By Armonté Butler
As a junior at Sewanee, I have enjoyed my time here and have truly valued the liberal arts that have allowed me to think critically through historical, social, economic, political, and cultural contexts about the knowledge that I gain on a daily basis. The liberal arts tradition has given me the opportunity to recognize and become aware of social justice issues through a diverse lens and explore various opinions in efforts of creating my own through an in-depth examination of what is presented.
The main purpose of The University of the South is to educate and develop students so they are “prepared to search for truth, seek justice, [and] preserve liberty under law.” As stated by the Vice-Chancellor in a speech at the “celebration” of the sesquicentennial of Sewanee’s Second Founding, the university is charged with preparing students for the world, deepening minds and strengthening character. In this quest for truth and justice, it is important to consider and acknowledge who this university was initially founded for; who built this university; and how that relates to a campus of growing diverse community members, faculty and staff, and student body. A quick Google search of “Slavery and the Founding of The University of the South” should allow you to find a PDF document by European-American historian Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. He was President and Vice-Chancellor of Sewanee from 1988-2000 and taught History here until 2005. In his piece he highlights that “All of the principal founders of The University of the South owned slaves” (136). He later adds: “The archival records show that black labor, meaning slaves, was used to construct the early roads that made the cornerstone ceremony possible” (137). It was surprising not to hear an echo of Williamson’s words, including “slavery,” elitist, “black labor,” “white,” “wealthy,” and “privileged,” ever mentioned in the speech at the March 22 celebration. I began to ask myself how much progress has been made on the domain.
I hope to spark a conversation that helps to restore both truth and reconciliation about the First and Second Founding—and navigate through an intersectional lens the story, legacy, and how it relates to Sewanee today in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and immigration. Upon noticing there was a photo taken of me with my head down, I decided to write this opinion piece. While at the “celebration,” I did not see many students in attendance, unless they were members of the Student Government Association or Sewanee Angels. The amount of students in attendance that were queer, Black, or Latino was even lower. Uncoincidentally, I wore a shirt inspired by feminists of color that read Audre [Lorde] & Gloria [Anzaldúa] & Angela [Davis] & bell [hooks]. The four aforementioned women are writers, scholars, and critical race, gender, sexuality, and class theorists in their own right. Each of the women have educated me through their works on the intersection between theory and practice, more about critical thinking and notions of privilege.
As a black queer male, what does it mean to attend a “celebration” of the sesquicentennial of Sewanee’s second founding? What does it mean to be The [New] University of the South? For me, that means to ensure that we are thinking critically everyday about our actions and privileges through an intersectional lens. Coined by African-American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory Kimberlé Crenshaw, this intersectional lens describes the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.
At the celebration Vice-Chancellor McCardell noted to audience of students, faculty, and staff that “We must always challenge ourselves and this institution to be, dare I say it, a better, stronger, truer version of its essential self” and I could not agree more. What does a better version of Sewanee look like? What does a stronger version of Sewanee look like? What does a truer version of Sewanee look like? If these issues sound familiar, it’s because the questions Sewanee faced then are still present today.
A truer version of Sewanee provides an awareness of who—usually white, heterosexual middle and upper-class men—is writing the narrative and what is being left out. A truer version of Sewanee provides truth and reconciliation about the founding fathers of this university. A truer version of Sewanee details the truths behind The University of the South in relation to the Civil War, the Confederacy, Southern white gentility and masculinity, and racism.
The Vice-Chancellor added several benefits of challenging ourselves to be a better Sewanee which included: ensuring access for admitted students through increased funding for financial aid, supporting students with expanded internship and experiential learning opportunities, and attracting the best new faculty and staff members who will bring a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to the Mountain. While the speech about how we are a better and more progressive university that promotes inclusion leaves an indelible memory on those who have heard it far too many times, I wonder how many individuals on both groups of the Second Founding planning committees included 1) People of color 2) An equal ratio of genders 3) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, and intersex individuals. If everyone on the planning committees were of mutual race and sexuality, and other shared characteristics, then we are not illustrating how Sewanee can actually be a university that reflects American pluralism and a “place of new prominence and vigorous leadership” as noted by Dr. McCardell. We are unable to be a university that is best at “fostering 21st century programing” if we do not have a diverse body of individuals at the table in all decision making in university planning and achievements that extend beyond the two planning committee groups.
Sewanee will “be an institution known for an enduring commitment to the liberal arts, as well as integrated programs that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries,” said McCardell. While a speech about progress at Sewanee could influence some to feel empowered about living in community, others have heard the same words countlessly. Like many students, as we see national conversations and actions on college campuses surrounding founding fathers, privilege, and racism, we are tired of committees. We are tired of panel discussions on diversity. We would like to see actions taken place and individuals in power, who are still predominantly white heterosexual males, and of the same class background, which is parallel to the individuals who founded the university for the first and second time, to fight for us. If we are going to continue to challenge notions of what Sewanee will be we must act on it, everyday. So I ask, what transformation is needed to move beyond rhetoric?
What are we celebrating when marginalized voice and diverse bodies of people are erased from the founding of this university? Historically oppressed groups—those that are black, Latino, queer, trans, undocumented, disabled, and of lower-income—should be an integral part of this university and the educational system as a whole. It is truly time to wake up and recognize that they have historically been the ones on the ground physically building this place. As we define this new South that aims to no longer embrace white supremacist slave-holding Confederates, are we doing our job by maintaining the status quo with committees of all White and straight individuals? While this may seem unavoidable given the makeup of the university, I believe that Sewanee is diverse enough to begin bringing multicultural individuals to the forefront and decision making tables. Are we truly moving forward or back? How do we move forward with action by continuing to critique what is known by feminist scholar bell hooks as the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?”
If reading this caused a nerve, or disapproval, consider this:
1. If you read this without the ability to think critically about what you know and challenge assumptions and norms, then Sewanee has not done a good job at challenging you.
2. If you were allowed to attend this university since the initial and second founding due to your race, class, sexuality, and gender privileges, this is a time of changing energies and feelings of guilt to those of responsibility. What are you doing in your everyday life to make this school more intersectional and inclusive for everyone? How can you use what you know about privilege and operate from a that position of power?