The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Open Letter to Bennett College President Johnnetta Cole

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.
            —Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure; American Association of University Professors (AAUP)


I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.
            —James Baldwin


Since the editor of the News & Record has censored me regarding your tenure, I have decided to write this letter to you. It is not a letter of hostility, bitterness or anger, but simply one of individual thought, critique, and profound disappointment. I had to force myself to send it to you because of the fear in my brain warning: DO NOT! After all, in Academe, FREE SPEECH = CAREER SUICIDE! We all know that, I think. And that explains why very few of us are willing to be proponents of Emerson, as in “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all its ways.” Indeed, most professors clearly prefer sitting down and speaking the party line… if they choose to speak at all. But the nation needs more of us to speak as I do here and as Emerson valiantly proposed. So many professors have built protective careerist cocoons around themselves. I’m not even sure if they’re aware of the devastating transformation effected within that comfortable envelope. Is a moth cognizant that it was once a larva?

By the way, I really have enjoyed teaching Bennett College students. What I do not like is all the other “stuff” that tends to de-prioritize truth and reason, including the meetings of endless jabber, the spirit ‘liftings’ instead of spirit ‘thinkings’, the overall indoctrination, the corporate cooptation, the bureaucratization, and especially the ubiquitous self-congratulations, all ruthlessly rotting the rivets out of higher education.

In any case, I could not help but wonder if I’d actually inspired that part of your Convocatum Est speech on “baggage”, since I’d mentioned “baggage” during the Political Pacesetter Forum in December. No matter. But I feel compelled to offer a different point of view. Students need to be exposed to different perceptions of reality. Alas, during those rare instances of such exposure, at Bennett, for example, they seem to be encouraged by their professors not to listen with open minds but to misinterpret and react irrationally if such may be damaging to their self-esteem.

We must not, contrary to your advice, simply forget the “baggage”, but rather learn from it, analyze it, and, yes, decry it. How else might we arrest the increasing decay crippling our civilization? The little caesars, that is, the “baggage”, who impede our lives and putrefy our society are there to enhance our awareness of the potential shabbiness of human behavior and increase our desire to eliminate such behavior. To forget and leave behind “those little sh..s,” as, I believe, you used to refer to them, is to not only permit them to thrive but also to dismiss reality and in so doing allow our institutions to further deteriorate into a sham of happy-face fascism. To hold on to old “baggage” is not necessarily to carry around a burden of hatred and anger, as you seemed to imply. Personally, my “baggage” has been a marvelous source of creativity. It has provoked me to write 900 pages of essays, hundreds of poems, six novels, and one play, as well as to sketch several hundred sociopolitical cartoons and to create a literary journal devoted to “baggage”.

Forgiveness, as you also suggested, is not the answer. Forgiveness does not goad the “baggage” to behave honestly. Forgiveness does not heal. Only truth and justice can heal. If your reasoning were followed through, why not simply forgive and forget slavery, which would imply no reparations and no Affirmative Action.

The breaches in logic, increasingly rampant in academe, are troubling because illogical reasoning is being inculcated in the minds of students, future leaders of the nation. Ideology and orthodoxy (e.g., political correctness) always result in illogical reasoning. What I found truly troubling at that Forum was not simply the illogical reasoning of the student panelists but the applause of the faculty and administrators present. How does a student learn to develop a corrupt system of logic, if not from the latter? The two most egregious examples of corrupted logic manifested during that Forum include: 1. it is wonderful to have gotten rid of segregation and it is wonderful to voluntarily want to attend a racially segregated college and 2. black women are not obese because they are compared statistically to the body structures of white men. To my utter amazement, most of the audience indeed applauded that aberrant reasoning with regards obesity. Recall what the senior class president, one of the panelists, had proudly declared: “Obesity is not a problem at Bennett College!” I do hope her deviant reasoning does not reflect that of the entire senior class. I do wish that you would take a careful look at the weight problem here on campus… for the sake of student health.

Regarding the Forum, I must admit I was not well prepared. Why? I was expecting maybe three students or maybe nobody at all. In other words, I was poorly informed by the Political Pacesetters and professor advisors. In fact, I felt like I had walked into a trap. Nevertheless, how refreshing that Bennett does hold such forums. And how wonderful to see that you as president even attended. Perhaps it would be of greater value to hold forums on a regular basis than to invite guest speakers to vaunt their successes. Such forums would have to stress diversity of opinion to be truly effective. I was disappointed by the monolithic, ideological discourse presented by the four student panelists. Why were students, who agreed with my essays, not invited to be panelists? And yes, I’ve spoken to such students. They do exist. By the way, Bennett needs a free speech bulletin board! The Bennett Banner appears too sporadically and infrequently to serve that purpose.

On another note, during your speech, you singled out white men as having greater privileges and opportunities in America. I felt a little uncomfortable when you made that statement. However, I do not deny its statistical veracity. Nevertheless, it constitutes a breach in your logic regarding “baggage”. Are you carrying around “baggage” with regards white men? No matter. The point I wish to make is that on the macro scale of things, today successful fiduciary acquisition (to put it nicely) eclipses skin color in America as criteria for privilege and opportunity. People of money, including Afro-Americans Oprah, Michael Jordan, Coretta Scott King, the limousine poet Maya Angelou, and you, have far greater privileges and opportunities than people who do not have money, white or black. Think of the privilege that you have as a person of means and power: the bully pulpit! Would not the News & Record publish anything you or one of yours submitted?

Enclosed is the Op Ed just rejected by the News & Record. Note it constitutes an alternative view regarding the large front-page spread and various editorials regarding you. How can we be content knowing that our local newspaper will not publish less than flattering critique of local leaders? Why does the News & Record refuse, categorically, to print anything less than toadying in scope regarding you? I find that quite troubling. We all should find that quite troubling. But do we?

Finally, I recall seeing you at the Forum in the audience, burying your face in your hands, either out of disgust or out of grave disappointment, regarding something or things I’d said. Well, now and then I have done the same during your numerous speeches. Have you noticed? Who really belongs in higher education: the common professor careerist or the rare professor who goes upright and vital, and speaks the rude truth in all its ways?