From the President

The History of the Crescendo

Students voice their concerns at a #BlackOutSLC rally. Photo by Quyen Nguyen

Following our commencement ceremonies last year, Nathara Bailey, a senior, handed me a copy of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In her inscription, she referred to the importance of continuing the dialogue on race that had begun on campus. Nathara had helped organize a collective called Dangers of a Single Narrative. She and three other students wrote and circulated a document about the experiences of students of color at Sarah Lawrence, particularly the “mental and emotional fear” they sometimes felt on campus. The paper spawned a number of discussions in our committees, in Student Senate, and in a series of events and talks.

This year, on campuses around the country, the concept of “safety” has surfaced even more prominently in dialogues about race—safety defined not as locked doors but as freedom from verbal assault and insensitivity. This increased attention to what students perceive as micro-aggressions has arisen within the context of glaring instances of systemic racism and violence in cities around the country.

Dangers of a Single Narrative was intended as a renewed wake-up call, since it is not the first time students of color at Sarah Lawrence exhorted the campus community to listen to voices missing from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, even at a progressive institution like Sarah Lawrence.

In November, undergraduate and graduate students planned and mobilized a #BlackOutSLC demonstration attended by approximately 200 students, staff, and faculty on the South Lawn. The students of color who organized the rally spoke eloquently about their experiences, an eloquence rooted in anger and disappointment with the school they clearly love. Since this rally, students have led efforts to address the needs they have identified by working with faculty, administration, and staff through ongoing meetings and dialogue. They have called for stronger concrete action to improve the racial climate on campus, including recruitment of greater numbers of black students, faculty, and staff. As I write this column, Al Green, in his role as dean of equity and inclusion; Danny Trujillo, our new dean of studies and student life; and Kevin McKenna, dean of enrollment, are working with the community on a range of orientation, recruitment, and retention practices that should make a difference. Students have petitioned for and gained a social justice cooperative house, a student-led community in which residents will develop and plan programming to foster dialogue and enhance awareness of acts of bias and oppression. We hope that the Compact of Mutual Respect, created last year on campus, will guide us through passionate, even heated, exchanges. And yet, we should also attempt to understand the heat. As two philosophy faculty from Cornell and Yale wrote in The Chronicle Review: “We often tune in to the action only when people have reached a breaking point. And then we wonder why they are yelling, ignoring the history of the crescendo.”

I have spent time this past year reading and thinking about the history of the crescendo. Nathara’s gift allowed me to revisit Toni Morrison, one of the most powerful analysts of what is said and unsaid about race in American literature. I have learned from Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have offered different versions of the history of racial oppression. In Citizen: An American Lyric, the contemporary poet Claudia Rankine tries to convey something about the lived experience of this history, internalized as a spectrum from violence through callousness of gesture and word. “You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus.” From listening to students, I believe this is not about policing speech or political correctness. In fact, in keeping with our aspirations to be open and inclusive, we must make every attempt to shelter honest, often difficult dialogue, in and out of the classroom, if we are really to acknowledge one another.

KarenKaren R. Lawrence, President