June 5, 2020
Dear history students,
We know that the present always shapes our writing about the past. None of us, students and faculty alike, will ever be able to write about the past in the same way again. The horrifying murder of George Floyd has led to mass uprisings against the militarized police who have directed state-sponsored violence against Black bodies. We know that many of you have chosen to throw your energy and passion into supporting these peaceful protests. Many of you have also found other ways to demonstrate your condemnation of police brutality. As historians who study how people can make change over time, we deeply appreciate the power of protest. In this moment, we commit ourselves, alongside you, to using our positions to speak against anti-black, state-sanctioned violence.
In our minds’ eye, we can see threads of the past converge into this moment: the slave patrols that metamorphosed into police; the ways that COINTELPRO tried to undermine social movements; the rise of authoritarianism around the world; the political symbolism of churches and bibles; the development of school-to-prison pipelines and corporate prisons; the role of public health in political movements. As many have said, the system is not broken — it is doing what it was designed to do. The strategies of a settler colonial system maintained through the exploitation of Black communities are plainly visible this week.
This knowledge does not and should not reassure any of us. But for the long history of structural violence, there is an equally long history of resistance and strategy. We can also all call to mind the intrepid people who marched and wrote and worked for a better world. We are reassured to know that we can count many of you among their number.
Legal scholar Derrick A. Bell, Jr. wrote, “My challenge is now to tell the truth about racism without causing disabling despair. For some of us who bear the burdens of racial subordination, any truth — no matter how dire — is uplifting.” He argued, “Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. The fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future.” In our continued struggle to find and speak the truth together, we are here alongside you.
The history department has long been committed to addressing structural inequities of all kinds including race, ethnicity, gender, class, wealth, and nationality in our work and teaching. But the structural inequities laid bare by the recent pandemic and murders show us plainly that we must redouble our efforts.
As a department, we pledge to devote both funds and time to learning more about the historical injustices against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color across the world. We would like to start with a faculty-student book group on the history of racist thought in America, for which we can offer a small stipend to participants. Looking ahead to the fall, we have agreed that we will select Lefler speakers whose lectures will speak to these topics as well. Similarly, we will hold career panels to help you explore pathways from a history major to careers in racial justice. We look forward to hearing from you about other ideas that you would find helpful.
We appreciate that this is an exhausting and intense time for you in many different ways. We hope that, whether graduating senior or rising sophomore, you will stay connected with us and with each other to find support of many kinds, conversation partners, and opportunities to express, reflect, plan, and act. We are here for you now, and will be over the next weeks, months, and years. We are holding all of you in our thoughts.
Seungjoo Yoon, Department Chair
P.S. For an addendum to this letter by Professor Harry Williams, please click here.