BLACK LIVES MATTER. The English department at the University of Southern California begins unequivocally with this premise, and in support of the political, social and cultural transformations that inhere in acknowledging this truth. As writers and scholars of literature, language and culture, we come to this statement with the understanding that our words alone, though potentially powerful, will not accomplish the material and structural transformations for racial justice that are long overdue at our university, and in academic institutions more broadly. Instead, this statement is meant, at once, to reckon with some of our own complicity in perpetuating racial inequality, while also inaugurating the sustained and challenging work of making substantive and profound change, not only in our department and at USC, but also, we hope, in the U.S. academy.
We collectively condemn the acts of harm, injustice, and both micro and macro aggressions enacted upon our Black students, staff and faculty, some of which have been documented extensively on the @black_at_usc Instagram account and in statements by campus organizations like the USC Black Student Athletes Association. We see these acts as an extension of the violence inflicted upon Black communities in the United States since its settler-colonial inception. We stand in support of our Black students, faculty, staff and neighbors and join in solidarity with the many calls to justice and action by other USC departments and organizations. Most urgently, we endorse the request for a Black studies center from the department of American Studies and Ethnicity, as well as the many material actions outlined in the Concerned Faculty of USC’s call for an extensive commitment to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) on campus and in our surrounding communities.
USC is situated in a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood in Los Angeles, and while we are proud of efforts like the university’s NAI (Neighborhood Academic Initiative), which prepares students from South and Southeast Los Angeles for admissions to colleges and universities, we demand a deeper accountability on this campus to harms inflicted daily upon our neighbors by DPS and the LAPD. We therefore also second the Concerned Faculty’s call for DPS to cease racial profiling under the false pretenses of “campus safety,” as well as their call to divest from the LAPD.
For our part, we as a department take accountability for our own deficiencies in addressing and engaging anti-racist approaches to scholarship, pedagogy and service, especially beyond the efforts of our faculty of color, who are often tasked and overburdened with performing that labor on our behalf, not only at USC, but also nationally.
“English” as a discipline is bound up with the language of English, the origins of an English-language literature in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and the global export of that literature through imperialism and colonization. The global presence of “English,” and the existence of “English” in the United States, cannot be separated from this history, which also includes the integral presence of slavery and Blackness. English as an academic field in general, and our own English department, must confront how Black Lives Matter is not just a political and cultural phenomenon outside of academia, but is directly connected to how our curriculum is structured; what constitutes a canon; and how whiteness is normalized in our selection of texts and authors and how we define methodologies, both in scholarship and in the practice of creative writing.
The whiteness of our department’s assumptions has its visible effect in how few Black undergraduate students we have. While the hiring, recruitment, and retention of Black faculty is crucial to attracting Black undergraduate and graduate students, it is also not enough. The English department will re-examine how its required undergraduate courses present a narrative of temporal progress in which the literatures of Black people, colonized peoples, and other people of color are marginalized. The department will continue to have problems attracting Black students and other students of color as long as the implicit message of marginalization continues.
This also extends to the department’s relationship to, and framing of, its research priorities for both graduate students and faculty. In the past, we have lost prospective Black graduate students because they did not see a community in which their research could be intellectually supported or mentored. This is also due in no small part to how our department has historically struggled with tenuring, promoting and retaining Black faculty and other faculty of color. We must acknowledge and take accountability for these difficult facts, and not only confront them, but also work to transform the biases that endure in our processes of evaluation for merit, tenure and promotion, not only within the department, but at the upper levels of the university.
Furthermore, until we have more tenured Black faculty, more senior Black leadership, more support for Black scholarship and creative work, more Black programming, more regard for Black art and cultural production and its undeniable centrality to U.S. and transnational culture and identity, as well as more recognition for all the work that Black faculty, and staff and faculty of color do in our department (academic, administrative, emotional, and otherwise), we will fail not only ourselves, but also our broader constituencies on campus and beyond. We must contribute to USC becoming a leader in these areas, especially in light of our occupation of South Los Angeles.
While we acknowledge the difficult, incremental work our department has undertaken in recent years by hiring and supporting Black junior faculty, we still have tremendous collective work to accomplish in order to address both past and enduring inequities. To these ends, we will begin by taking action on the following matters:
- For several years, we have requested to hire senior scholars in Black studies, and in Black literature and culture. We will continue pressing for this urgent need amongst our annual hiring priorities until we are granted the line.
- We pledge not to leave the work of teaching about racial inequality to only Black faculty and other faculty of color. Each faculty member should be able to incorporate and discuss related readings with students so there is not a prevailing sense that only some courses are attentive to race while others are not. We must, as a department, cultivate a shared ethos in which all of our work confronts and undoes white supremacy. We are committed to having an open and transparent discussion about these matters.
- We will transform our curriculum to be more representative of where we are located, as well as to the broader publics to which we are accountable. Right now our major requirements reinforce Anglo-centricity, replicating a hierarchy of knowledge rooted in colonialism. Pointing out the complicity of white-authored texts in systems of racial oppression and empire is not enough, and we will engage deeply in this work of transforming our curriculum to better prepare our students for an anti-racist understanding of the world.
- We will commit funding to support programming, events and intellectual work that centers Black literature and culture not only within our department, but in partnership with other campus units.
- It is imperative to reevaluate how we can attract and support Black undergraduate and graduate students, as well as other students of color. We must then follow up with concrete plans and actions to implement in the short and long term.
- While there is tremendous momentum right now for supporting anti-racist work, we vow not to slide in our commitment to undoing harmful practices while reimagining how we can, in perpetuity, do better. We must undergo periodic self-assessments and be willing to hear from students and faculty of color about how our department could better serve their needs.
We understand that undertaking these issues as a department is just the beginning of what needs to become an enduring project of undoing the structural inequalities of the discipline of English. We hope that our efforts at transparency, at reparative work, and at a deep reckoning with our own specific institutional history can contribute to the transformation not only of our department, but also of our university and surrounding community.