaspora. That logic also structures the academic fields in which many of us labor in the arts, sciences, and humanities; from anthropology and museum practice, to the study of literature and music; from history, political science, and philosophy, to sociology and statistics, psychology, and biomedicine. As Sharpe explains, “While that logic leaves in its wake a trail of Black death and trauma—‘violence ... precedes and exceeds Blacks’ (Wilderson 2010, 76)—we, Black people everywhere and anywhere we are, still produce in, into, and through the wake an insistence on existing: we insist on Black being into the wake” (Sharpe 2016, 11).
Today, we collectively live as part of the many who are insisting on Black being. We keep watch as families and communities grieve. We share in their pain and work for a better world where no one is deemed disposable; where arbitrary violence no longer destroys people; where the vulnerable, the young, and the old are not forced to risk infection and bodily harm to challenge the surveillance, control, and violation that plague Black communities in the U.S. and around the world. We participate in public and private mourning, celebration, thinking, debating, protesting, and sharing. We join a long lineage of activists and thinkers who have done so for centuries. Many luminaries of the Black intellectual tradition saw no distinction between thought and action, between moral imperatives and intellectual pursuits. They believed that all of these inform one another. And though we live in the wake of violence, exploitation, and dispossession, we also live in the wake of a long history of Black struggle that has transformed the world many times over.
At times we can feel too hurt to act, too insignificant to effect change. This is not true. We all have power. We all continually renew our moral commitments as we experience the changing world around us. We constantly learn new ways to put these commitments into practice. We form new relationships and new ways of relating to one another. Even moments of uncertainty, crisis, and trauma can become moments of liberation. In the words of a traditional African-American spiritual: “The very time I thought I was lost; my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” Perhaps such a moment of liberation is upon us, and it is being led by you. Young people, current and past Amherst students among them, have been on the forefront of recent movements against anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, transphobia, police violence, and white supremacy. We continue to be inspired by you, your power to imagine new possibilities, new forms of justice, new ties of solidarity and community. We look forward to learning and fighting alongside you.
The Members of the Black Studies Department