As the semester drew to a close last fall, student activity on campus did just the opposite. From protests led by MSU’s Black Student Alliance in response to the killing of Michael Brown, which shut down Grand River Avenue, to the administration-facilitated After Ferguson Town Hall, creative writing professor Rae Paris watched it all unfold.
She thought the town hall was “wonderful,” but as a black faculty member, was troubled by certain aspects of the event, where white students told stories that “needed more complication and nuance.”
“At the same time, a young black student came into my office and broke down. It won’t be the first time, it won’t be the last,” Paris said. “I was thinking about him and just thinking about the stories that we all talk about with each other.”
Paris and her colleagues agreed a statement needed to be made. Something that encapsulated the unique bond many black faculty and students share, as a result of being part of an underrepresented population in predominantly-white institutions.
Out of that came “An Open Letter of Love to Black Students: #BlackLivesMatter,” a post on her blog, Black Space. The letter is filled with emotional language, expressing the desire of black faculty to see black students succeed, in an environment where black student retention rates are significantly lower than those of their white peers.
“In our mostly White classrooms we work with some of you, you who tell us other professors don’t see, don’t hear you,” the letter said. “You, who come to our offices with stories of erasure that make you break down. They don’t see me, you say. They don’t hear me. We know and don’t know how to hold your tears.”
Paris first read the letter aloud during a Black Student Alliance-led march on Dec. 6, as protesters gathered under Beaumont Tower. She then posted the letter online Dec. 8, with the conclusion “We see you. We hear you. We love you,” and an invitation for other black faculty to sign the letter.
Shortly after, history professor Jessica Marie Johnson and Paris’ colleague passed the letter along to blogs, publications, online activists and other academics. And the letter spread like wildfire.
“Within two hours, I think we had 200 names,” Johnson said.
Since then, the letter has gained more than 1,100 signatures, a list of black faculty members at universities in every corner of the U.S. and even in other countries. Thirty-six faculty members at MSU signed the letter. Every school in the Big Ten is represented, along with the entire Ivy League.
Paris said the letter speaks to the experience of black students and faculty on a fundamental level, which helped it resonate so widely.
“It’s connected to these struggles that have been happening for a very long time,” Paris said.
She hopes the letter inspires more serious dialogue within academic institutions.
“I hope that departments have real conversations that go beyond ‘we value diversity,’” Paris said.