Antiracism in the Contemporary University

Antiracism in the Contemporary University
THE YEAR-LONG Antiracism series, sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, emerged out of a commitment to act upon the university’s statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 and to support our community under the crisis conditions of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Over the 2020–2021 school year, we held 22 virtual events that brought together scholars and teachers, students and writers from the United States and abroad.

The LARB symposium “Antiracism in the Contemporary University” draws upon and extends this project, in which antiracism is the intellectual starting point for humanistic, literary, and rhetorical knowledge production — a concept with a history, a politics, and an aesthetics. Antiracism is also a practice to push us beyond the inadequacy of “diversity and inclusion.” As Zita C. Nunes has written, “This is not the time, if ever there was such a time, for shifting over a bit to make room, for being the one to allow others to speak, for making promises. This is the time for remaking, for asking who ‘we’ are.”

“Antiracism in the Contemporary University” features 12 single-authored essays, published today, and five conversations and a concluding essay, which will be published successively in the coming weeks. Readers will encounter discussions about art as a liberatory mode and a crucible of reckoning; the importance of community and communal histories; the disconnect between theory and practice; decentering whiteness, dismantling white supremacy, and refusing racism; and throughout, holding up and honoring the knowledge work of Black, Indigenous, and other minoritized scholars and artists. Taken together, these essays and conversations point to the complexities and even contradictions inherent in antiracist scholarship and practice.

The University of Maryland is itself forged out of a racist past, one that haunts its present through the institutional racism that continues to pervade the lived, educational, and professional experiences of our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students and colleagues, among others. The university’s founders were slaveocrats. Thurgood Marshall was refused admission to the law school. Lt. Richard Collins III, to whom the series is dedicated, was a young Black man about to graduate when he was murdered by a white supremacist at a campus bus stop. The university sits on the original homelands of the Piscataway tribal nation and yet only faintly registers this Indigenous history (the English Department for 20 years was housed in “Susquehanna Hall,” a name that comes from the Len’api for “Oyster River”), in a metropolitan area which, until only recently, named its football team with a racial slur.

With a reckoning of its racist past and present fitfully underway — a new social justice alliance forged with Bowie State University; membership in UVA’s Universities Studying Slavery; a new land acknowledgment — the example of University of Maryland likewise might offer us a way to imagine an antiracist future. To those ends, the institution’s historical records demand that we bring to them what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation.” The 1850 and 1860 censuses document 12 members of the Adams family (“and probably some enslaved kin”) in four households on modern day Route 1, adjacent to campus. Adam Francis Plummer, an enslaved Black man whose own grandfather was freed after the Revolutionary War, was owned by the founder of the Maryland Agricultural College, Charles Benedict Calvert, a man who was himself related to Plummer. And Adam Francis Plummer? He left us his diary. What were the interior lives of the Adams family, of Adam Francis Plummer? And how might we imagine a more just relation between these pasts and an antiracist future? Might we consider it through the offerings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, who thinks through the plant sweetgrass? Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes, “is passed from hand to earth to hand across years and generations.” Sweetgrass “thrives along disturbed edges.”

Here together, these essays and conversations enact the practices of antiracism, taking root and thriving along disturbed edges, and, in the process, imagining and making possible myriad possibilities for transformation. These pieces recognize antiracism as an unfinished and collective project, one that demands our sustained, scholarly attention as well as our steadfast teaching and public engagement.

Tita Chico