Dear Sewanee, save your tears

Gowns left by a stained glass window celebrating 150 Years of Sewanee in Convocation Hall. Photo courtesy of George Burruss (C’22).

By Peggy Owusu-Ansah
Contributing Writer

As a person of color on this campus, more specifically a Black person, I do not want your tears. I do not want your sadness, and I especially don’t want your naivete. I just want you to listen at this moment.

On the one year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death, a woman that was unjustly killed in her sleep; whose life was proven in court to matter less than the property damage that was perpetrated by police, members of this community verbally assaulted lacrosse players from Emmanuel College with racist remarks. I do not care if they thought it was funny, and you cannot convince me that they did not know better. 

These next few days will be full of “How do we reconcile?” “We are here for you!” “I cannot believe that this happened here!” “The actions of a few DO NOT represent this community.” But they do. The Vice Chancellor of this community, along with his home and his family, have been attacked by students since last semester; and the next week, we walked around like nothing happened. That’s appalling. 

When student leaders rallied together to create a call to action condemning the attacks against the Vice-Chancellor, it took days to get 700 signatures. When a gathering size petition was made, it got over 1000 signatures in less than a day. Certain priorities have been made very clear on this campus. 

If it is outside of your comfort, you do not want it. If it does not directly affect you, you do not want it. If you feel as though attacks were somehow warranted, you do not want it. 

After this weekend, or maybe even following these last six weeks have you felt embarrassed? Upset? Degraded? Worried for your safety? Try feeling that everyday. The lacrosse game is not the “proof” we needed to see that Sewanee is racist, you just have not been paying attention. Ever since I have been at this University, people of color have been talking about the microaggressions and downright racist acts that have been perpetrated against them in and outside of the classroom. But it did not matter, because no one was paying attention. 

Do you want to know what it is like to be a person of color on this campus? It is sitting in a classroom and when a fact or figure happens to pertain to your skin tone, the entire class is waiting for you to speak for your race. I am not the one with the doctorate, nor do I wish to be. It is giving a tour to incoming students and their parents asking me how much money I received in financial aid when I have never even mentioned being a Posse Scholar.

It is strangers crossing the street and following you in the middle of the night just to stop you and ask, “Can I touch your hair?” It is my white peers assuming that I listened to the newest rap album, and being shocked when I haven’t. It is having last year be the celebration of 50 Years of Women at Sewanee, but also the 50 Year Celebration of the first Black student at the College of Arts and Sciences with no recognition. 

It is knowing that at any point you may be a victim to explicit racism. It is consistently having to unteach to my colleagues the stereotypes that they have learned about me in the media; because for some reason, all general senses of how to treat a person walk out the door once I arrive. It is being treated like a caricature of my race in my everyday life. But that would just be a normal year for me.

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were all murdered within the same season, and I saw an outcry of support from social media after we went into lockdown. For once, I felt important to the people on this campus. But soon after in a conversation with a friend, she said, “I just really hope that this keeps up. I am so nervous that the Black Lives Matter movement is only getting all of this support because of COVID, because people have nothing better to do.” 

Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23) stands among gowns in Convocation Hall, which hosts several portraits of Confederate founders of the University of the South. Behind her are portraits of Vice-Chancellor Telfair Hodgson (left) and Chancellor James Hervey Otey (right), both Confederates. Photo courtesy of George Burruss (C’22)

I saw emails of support and statements from individuals calling themselves out; statements that all magically disappeared once we got back. All summer I saw posts of allyship and people reeducating themselves and all kinds of powerful forms of allyship. It was amazing to see people wanting to better themselves and claiming to call out casual racism. 

But all of that went away when in retaliation to the drug policy, I heard students saying, “Well it is not fair to have this policy because it will disproportionately affect Black and brown students.” That is a statement that wrongfully perpetuates the misconception that Black and brown people are more likely to be involved with drugs, which is statistically unproven on this campus. 

When Sewanee athletes were not allowed to travel to play against other schools in the NCAA, certain players decided to quote Maya Angelou, a prominent Black poet and activist for Black rights, to air out their frustrations. Many students claim that everything that has happened to the Vice-Chancellor thus far has nothing to do with race. But if you look at the record, no other Vice-Chancellor has been spoken to or treated like this, even when our previous Vice-Chancellor was initially against stripping Charlie Rose, a known assaulter, from his honorary degree. You do not have to believe me, but it should make you wonder why you refuse to. 

I have a lot of love for Sewanee. But everyday it gets harder to stand up for a school and a culture that does not respect me, does not allow me to take up space in everyday life, and honestly, does not love me and my peers back. One of the hardest things that I have to do, not only as a tour guide, but as a student, is look Black and brown parents in the eye and have them ask me, “Will my child be safe here?” I have never lied to a single parent, but every time I get asked the question, my heart gets a little heavier.

