Last week, the Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a moving, inspiring event, a candlelight vigil to remember, to reflect, and to commit ourselves to social justice and equality. At the ceremony on September 28, organizers asked participants not to film or share images on social media, so I respectfully show here only a photograph of the exterior of the Williams Center that night as I consider that vigil and its importance to our campus and community.
Organized and presented by BSU, the vigil offered many ways to share and reflect on the narratives of race in our country, in our community, and on our campus. As participants entered, students in black hoodies stood with arms raised across the front of the room, beneath a slide that read simply, BLACK LIVES MATTER. Leaders from BSU presented on perceptions of race and implicit bias in America and the ways those perceptions affect people of color nationally and here. Several testimonies offered powerful accounts and viewpoints, and all joined in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the James Weldon Johnson/John Rosamond Johnson hymn which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. The lyrics of that hymn were first sung in 1900 but still ring true in 2016 for those who seek to understand history and work for justice in the present and future:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
BSU leaders presented a list of ideas that offered specific next steps to a conversation begun at a forum they had led last spring on campus. On a slide entitled, “Changes We Want to See on Our Campus & Community,” the five ideas emerged not as demands but areas where we need to work together:
- Cultural sensitivity and diversity training
- More representation for People of Color
- More accountability for acts of discrimination done by professors
- More awareness on how to report acts of discrimination
- More consequences for discrimination at places in the community
If we want to extend true welcome and a sense of belonging to students, faculty, and staff of color–and I believe that we do–these are the kinds of attention that must be paid. And I look forward to working with campus leaders across divisions, with students, with the Center for Multicultural Affairs, with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and with community/business leaders to have our campus and community be true places of welcoming, where all people are seen, valued, and treated with respect.
One of the most powerful parts of the vigil was a requiem for those African Americans who have died in police or community actions in recent years. A dozen BSU members stood on stage, each coming forward as a photograph and name appeared on the screen. “Say his name: Trayvon Martin,” the first speaker began, telling about him as a person with family, with accomplishments, with dreams. With each life told, the closing, “Black lives matter,” was taken out of abstraction into the eyes of the portrait on the screen. A light shone for each person, and then a slideshow with more names and faces played as another hymn was sung. For those of us in the packed multipurpose room of the Williams Center, it was a time of silence and shared grief, with each person then asked to act for justice and equality.
In this election year, there has been much conversation on race in America, revealing the many unresolved issues and continued biases in our culture. Fredonia does not exist independently of these national conversations, but because of the power of such events as the candlelight vigil and the continued strong voices of students, faculty, and staff, we can make a difference here. I am grateful to the students who organized this event and remain committed to working with them on the changes they identified.