Hey all! This is a short speech I gave at the 15th Anniversary Celebration of Africana Studies at my school. Africana Studies is one of the main things I got myself into trouble over as an undergrad. I want to hear about your relationships the institutionalized study of race, gender, ethnicity and power!
Happy Birthday Africana!
15 Years of Africana Studies at Barnard College for Women @ Columbia University
dedicated to Ariana Christine Gumbs
Let me tell you about this black girl I know named Africana. You know her. She turns 15 this year. Now. Like a lot of 15 year olds, Africana has decided to change her name. Africana is cool. When I met her she told me to call her “Pan-African”. I have a feeling that one day, maybe by the time she turns 20 she’ll go back to the name our mothers gave her. Her birth name is Black.
But I am here with you today to celebrate Africana. Happy Birthday girl! You’re 15! That means when I met you were about nine years old. I had no idea. I thought you were much older than that. I thought you were older than me. I thought you were ancient and necessary. I thought you had always been around. Maybe I met you in your reincarnation.
When I met you were nine. And you had been abandoned. Nine years old, beauiful vulnerable and nobody was willing to take care of you. Or maybe it was that, like me, you were the daughter of a single mother, overworked and under-rewarded within a larger structure that really didn’t care if you survived.
Whatever it was, I met you. I saw myself in you. I knew that we were related. I also knew that I wasn’t going to let you die, and that is a form of love.
But I wasn’t nearly responsible to raise no nine year old girl. So my sisters and I, most notably Emmanuelle St. Jean (BC ’04) created what could be called a makeshift babysitting brigade for you Africana. We carried you around with us because you were more homeless than we were. Or maybe your abandonment taught us how homeless we already were at Barnard.
So what were we going to do? You don’t just meet a beautiful nine year old and let her die. You learn to fight for that girl harder than you know how to fight for yourself. So we demanded space in hiring meetings. We wrote troublesome editorials in the Barnard Bulletin. We asked questions that were very bad for public relations at the Alumnae of Color Luncheon, like why Barnard had only tenured two people of color ever in 2003. This particular question sparked the creation of a working group on the board of trustees dedicated to faculty of color recruitment and retention. We did it for you Africana. We didn’t know quite how to do it for us.
And individually, without consulting my fellow babysitters, or anyone else with good sense, I put flyers that said “There is no such thing as Pan-African Studies at Barnard” in every single bathroom on campus. Even Judith’s. If this place did not know how to love you, at least it would not ignore you on our watch.
Girl you were so beautiful, just like us. We couldn’t understand why Barnard did not love you and we would not accept it.
And you didn’t die Africana. You were often hungry, undernourished, vulnerable and bereft. But you survived. You survive. And now you are 15. It is time to move beyond bare survival.
Happy Birthday Africana! May we celebrate, feed and support you. May we help you to grow. May we love you right.
We love you Africana. Long live your challenge and your vision. May our love for you remind us who we are.