We in the Department of Black Studies were moved by Thursday’s walkout and sit-in at Frost Library. Initially an expression of solidarity with students at Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere, it quickly turned into an intense, fiery event, full of compelling stories of struggle, friendship, insistence on belonging, and an overwhelming demand that the institution change. Spoken directly to the Dean of Faculty, those words bore truths that are as old as the presence of students of color on campus and as new as the demands of student life today.
Again my classmates hide and in darkness come to silence me. Again attempting to sacrifice black life for all life, a theme all too common. Posters in Val, displayed anonymously, again, mourned the death of free speech as the “true victim” of black suffering. Bold statements from a void. You, in placing these posters so publicly in our dining hall, where I was supposed to see them, be surrounded by them, where are you?
To be an Amherst College student without a group is to walk around with no skin. It is to feel continuously vulnerable and overexposed to the elements. This overexposure is all consuming and exhausting. Participating in class, hellos to acquaintances — the most mundane tasks can seem daunting here. The stakes of being, the continuous scrutiny of our teachers and peers, can sometimes feel so incredibly high. “Did I say this thing right in class," “I feel so awkward here,” “I just want a safe space" — very little anonymity or security exists for some on this campus.
Amherst, who are we? That’s the crucial question facing our school today. Let me explain.
I’m a first-year. I’m new to this school and new to this whole college thing. I’d like to think I came to Amherst with a fresh perspective, unbiased by the twists and turns of college life. So with that in mind, when my friends back in Florida call and ask, “So what is Amherst like?” I find it surprisingly difficult to answer that question. Normally, college students can easily point to a prevalent campus culture. But here at Amherst, that isn’t the case.
Democracy is alive at Amherst College, but barely.
Many students on campus have been following the presidential primary race religiously. But few students have any idea what is going on with Amherst’s own student government.
There is no point to having a democratic system if the people it aims to serve do not actively involve themselves in carrying out its functions. AAS meetings are open to the public — yet it’s rare to see non-senators at a meeting. Any student can run for senate — yet each year many senate races are uncontested.
We at Amherst speak of organizing social life on the model of the team. We have athletic, Title IX and case management teams. Deans throw around the phrase “teams of students.” The 2015 strategic plan recommends “creating teams of first-year students and staff” to cure cultures of busyness and loneliness, cultures which preclude “social interaction and community.” Of course, never are we asked exactly how teams will resolve the lack of “social interaction and community.”
It takes a sense of humor to reflect on the plight of poor Lord Jeff, especially for a member of the college’s older generation who nonetheless has concluded, sadly, that it is time for him to go. Even though as a child I stood on chairs to study maps of his campaigns which adorned the walls of the Inn named for him. But first, we need some perspective.