lifestyles: an open letter to president margaret spellings

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In the wake of national events involving Universities and their Presidents, I think it’s important that I sit down tonight and write you a letter. Your comment to the press in response to past statements about LGBTQI people have really been on my mind of late. I am inclined to believe that you responded with “I have no comment about those lifestyles,” because you were annoyed and tired and just ready to go home. I feel you there – I have compassion for what it must feel like to constantly be under scrutiny. Yet, your words have me thinking beyond your tiredness – not only to your responsibilities as the President of the UNC family, but also to the implications of the words “those lifestyles.” I am inclined to believe that in this day of #blacklivesmatter you don’t really want to go on record as calling an aspect of black life ‘that lifestyle.’ I want to believe that you would (and can) make the strongest public statement possible about the spectacular and quotidian national events that have inspired a generation of community members, college students and beyond.

If you are puzzled by my comments above, then let me explain. I am a Full Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and I identify as an LGBTQI person of African descent. Because my identities are intersectional, how you feel about the queer/black community matters to me. So, I guess my first question to you is about your commitment to both. I have been asked the same question of late by my students and I see no reason not to ask you about yours, especially as someone whose wheelhouse is education.

On my way to teach during summer session II, I passed by Silent Sam. It was the morning after the first time the statue had been defaced. Inside the yellow tape stood a phenotypically white male and two phenotypically black men. The white man was instructing the black men as they carefully washed and sandblasted the statue. I had seen the same scene of instruction and restoration the previous day on Facebook posts and in the media as the State of South Carolina restored the confederate flag that the brave North Carolinian Bree Newsome removed. It was a sobering welcome to my first day of summer teaching. The recent Silent Sam protest brought home that moment and your comments quickly followed (at least from my temporal location).  Not a good week, this.Silent Sam2

I do have some thoughts about the statue and what it represents. Let’s be honest with one another, it does represent the Confederacy. I can’t imagine descendants of abolitionists coming by to remember their ancestors at the feet of Silent Sam. Instead of focusing on the statue and the flag it drags in its psychic wake as a symbol of grief for those whose kindred were associated with its legacies, we might step back and begin to see what the flag not only is, but also does to public space where broader understandings of community hold sway. Many of us were not present (or born) when that statue of commemoration was erected, but we are now and that should remind us that things do change. It is time to acknowledge, as our colleagues in Mississippi and Texas have done, that we too have grown. This is the primary work of the examined life that Socrates, for example, envisioned so clearly for intellectual endeavors. This change is what we are about. Addressing the presence of Silent Sam among us will not stop the confederate mourners from grieving — that private act can and does occur elsewhere; but for the public act of grieving for all of those inevitably changed by the war and the ideologies which engendered the flag’s presence among us, another symbol of our collective mourning must appear. The work of choosing that symbol will be an opportunity for all of us to share in its making. That is the work that intellectual community can and should do.

And speaking of those private acts – acts to which your comment about “those lifestyles” refer – I’d like to invite you to a slice of my life. My question here is: can we separate how we live from the fact that we live? This seems to be the central point of #blacklivesmatter and all struggles for civil liberties in this country. But to that slice of life. . . I live on a road in unincorporated Chapel Hill – a road that used to be called “Old Colored Road.” Why? Because the African-American community has had land in the area since emancipation. My move here was not intentional – I fell in love with the land and the privacy, so I moved. When the kids (almost 4 and 8) are with us, my partner and I usually make kale chips or some leafy green salad for dinner and while one of us cooks the other plays soccer in the living room with the oldest – last night they broke a lamp. I loved that lamp, but laughed anyway when the 8-year-old showed me the broken pieces. Why? Because the night before her Mom and I couldn’t help it and we were playing soccer in the living room and I hit the lamp pretty hard. I think it broke because there was already a stress fracture there. Tonight we danced to the band I grew up with, TroubleFunk – a group featured on one of the stages in this year’s National Folk Festival in Greensboro. Sometimes it’s silliness like “Whip/Nae-Nae,” at others it’s Celia Cruz from the early days. At bedtime, the youngest usually has a meltdown about something and the 8-year-old asks me to tell her a story – one of the requirements of which is that someone get hurt but not enough to die. She makes it easy for me. Later, when the kids and the dogs are tucked in with each other, my partner and I try to watch something on the computer. I usually fall asleep on whatever it is. I love the way she can stay up once the video is on – for me it’s like a lullaby. As for the rest, Macklemore is right, “she keeps me warm.”

To my larger point about “lifestyle.” I don’t know how to live my black life separate from my LGBTQI life, so I assume you referred to both. And, when you get right down to it, the lifestyle – if you refer to that quotidian one – I live is not all that fabulous, really. Just a few people and dogs in the house trying to work their way to loving one another deeply across race and species and generation. The lifestyle – the way in which we live – that I see around me on campus, the one that concerns me the most, is the atmosphere of denial that borders on the unethical.

Let’s do something proactive for once and have a conversation about that lifestyle. Come to my house for dinner – I’ll cook for you, tell me what you like – the kids will be here and that should be interesting, inspiring, and slightly annoying. One of them will most likely be a future tarheel. One who met the President one night over a dinner of kale salad and mung beans while listening to Cruz or Silento . . .  a President who changed her mind about so much after she came to dinner.

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