The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Bennett College (Greensboro, NC)—Free Speech in Peril

Criticism, like charity, starts at home.
            —Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate in literature

Johnnetta ColeIch habe den Teufel mit Tinte bekampft. [I fought the devil with ink.]
            —Martin Luther
The blind glorification of an institution serves to shield all those employed by the institution from criticism and also serves to create an ambiance that discourages criticism.  Indeed, anyone daring to question, challenge, and otherwise criticize the glorified institution will almost assuredly be ostracized, if not demonized.  Yet for an institution to improve, questioning, challenging, and criticizing are evident prerequisites. 

Bennett College, perhaps more than a lot of other colleges, illustrates just how much higher education today is all about MONEY, as opposed to  questioning and challenging, hardcore debate, truth, and critique. Its millionaire President Johnnetta Cole has an expertise, not in critique, and rude truth telling, but in fundraising and stagecraft.  She teaches students to blindly admire great hog-wealth and idiot celebrity, as well as to engage in the "mythifying" of human beings. 

How odd to think that in the 21st Century, a college president would actually denounce those who do not agree with her as "devils"?  If there are really academic "devils," perhaps the Sister President ought to take a good hard look in the mirror. 

Like Martin Luther, the editor too fights the devil with ink.  For example, I fought her at Bennett College. 

Dr. Cynthia Hallett, who once called a student "asshole" in the classroom and who deemed the tearing down of my "free-speech" flyers as "free speech," became chairperson of the Humanities Department.  Fortunately for students, she did not last more than a half year.  In fact, she was finally given the boot altogether... by the Sister Devil.  (And this they call higher education?!!)

Another dubious personage against free speech on the Bennett College payroll is Dr. Maya Angelou, poet-cook-greeting-card-saleswoman-millionaire trustee, who refers to people who express themselves differently from her as "having a big mouth" (e.g. Bill Cosby) and who boasts on her website that she is "a remarkable Renaissance woman who is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature."  Yet she is the kind of bland, pompous personage the corporate folks (and PBS) like to put on TV now and then, as well as on greeting cards.   

Or halve your lecture, and put a psalm at the beginning and a prayer at the end of it and read it from a pulpit, and they will pronounce it good without thinking.
—Henry David Thoreau, 13 February 1860, Journal

The following are five pertinent essays.  Before consulting them, first read below.

1. "I Dared Challenge the Department Mission Statement"

2. "One City, One Book Makes Jack a Dull Chap"

3. "Open Letter to Bennett College President Johnnetta Cole"

4. "Open Letter to Bennett College President Johnnetta Cole (2)"

5. "Misguided Leadership, Donuts, and the First Amendment"

6. "Performing Experiments in Free Speech on Campus"

The Problem: Teaching at Bennett College (2001-2003), where an entirely un-diverse, highly pampered and indoctrinated student body of black women only, allowed me to further confirm what must be widespread behavior amongst professors throughout the nation: a general unwillingness to discuss intellectual issues that touch home, including and especially free speech and diversity of thought on campus, and criticize the 'holy' mission statement and college president.  President Johnnetta Cole, money-magnet supreme, proved, more than anything else, adept in egregious backslapping and self-congratulatory behavior, not to mention mind-numbing halleluiah stagecraft. The level of intellectual inquiry and discourse being so minimal, I decided not to return to the college for a third year, believing unemployment better than wallowing in stagnation for the all-mighty buck. Just the same, I was certainly able to gather more than enough material for a creative-nonfiction "novel," tentatively titled: Mo' Betta Fit... In (True Tales from the Lower Spectrum of Higher Education... and Elsewhere: Journal of a Poet Polemicist). Academics at Bennett and throughout the nation desperately need to examine President Theodore Roosevelt's statement on the president and considerate it (if at all capable) relative to their own little college presidents. 

What about all the crooks and thieves and just plain idiots who will come to power to steal and plunder the same as before, only now they will be black and do it in the name of the new independence.
            —Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else. 
          —Theodore Roosevelt

The Solution: Hire professors apt to openly question and challenge, rather than worship, charismatic leaders, as opposed to anointing heavily-drugged kowtow hysterics like Dr. Cynthia Hallett to chair departments.  Hire professors who have a passion for the First Amendment, who are not afraid to express themselves openly, who are apt to think as staunch individuals with reason and logic, and who are eager to debate crucial First Amendment issues on campus. Then have those professors teach students not to fall for charismatic leaders and not to worship celebrity, wealth, and capitalist “success,” Afro-American or other.

The above essays were published in diverse periodicals, including Small Press Review, News & Record, and Bennett Banner. Each met with uncanny silence on the part of Bennett College professors and administrators. What has higher education become, if not one huge corporate leadership academy more interested in training functionary cogs than individual thinkers?  Despite their rampant self-congratulating and backslapping, college professors and administrators must bear at least part of the responsibility for the shabby state of democracy in America today.  Is it not astonishing Bennett professors, for example, were quite content with Dr. Hallett's smug statement of First-Amendment apathy, regarding the tearing down of a criticism I'd posted on the Humanities Department bulletin board concerning President Johnnetta Cole?  "It's as much their right to tear it down as it is your right to hang it up." Is this what Bennett professors are teaching Bennett students?  Why are they content that my criticism of President Cole be censored in the Humanities Department and by the News & Record? Thanks to a few intelligent students, it was at least published in the student newspaper. Yes, bravo to the student newspaper!!!