My Letter of the Week: Dear Silence, It’s Me, Toniesha.
Yesterday was Sunday. On Sundays, I like to make a cup of coffee, sit on my sofa and scroll through Twitter while watching the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. I am all about #nerdland. It gives me joy to see Dr. Harris-Perry’s fully human academic self-talking about the issues of the day. Her show is the modern day media equivalent of the public lectures, salons, and coffeehouses of previous centuries. I am happy to participate as a scholar and sister citizen, to borrow terminology from her book of the same title. I’ll admit, however, that yesterday I was nervous. Hopeful but nervous. I knew from Saturday’s teaser that Melissa Harris-Perry was going to discuss the investigation into what happened to Sandra Bland. I knew that she was likely to show all or part of the video that friends and family of Sandra Bland say captured her arrest. I knew because I am a communication scholar, that the images, though not verified by NBC News, would be played at critical points in the discussion to lend editorial effect to the conversation. I accept and understand. Interestingly, this was not what I was nervous about, even though I have purposely avoided this video. I was nervous about the silences that might happen in this narrative. I was nervous because I knew the silences would be there despite the best intentions of Melissa Harris-Perry and her editorial staff. Yet, I was hopeful I would be wrong. I made my coffee, got my laptop and waited for the commercial to end and Melissa to prove me wrong.
I posted this statement on social media at the end of the first segment during the commercial. “Happening now, on Melissa Harris-Perry she is discussing Sandra Bland. I am concerned that she is talking about PVAMU, but there is yet to be a representative of PVAMU discussing PVAMU. THIS IS NOT HER FAULT. It is PVAMU's fault. We simply cannot act like we can be silent on our own stories. We CAN'T. One of these panelists should be a PVAMU scholar who is an expert on race, class, and gender. I'll take an expert on voter rights. Or an expert on criminal justice. God knows we are out here!”
To say I was hot as fish grease is an understatement. I could use less colorful, more colloquial language and say I was vexed or perturbed but truthfully that doesn’t capture the full sense of my emotions. Dr. Harris-Perry’s entire discussion, of some nineteen minutes, included a careful discussion of Waller County demographics, the history of Prairie View A&M University students advocating for voting rights, and end with a discussion with Sharon Cooper, Sandra Bland’s sister, and family attorney Cannon Lambert. There was the requisite journalistic parsing of implied neutrality concerning a narrative that is far from over. Central to the story were the facts of Sandra Bland’s arrest that are not under dispute. Sandra Bland’s biography as related to her reasons for being in Prairie View was treated with dignity. Dr. Harris-Perry included a Harris County lawyer for some perspective on the local legal and law enforcement practices. Everyone you would expect to see because we have seen far too many of these discussions, was present. Everyone but one. Where was Prairie View? Who spoke for the university or rather who spoke for the intellectual and personal tradition of the university?
We've seen other moments of violence affect campus communities around the country where university administrators, students, faculty, and officials stood before cameras and in television studios to present narratives of their university as a place of ideas and safety. A place where violence may come, but it is not indicative of the everyday.
In the case of slain Muslim graduate students Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill officials were engaged in a clear and present narrative. They visibly stood with the family in calling for justice, asked for respect and issued their condolences. There was—at least to the public—a visible narrative of care or at least self-preservation on the part of the university. As an institution, it was clear their response was designed to remind the public of one theme—Tar Hill country is safe. It is true that there were members of the victims‘ families as well as friends that disputed the university’s claim; however, every scholar, official or administrator that stepped up to tell UNC’s narrative privileged three crucial points: safety, protection and intellectually-fueled solutions. The third point was a little tricky, but they pulled it off with their experts who contributed to discussions on the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments post 9/11 and the problems associated with anti-Muslim violence. UNC managed to make the narrative clear. UNC is a safe place to attend school. UNC protects its students when the university knows of issues. UNC will be safer after this tragedy because the faculty and staff experts who know and understand the causes of anti-Muslim violence and can implement local, national, and global solutions.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could have taken a different route. They could have been silent. What happened to Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha happened off -campus. It happened after hours. It happened in their home where the university, presumably, has little to no responsibility for what happened. There is a version of what happened that allows us to reason that there could be complete silence from the university. There could be room to expect the common; we don’t comment on ongoing investigations, comment. That is not what UNC did. And there is the lesson.
