Leadership & Governance

‘I Am Black. And I Am Fed Up.’

December 07, 2017

Sometimes, in the course of reporting a story, you meet someone with an important voice, only to discover that you can’t fit that person into your final article. (Other times, you watch in slow-motion horror as your editor removes the person.) In my dive into the controversy swirling around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Confederate monument, known as Silent Sam, that person was Mya Roberson.

Brown U.
Mya Roberson, a graduate student at UNC and a trustee at Brown U., on how campus leaders discuss issues of race and history: “I think it is evident, now more than ever, that language matters.”
I met Ms. Roberson last month at a “listening session” held by the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. University leaders sat poker-faced as roughly two dozen students, professors, and community members called for the removal of the hulking statue. One by one, they stepped to a microphone and spoke before a standing-room-only crowd of 150.

Ms. Roberson, a second-year doctoral student in epidemiology, was one of the last to speak. In the chandeliered room in the Carolina Inn, Ms. Roberson, who is African-American, described how she avoids McCorkle Place, the verdant quad that houses the bronze soldier, because of feelings of inferiority the statue evokes, feelings it was designed to evoke.

“You may be tempted to call me a coddled millennial,” Ms. Roberson concluded her two-minute message to the trustees and Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol L. Folt, “and that is fine. But I am human. I am black. And I am fed up.”

Read the full Chronicle story: Chapel Hill’s New Civil War

I talked to Ms. Roberson afterward. She told me her partner, who is white, recently visited the campus. She avoided McCorkle Place during their tour because she feared for their safety. White supremacists, she noted, have been known to show up in the area.

She has other reasons to steer clear.

“My grandmother was a sharecropper, and I’ve been on this track toward upward mobility,” Ms. Roberson says. “But when I see that statue, I’m thinking about what it represents, and I’m reminded of my place in this world, and that no matter how many degrees I accumulate, I have a lower place here.”

Ms. Roberson isn’t a protester. She doesn’t have the time. In addition to her doctoral work, she is a trustee at her alma mater, Brown University, another institution that has struggled publicly to reckon with its racial history. Beyond that, she says, she isn’t willing to face the mental-health toll of constantly fearing a violent clash with white supremacists, a menace that looms large in the minds of Silent Sam protesters.

Being entrusted with the stewardship of Brown, she is more sympathetic than many of those protesters to the competing interests that UNC leaders and board members must grapple with on the Silent Sam question. University officials have not ignored the statue’s presence: A task force created in 2015 has presented the trustees with options for placing historical markers near Silent Sam, and has proposed renovating a nearby monument to the slaves who built the university, for example. But any aggressive decision would come with a cost. In a state where Silent Sam has friends in high places, removing the statue could cause legislative blowback.

How Universities Grapple with Painful History

Students, college officials, and historians are all asking, What’s in a name? And what is a university’s responsibility when the name on a statue, building, or program on campus is a painful reminder of harm to a specific racial group? This 28-page collection looks at how universities have been grappling anew with those questions and trying different approaches to resolve them. Download the collection here.

Still, all of that makes Ms. Roberson believe only more strongly that university leaders haven’t communicated effectively about Silent Sam — or about racism more broadly.

Take Charlottesville, Va., the site of violent clashes in August over statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. One woman, Heather D. Heyer, was killed when a white supremacist slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. College presidents grappled with how to denounce racists; some, like the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, were criticized for language deemed ambiguous.

In the days after Ms. Heyer was killed, Ms. Roberson opened up two messages on her computer and placed them side by side: the post-Charlottesville statements by Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, and by Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Ms. Folt.

She found the differences striking. Ms. Paxson’s message was sent the day after Ms. Heyer’s death. Ms. Folt’s official statement took three days. The Chapel Hill chancellor, though, did acknowledge the events of Charlottesville the day after Ms. Heyer’s death, expressing support for the city and for UVa in a tweet. Her message: “Violence, racism & hate do not belong on our campuses, communities or society.”

Ms. Folt’s official statement “uses the terms ‘hate,’ ‘violence,’ and ‘intimidation,’ while President Paxson explicitly calls it expressions of ‘Neo-Nazism’ and ‘white supremacy,’” Ms. Roberson wrote in an email. “Chancellor Folt uses coded, more palatable language, while President Paxson is using very direct and unambiguous language.”

“I think it is evident,” she wrote, “now more than ever, that language matters.”

The day after Ms. Roberson spoke at the listening session, Ms. Folt delivered her own remarks to the board. This time she delivered her strongest denunciation yet of Silent Sam. There is “no question” that the monument was erected during a period of “white supremacy, bigotry, and racism,” Ms. Folt said. “As the board heard so powerfully yesterday,” she continued, “the symbolism is frightening. It’s raw. It’s painful to our students and other members of our community every day.”

The chancellor reinforced a point she had made before: “If I had the authority,” she said, “in the interest of public safety, I would move the monument to a safer location on our campus.” The board, she said, “would continue to follow the process” it had undertaken to determine what to do about Silent Sam.

Ms. Roberson was pleased with the clarity of Ms. Folt’s message. Still, she said, timing matters. In the days after Charlottesville, “there was a very real safety threat to black, Jewish, and other marginalized students,” Ms. Roberson says. “How a leader responds directly to crisis in a timely manner is important.”

Read the full Chronicle story: Chapel Hill’s New Civil War

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.

Correction (12/8/2017, 12:05 p.m.): This article originally said the “listening session” of the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees had been held in a building formerly named for a Ku Klux Klan leader. In fact, the session was held elsewhere, in the Carolina Inn. The text has been corrected accordingly.