I am tired of having conversations about how EQB or the Honor Code is supposed to help me, because right now it isn’t. I am tired of having conversations of how people are finally “waking up” to racism. I am tired of us acting as though racism cannot touch the Mountain. I am tired of people asking me how I feel at this moment, as if I do not feel this way everyday.

 I am tired of being so mad that at this point I can only feel sad. Sad that this community refuses to change no matter how much trauma we share or bridges we burn along the way to make Sewanee seem like a beacon of light. I am exhausted because I feel like so often racism is seen as a BIPOC problem. That we consistently have to bear the brunt of the load and create our own solutions even after we have identified the problems to administration. 

Racism at Sewanee is everyone’s problem, and it did not start with this lacrosse game.

Do I think that this message will get to the people that actually need to read it at Sewanee? I don’t know, but if you take away anything, please take this with you. Your peers of color did not sign up to be your teacher or your punching bag; and we are especially not meant to be your test run on how to act towards people of color. We are here as students, same as you, and we should be treated as such.

30 comments

    1. Its alright to mistreat others until you find yourself in the group of “others” …. I have found hope that people with a conscience are gaining the courage to speak up ….
      Just this week we heard from a strong leader in the Baptist Ministry denouncing racism, and gender inequality. I see hope and have faith that humanity will prevail … If we continue to have the courage to call out the wrong we see at the moment that we see it. Call it out loudly and into the crowd…. Let the embarassment fall on the aggressor and let us not be silent nor submissive to indignity nor disrespect of ourselves nor our neighbors. May God Bless you with his peace and understanding.
      DebraMarlin2020@gmail.com

      1. That sweet soft spoken little girl I knew has grown up and found her voice and using it in a powerful way. So proud of your courage and making a difference.

  1. Thank you for saying something we all need to hear right now, and saying it so eloquently. What happened at the lacrosse game is only the most visible face of a problem that’s been there from the start. No doubt people are already finding ways to dismiss even this blatant display. I will take your words to heart.

  2. Thoughtful and well written. Just what I expect of a Sewanee student. You do your institution proud, even if it doesn’t always stand up for you.
    Kelly McBride Delph
    C’84

  3. Thank you for sharing your powerful message. I am terribly sorry that your experience at Sewanee has been challenging, and hope that your letter and recent events will embolden the University to stand against senseless racism. I hope that the University takes serious measures in response to this week’s events, and stand solidly behind the University’s Board of Directors, and VC Brigety, a man of distinction and dignity, in following through with this. We must hold the board accountable for the response.

  4. This young woman demonstrated the best of scholarship. Thank you for your enlightening article. Much of what you shared was totally unknown to me and I appreciate you sharing, as difficult as that was for you I am sure. We all are racist in some way. But, we don’t have to remain ignorant to others. When you travel to another country you learn you aren’t the only person in the world and your culture isn’t “best or less”. it is just different. When one is willing to open their minds and hearts and reach out to another human being, as just another human being trying to make it in the world, then the eyes can see things differently. Difference can be wonderful and totally enjoyed be all, you have to allow yourself to accept difference not as a threat, but a gift. Learn from this young woman, I did. Thank you again.

  5. Your word’s have touched me to the core. I applaud you for being so transparent.

  6. Thank you.. I have been to Sewanee many times and had not seen this..excellent..God made us all and we should cherish and learn from our differences..

  7. Thank you baby girl for being bold to stand up to be counted, We are proud of you.

  8. Thank you for sharing and being so vulnerable. You owe no one who reads this that, and you do it anyway. It speaks more to your love of a community and belief in speaking the truth than many of us white people have ever had to summon in our entire lives.

  9. This is exhausting, Students come here to study not to be the voices crying in the wilderness nor to fix systemic racism at Sewanee. The exhortation in Micah 6:8 is an active one – “Do justice” – and it applies to all of us.

  10. Wow! Sewanee is lucky to have students like you who share openly. I am the white mother of a brown child. It makes my heart heavy to think that she would ever be treated as anything other than equal. Thank you for being a change maker so that one day the color of our skin will not matter. We have a long way to go.

  11. How I appreciate your heartfelt essay. I’m digging deep to gain a deeper understanding of the racism that is not so overt, and that goes largely unseen and not addressed. The racism you experience every day. The racism that gives some folk license to express their hate so openly. Until I acknowledge the endemic bias people of color experience every day of their lives, my words mean nothing.

  12. I thank you so much for writing, and sharing, this. It’s a powerful piece, and it will stay with me.
    I am wishing you well – 💛

  13. I was in the first class of women at Sewanee and have never been so proud about anything to do with Sewanee as I was when I read this moving and courageous article. Total, total truth. Thank you.

  14. What a powerful article. I graduated from Sewanee in 1977 and it saddens me that there has been so little progress. Thank you for speaking out and we all need to push Sewanee to change. Voices like yours, calling us out, are so important right now. We cannot let this go on.

  15. Thank you for writing this! Sewanee is a great place to get an education, but in terms of its own sociocultural microcosm, it still has a long way to go.

Leave a Reply