Let’s return to Sandra Bland, Melissa Harris-Perry and Prairie View A&M University in light of the example of the University of North Carolina and their response to what happened to Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. When Melissa Harris-Perry aired her show live on Sunday, July 19, 2015, I felt confident that part of the research that went into the preparation was to reach out to the university for comment. While she did not say that she or her show reached out, I would like to believe that they did. Up to that point, Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) had put out one public statement via their Facebook page and Twitter. Now, full disclosure: I am an Associate Professor of Communication at Prairie View A&M University. My area of study is womanist rhetoric. I focus on how Black women engage in social justice and public discourse. The particulars of Sandra Bland’s life, death, and legacy would be of great interest to me even if I were not a member of the faculty at PVAMU. The fact that she was arrested a mile from my office door is disturbing and that she was mistreated during her arrest, and found dead while in police custody would be upsetting in general. That she was in town because she was an alumnus returning to accept a staff position when she was arrested and died is more than I have space to grieve. What keeps me off kilter at this moment, what keeps me from my considered balance, is the silence on the part of the university. Here is a moment of unspeakable tragedy for Sandra Bland’s family, friends, sorority sisters, future colleagues, and the nation and the response is silence.
It is this silence that as a member of this community I want to both disrupt and challenge. A silence I want to break down and cast out. I hope that as we move forward, this type of silence will stop and never again take place.
Yes, PVAMU was silent. Yes, silence is an act of communicative discourse. Yes, silence has multiple meanings. The university has been reluctant or unable, through staffing shortages, to constructively participate in crucial many local, national, and global conversations. Jarrett Carter, HBCU Digest, argues the inability of HBCUs to engage in broader conversations stems from three key factors: “(1) faculty don’t share their research with the PR department, (2) PR officials don't know how to sell scholarship and research to a general news desk, and (3) general news desks don’t generally want to report on scholarship.” That last one is very true. Until a moment like this. It is in these moments of violence and upheaval where the press scrabbles to find anyone they can with credentials to speak. Often, as most journalists are university trained, they turn to their alma maters. Their next stop is the university closest to their newsroom. When a university is part of the narrative of the tragedy being reported, the first place a journalist goes is to that university. They will ask anyone -- PR person(s), university administrators, faculty -- anyone they can find. Savvy university administrators are prepared for the possible onslaught with a list of on the active faculty. As experts in our fields, why wouldn’t we be ready to talk at length about any topic? The answer is we are always ready. Forgive the phrase, but in this way, faculty stay woke. While it is true, some of us are more media-savvy than others, the point is, we are all ready to talk. Point us in the direction of a willing audience, and we will talk about our area of research with passion until--insert whatever phrase indicating a long time you prefer. So why, when Sandra Bland, a young woman honing her skills as a citizen journalist and activist, well versed in social media with her own social media moniker “Sandy Speaks,” dies in police custody, would PVAMU choose institutional silence? Was it extreme grief? Lack of institutional preparedness? Muted leadership? Or institutional complacency?
I cannot tell you why the institution chose silence. I can only tell you that they wanted silence. Now is the time to ask critical questions of that silence and push back on silence as a communicative choice.
What does it say to our communities of students, alum, faculty, staff, donors, families and neighbors that something like this could happen to our own and we have no response? Moreover, that we will be silent in the national conversation about us? I'll be honest; I would rather see a university response steeped in highly questionable and dangerous respectability politics than the laydown silence of complacency, grief, or unpreparedness. At least a vocal politic of respectability is a voice. It does stand for something. I don't like it, and I won't participate in it because it is dangerous, but nothing is as dangerous as silence. Nothing is as maddening as allowing your story to be told by someone else.
The truth is we all edit our narratives. When we are telling someone else's truth, not only do we edit, but we are often blind to nuances known by cultural insiders. The further the narrative gets from those who live that truth, the shorter the story becomes. If the university had participated in the narrative Sandra Bland's family, their lawyer and Melissa Harris-Perry were telling on Sunday; there would have been a sense of safety, protection, and intellectually fueled solutions.
I've seen enough of Dr. Harris-Perry's show and read enough of her academic work to know that had PVAMU participated she likely would have spent upwards of 30 minutes talking all things political engagement, women's lives, Black lives, activism, and the role of HBCUs and social justice with PVAMU at the center. This was a moment to stand visible. This was our opportunity to live our tradition nationally. Melissa Harris-Perry’s table should have included a member of Pantherland who could speak to the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s death and proclaim the truth of why she wanted to come back to Pantherland. Sandra Bland called her family excited about her new job because she knew Pantherland is where you want to learn, work, and live. She had a passion for the traditions with the goal of sharing our opportunities with others.
So why would we stay silent and fail her by silencing ourselves? Why would we limit our voice? Why would we not speak? Prairie View A&M University should have been embodied as an institution and proclaimed our tradition as space where safety, protection, and intellectual solutions are paramount. In every moment going forward, we should have representatives in the form of students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, and donors empowered to speak to the traditions of excellence at PVAMU. We should be able to speak to the desire for social justice and equity. We should speak to and listen for community solutions to an unjust policing system that currently plagues Waller County but is indicative of a national problem. We should be able to work in concert with community partners as members of this community to heal but also to change.
Silence simply cannot be our choice. While Sunday was a lost moment, we do not have to stay silent. I'm saying enough of the silence in this house. We will speak for ourselves. We are Panthers! This is Pantherland!