Friday, November 4, 2011

On My Colleague Grant Farred at Cornell University

I submitted the letter below about the situation involving the students and Grant Farred at Cornell University in February of 2010, which clarifies my own thinking about him as a colleague more generally. I think that it is important that the ASRC at Cornell continue to move forward. For me, it has never been a matter of "taking his side," whatever that means, for I was also very concerned about the students. Yet, at the time I chose to respect institutional protocols at Cornell and confidentiality and so did not get involved in the public discussion. I have not found use in a lot of the misinformation that has been out there. I do not go along with discussing a department's inner concerns in a public way and that is also one of the main reasons that I have never felt it prudent to discuss or arbitrate matters in Africana in a public context, including confidential matters. There is also the concern I have had about the fine line that exists between speaking out and cyberbullying, which violates the law. A missive circulated last week, allegedly from a group of ASRC faculty, that opposes his selection as the head of the job search committee (from which he resigned this week). According to it, his appointment "further
represents a callous disregard for Black women in the Department and disrespect for the Africana community in general." This "anonymous" statement-for which no one faculty member has taken responsibility- is one that in no way reflects my own experiences with Professor Farred as a colleague. I, like others, am very concerned with and committed to helping to carry on the work in the Africana Center and value and support its great history and legacy. The letter below summarizes my own experiences and perspectives on Professor Farred.

February, 2010

Dear Mr. ______,

I am a colleague of Grant Farred’s in the Africana Studies and Research Center, a colleague who has been accused recently of making “racist and sexist comments” to two graduate students, one of whom is a current student and another who is a former one. I do have a sense of what was said and know how deeply sorry he is that he said what he said, regardless of the colloquialisms that he attempted to invoke, perhaps, I suspect myself, in light of his intellectual and cultural interests in vernacular forms. I appreciate that he has apologized to me, even, as his faculty colleague, though I did not witness that exchange and nor was I present at the conference. He understood how offended and hurt I might be as a black woman colleague. I understand that everybody makes mistakes. He is as human as the next person. In general, I understand and respect the confidentiality of this matter and the protocols that are in place at the university for addressing such issues as they emerge, and with the parties involved. As a faculty member in the Africana Studies and Research Center, I am deeply concerned about the students and, like some other colleagues, am fully committed to maintaining a climate of professionalism and support for them in my department, on campus and in the larger profession.

As a scholar, in thinking through some of the deeper implications of his remarks, I have brought a number of critical apparatuses to bear on this situation. For example, the perspective provided by Hortense Spillers in her now classic essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” sets the standard for me in thinking through the historical and deeply ideological relation of epithets to black women. Professor Spillers, formerly of Cornell, is one of the most brilliant black woman senior scholars in the profession, a rigorous theorist, and helps to set the standard for me in terms of what stands for quality in black feminist scholarship. I do not feel that he meant what he allegedly said in the malicious sense of the range of epithets invoked in this brilliant critical piece.

I think that in the wake of this incident, I have been astonished myself that Professor Farred has been characterized by some other students not directly involved in this situation, and also by a colleague, as someone who is somehow dismissive of black women. That is not true. One of the things that I have most admired and appreciated about him, for example, and what the record shows, is that in the situation regarding the black woman stripper who alleged rape in 2006 by members of the Duke Lacrosse team, he spoke up in her defense by writing a letter clarifying some of the implications of the situation [link to at ]. Many of the faculty who had the courage to speak out about this situation, which made national headlines, were threatened, harassed, criticized publicly and were victimized by a very calculated smear campaign. Some eventually moved on, including Professor Farred. I respect the very principled and courageous statement that Professor Farred chose to make in Durham on this case involving the black woman stripper, and do not take the sacrifices that he made in the wake of it lightly. The truth is that Professor Farred put everything on the line at a very prestigious job that he valued to support and help defend a black woman who he at the time believed had been the victim of rape and racist epithets. From an intellectual standpoint therefore I find generalizations about his attitudes toward black women to be quite problematic and short-sighted. There is a part of me, even, who sees the choice that he made to speak up for this woman at Duke in the continuum with law professor Derrick Bell’s decision to leave Harvard Law School because no black women tenured professors were in his department. Professor Farred, through his actions, choices and sacrifices as a professional, has consistently shown deep regard and respect for black women. That he made one mistake does not change this fact. For anyone to suggest anything otherwise about his outlook on black women is unfair and grossly misrepresents him. To do so is even reckless and irresponsible, perhaps even libelous. As someone trained in fields such as philosophy, I always find any recourse to ad hominem in argumentation, including forms of character assassination, to be off-putting.

In general, I feel myself and want to emphasize that he has been a great colleague. Though I attended Duke as a graduate student, my time, to my dismay, did not overlap with his former appointment there; I heard many great things about him from my former professors and peers there. I first met him in 2001 when he was featured as a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University in the English department during my year on the campus as a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral fellow. His intellectual work continued to inspire me once I returned to California. The intellectual example that he provided at JHU made all the difference for me and inspired me on the road to tenure in the University of California. I was pleased when finally I had the opportunity to work in a department alongside him. Having him as a colleague is a blessing that I do not take for granted. Since my arrival on campus, it has been a privilege to work in intellectual community with him. That he was working in the Africana Center was one of the main reasons that I wanted to come to Cornell. He is an outstanding, even gifted, editor, has read my work carefully and has also supported and encouraged my new intellectual work on black women and the U.S. South; last fall, he suggested that I focus my intellectual project mainly on black women, the same suggestion that I received from an editor at a major university press, a suggestion that I have finally accepted. Even these kinds of exchanges with him that reflect my own experience make it difficult for me to swallow accusations that he is dismissive of black women. I would not appreciate having my own credentials or attitudes misrepresented in the way that his have been in some instances, which is also unsettling given my concerns about protecting academic freedom, collegiality and all the things that reflect the basic values of academia.

At my former university, we talked a lot about the “principles of community”; all faculty and students were expected to uphold them. These are the values that continue to matter to me, and that govern my thinking across the board on this situation. It is important to me to adhere to the highest standards of professionalism. A climate on campus that creates an intimidating or hostile environment for Professor Farred is not the answer.

I just wanted to share these perspectives to clarify where I stand in my own thinking about Grant Farred, notwithstanding this situation. All best regards.


Riché Richardson

1 comment:

  1. The black stripper would be Crystal Mangum, currently in jail charged with murder.

    Grant Farred didn't give a rat's ass about the due process rights and civil liberties of his own students, falsely accused of rape. In fact, he went out of his way to create a climate on campus that was as hostile and intimidating as possible for them. He signed a statement applauding demonstrators who had paraded around under a huge banner urging "Castrate!!!" Instead of advocating restraint, he called on the community to "turn up the volume" against the students. "Principles of community" indeed.