By Michaela James-Thrower
What does it mean to be the first Black vice-chancellor at the University of the South? On February 7, Vice-Chancellor Reuben E. Brigety began this year’s Growing in Grace service by answering this exact question. Being Black at Sewanee is enduring hatred.
Growing in Grace is an evening worship service that invites a new speaker each week to speak on the theme of the semester. This semester’s theme is “Break the Bad, Cheer the Sad.” Brigety was this year’s kick-off speaker, setting the tone for a wave of sympathy and reflection among the community.
Brigety took the opportunity to voice the repeated violent attacks and vandalism his family endured last semester.
Brigety responded to the attacks with humble and courageous words of forgiveness. He says, “to the phantoms who have repeatedly disrespected my family and defiled our home, I forgive you. Completely, and genuinely, and unconditionally,” claiming that his forgiveness is “rooted in Christian love.”
Students rallied to support Brigety after hearing about this injustice, but the question of why this happened remains unanswered.
Black Student Union President Michaela Blow (C’ 22) asks, “Why would someone target a vice-chancellor who has done nothing but listen to us? He made an exception immediately to a drug policy that has been in place for years. He understood the students’ concerns and made a change quickly. He’s here for us.”
There is significant curiosity coming from the student body in terms of the cause of these attacks. Due to this lack of answers, I feel unsafe on this campus. A Black man in the highest office on this campus, so how am I, a little gay Black girl, supposed to feel safe when I know that violence can come at any time unprovoked?
Brigety is relatively new to the Sewanee community, so Blow is correct in asserting that Brigety has not done anything to warrant acts of hatred. Brigety accepted the role of vice-chancellor on February 28, 2020 and only moved to campus in June. Being a member of Sewanee’s community for less than a year definitely does not explain the level of hatred behind the attacks he and his family suffered. Brigety is a man of prestige and in no way is he average, having served as an ambassador, dean, and academic before accepting his position at Sewanee. Removing class and credentials from the equation, there is nothing left but race.
From my perspective, the attacks on the vice-chancellor have shown that assimilation will not lead to fitting in on this campus either. Brigety has made a life for himself in a white world and earned countless honors along the way, but this attempt has done nothing for him in Sewanee. It seems to me that no matter the effort, Sewanee will reject anything that isn’t white.
Noah Shively (C’ 24) said, “Sewanee is a predominantly white community and always has been. These attacks, to me, seem like they’re just trying to say that ‘Sewanee always will be white’.”
Although students, faculty, staff, and other members of the community rallied to show their support for Brigety, it is clear that Brigety has no reason to be targeted other than the color of his skin. Tiani Williams (C’ 24) explains the situation perfectly: “People are threatened by Black men in power,” she says. “It takes a strong person to say that they won’t be moved when hate is looking at them right in the face, screaming at them to jump.”
In understanding these attacks, it may be easier to say that race has nothing to do with it or that the issue is in no way racially-motivated, but to do that is to claim that we live in a color-blind society. Brigety is a Black man and his existence at this university is shaped by that.
Blow says, “We have to make it about race because my existence is political.”
The fact that Brigety is in Sewanee as the first Black vice-chancellor is a political statement that this community has rejected by allowing such hate to progress.
As a Black man, Brigety has been urged to tolerate more and endure adversity. Brigety made it clear that through compassion, he will combat Sewanee’s old habits and encourage new customs of love and understanding.