The nation bore witness, yet again, to the persistent legacy of racism and hatred, as the events in Charlottesville, VA unfolded. Many have voiced their outrage at the nature of these events. “Love over Hate” has been a unifying cry as neo-Nazis, racist, bigots, and fascist (rebranded as white nationalists) converged from across the country spreading their message of hate, instilling fear, and ensuring that their monuments and symbols are protected. I am saddened by the murder of Heather Heyer and the tragic deaths of H. Jay Cullen and Berkeley M. M. Bates, both Virginia State Troopers, who died while on duty providing air support during the riot. I am equally saddened for the women and men like DeAndre Harris who were also injured during this riot that was predicated on pure evil and the raw unvarnished hatred and carnage those attitudes and actions leave behind.
As president of the nation’s oldest private HBCU, I reflected on the violence and hate, not only because of the events, I also wondered how my students were internalizing and making meaning of what they witnessed. This entire weekend I vacillated between uncomfortable stages of fixation, paralysis, and the undeniable action associated when one embraces the realization of now. This weekend also found me in consultation with scholars, homeboys, theologians, and the sage in my village whom I revere for their sound reasoning. As I slowly migrated from my fixation on these unconscionable events, I am defiantly opposed to capitulation. This vitriolic tenor set by a segment of society bent on perpetuating violence, superiority, and anarchy must be confronted if we are serious about the abolishment of white supremacy.
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take a position because it is right.” These powerful and poignant words offered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is precisely why I, we, Wilberforce University must act. Moreover, what I witnessed this weekend found me questioning how do we mirror the activism HBCUs and their students played in creating dialogue, nurturing change agents, and asserting our desire to witness this nation fulfill its ideals as we have in the past.
Like many HBCUs, we at Wilberforce University have a history of producing leaders and leading. Our namesake, William Wilberforce was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to stop the slave trade. Daniel Alexander Payne, our founder, was the first African-American College president in the United States of America, and shaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bayard Rustin was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Vaughan, considered one of the greatest minds in the history of NASA, was the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the center. The point here, Wilberforce has led this nation in many ways, many times before and she will do so now.
As on many campuses, Wilberforce University held conversations about the despicable actions of this past weekend. We identified key issues, challenged white nationalism, and asked, what now? Students engaged in meaningful conversations in various campus spaces, but as president, I am left asking what now, and more specifically what more should we do. Should students at HBCUs, who are recipients of the dream, be transformed into “Guardians of the Dream”? I think so. Keepers of the Dream have license to pontificate about theory. Guardianship is rooted in action and dictates that we oversee the dream into fruition. The effort for Wilberforce to lead will come through the Dr. Mark and Shelly Wilson, Center for Entrepreneurship, Social Good and Transformative Leadership. The Center will serve as a core to creating an experience for Wilberforce students to develop and cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit, participate in transformative leadership opportunities, and grapple with social justice issues of our time.
Imagine a space, on an HBCU campus, where the best and the brightest converge to collaborate with the common goal of changing our social climate. Or space designed to cultivate transformative leaders while simultaneously producing change agents adeptly equipped with the tools to materialize the complex notion we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all. Our obligation to the next generation and to our ancestors is to leave this nation, and the world, better than we met it. The riot this past weekend is another example of how we are quickly devolving as a nation and must also serve as fuel for continuing to implement social change. What role will you play?