UNL's African and African American Studies Faculty Balance Teaching, Advocating, and Surviving

June 18, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

Activists kneel together at the Monroe Community Center. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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Faculty in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s African and African American studies program have had a busy few weeks as the nation grapples with police violence and white supremacy. They find themselves playing many roles: as teachers, activists, and community members.

In early June, UNL’s African and African American studies program issued a statement on the current racial crisis occurring in our nation and abroad. That statement detailed their demands, ranging from reexamining the university’s relationship with the police to providing better access to health and legal resources for students.

The statement is timely, but it’s also one in a long line of statements the program has had to make over the years.

Dr. Lory Dance is an associate professor of sociology and Ethnic Studies and the associate director of the institute for Ethnic Studies.

“This moment would be no different where we, given our expertise –we all have overlap in areas that have to do with African or African American studies –so given our expertise academically, we all had something to say, but even more importantly: most if not all of us are also activists; we work on the ground,” Dance said.

Dance’s activism includes working for social justice for Native Americans, an ethnic group she is not a part of. She hopes that people from all racialized and ethnic backgrounds will work for social justice for Black people to create a better world for their children.

“Because I think all too often people doing the right thing would then see themselves as noble and I don’t see myself as noble when I work with Native American issues," Dance said. "It’s the world I want to live in. I don’t do it because I want somebody to pat me on the back. So I would just call others to that… to create this world that we want to live in and that we want our children to live in free of so much discrimination and bias.”

Protests since the death of George Floyd have included people of many racial and ethnic backgrounds, and so do many classes in the African and African American studies program.

Dr. Kwakiutl Dreher is an associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies at UNL. She said her white students have told her that the readings she has assigned for her courses on race have helped them understand the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter protests.

“We think that our students who are of European descent understand what white privilege is. I feel, generally, that they don’t know," Dreher said. "So now they’re understanding the language, the quote-un-quote buzzwords that are having their due in our culture now on an international scale.”

Dreher also teaches students about the history of white privilege and white supremacy in America.

“One of the things that I am showing them and what they’re really in awe of is that white supremacy and white privilege have a root. It isn’t something that just came up out of somewhere or someone all of a sudden conjured it up," Dreher said. "There was great work that went into making white supremacy and white privilege take root in our culture.”

Helping students understand the history of race and racism in America is a big part of the work done by faculty in UNL’s African and African American studies program.

Associate professor Dr. Patrick Jones recently finished teaching a three-week class called America in the 60s, which includes covering the civil rights’ movement. He said students learned about the different avenues for change, as well as the persistence of systems of oppression.

“Looking at that era and seeing the resurgence of a conservatism at the end of the 60s and beyond was [a] powerful reminder in a moment where a lot of people are feeling high, but the work of change has yet to really be done, and we’re seeing the push back,” Jones said.

Since the statement by the African and African American studies faculty was released, Jones has been working with UNL’s administration on the faculty’s demands. He said he’s hopeful, but the faculty have been through these types of discussions before.

“Currently the administration seems to be working hard to accomplish that," Jones said. "They’re hearing new voices, including new voices, and they are willing to at least acknowledge that in the past they have not done what needs to be done to make real and sustained and meaningful change.”

The work of teaching and advocating for change is added to an already heavy personal load for Black faculty.

Dr. Jeannette Eileen Jones is an associate professor of history and Ethnic Studies at UNL. She spoke to NET while going for a walk. She emphasized how important it is for Black people to look after the whole self, especially now.

“That doesn’t mean we shirk what we see as our responsibility to our communities, our families," Jones said. "We’re coming from places where if you look right now where we are, where we come from, those places on the map are being decimated by COVID. And they’re also sites of social unrest.”

Despite the emotional and physical toll of the work, Jones says she wants to keep doing it, including though statements like this one.

“I do think it’s important that we send both a message to the students, foremost, but also to the institution, that we are here, we are responding - almost all too often- and that we’re here for these students," Jones said. "But we also want to be a voice to express their concerns to the administration and to be allies with them because they’re also doing their own work.”

For these faculty members, the work of teaching, advocating, and surviving goes on, especially as the nation grapples with race in its past, present, and future.