22 Race and Representation

Mahta Fesshaie

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In this essay, Fesshaie calls for a greater understanding of the black American experience in educational settings, particularly at UMass. Using UMass slogans as a point of critique and site for critical thinking, Fesshaie skillfully observes the ripple effects of the UMass administration and student body to “bias-related” incidents and provides multiple solutions to diversifying the curriculum and creating greater empathy and understanding among students, such as implementing a general education class requirement that educates students on Black literature and history. One particular aspect of interest in this essay is Fesshaie’s decision to explore the Special Collections and University Archives for research material. In this way, Fesshaie bridges history, literature, race, and representation in an environment familiar to all students: UMass.

Mahta Fesshaie


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

Race and Representation

The importance of learning about the Revolutionary War, the Great Depression and the Watergate scandal are not thought about twice in American school systems; they are even considered to be essential in understanding the United States today. The significance of black history in America however is not only reduced but questioned. The lack of understanding of black history makes it predictable that incidents like Melville Hall can still occur. On September 22, 2018, a student wrote in the public restroom “Hang all the Melville Niggers.” In response, the UMass administration – the same administration that claims to prioritize diversity and inclusion by promoting “Hate has no Home at UMass” – responded by labeling it as a “bias incident” and not for what it was- a hate crime.  Anybody with knowledge about the black experience in America knows this is not just bias; it is a threat to every person of color’s existence on campus. As a black student I was not surprised to hear that this happened as stories like this have been broadcast multiple times a year across the United States. What struck me more than anything was the clear apathy amongst students, some had even asked “Does it really matter?” Had the administration and students been more empathetic to the black American experience they would have understood the implications of their literacy.

The initial statement calling the Melville incident “bias-related” instead of a hate crime proves the campus is still racially illiterate. Racial literacy is the “skill…in which individuals are able to discuss the social construction of race [and] probe the existence of racism” (King 1304). UMass underestimated the power of their literacy when they called the incident biased-related because in doing so they ignored hundreds of years of oppression and again marginalized black students. It should not be students’ responsibility to host a forum informing members of the UMass community why their word choices were offensive. The lack of knowledge of black history enabled the student and administration to not feel the devastation of their diction. In order to not only prevent future racist incidents like this but also change the way these incidents surrounding race are addressed, it is imperative that the community demands civility from students and the administration. Classes such as Afro-American Literature and History must be required in order to diversify the curriculum; this will create empathy amongst students and progress conversations about the role of race in America.

The lack of sensitivity from non-black people is due to the scarce awareness of the black-American experience; this is because of minimal representation of black literature and history in the common curriculum. Starting from elementary school, any inclusion of black history revolved solely around slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. In these classes the “placement of black history… reinforces the misinformation that black people are ‘relatively insignificant to the growth and development of [American] democracy’” (1314). The denial of black people’s impact in the United States is why representation is important. In order to empathize with black people, students must be educated about black history and how it has shaped the black American experience. Learning about the black experience through literature and history will also progress conversations about race. Students are never taught about race as a social construct and how the implications of categorizing black people have manifested in mass incarceration, wealth gaps and unequal access to healthcare, education and housing. Being able to understand the systems that marginalize black people is the only way students will be able to discuss race in the complex manner that it is. The omittance of black history and literature gravely misconstrues the truth of the United States. At a public institution like UMass, all students should have a diverse and honest understanding of why and how the world is where it is today in order to make substantial change in the future.

Black UMass students in DRUM (the black literary experience) addressed the concerns of white people learning black history. They wondered if white students would draw the same conclusions about race that black students would (DRUM). Although black students at Amherst College were also weary they recognized its importance and fought for the inclusion of a Black Studies Department because they believed that “coursework on the diversity of the black experience… [would] cultivate a greater sense of… inclusion…and better prepare all students to live and work in a multiracial society” (Baumgartner 287). Through their continued advocacy they were able to get a Black Studies department to be instituted, which UMass followed soon after. Taking Afro-Am classes will make students realize that when racism is brought up, it is not solely in retrospect. They will understand that the American system they view as fair only survives at the expense of black people. Understanding race as a social construct used to uphold white privilege will make conversation about race progressive instead of counterproductive. These important but uncomfortable topics about privilege will not happen however unless it is required. If students in the past were able to use their literacy in order to progress race conversations in college curriculums it is possible that it can be done for a general education class requirement today through advocacy from students of colors and allies.

Although UMass requires a “Diversity in the US” class to graduate it is clearly not enough. Diversity in the United States does not exclusively mean black people and even more so the classes that do include black experiences do not go into enough depth; Afro-American Studies classes are offered as a choice to fulfill this requirement but it is not mandatory. In order to make students more aware of privilege and systematic oppression UMass must require at least two Afro-Am courses in order to graduate: literature and history. King states that “the issue of race and black history is interconnected, and to truly comprehend blacks’ involvement in US history is to understand the racial history of the US” (King 1305). These classes are important not only to inform students about the injustice black people have gone through but also break student’s perception of race as biological and instead a social construct. There is so much potential to shift the negative connotation pertaining to race in classrooms; UMass and other institutions have the power and must do better.

There would be no American history without black history, they are one and the same. It is shameful and embarrassing that a student could go to an institution like UMass with an abundance of resources and graduate believing the United States is in a post-racial society; that is like someone thinking the Earth is flat. Racism is real and it matters; required Afro-Am literature and history courses would force students to engage in conversations about bias and privilege. If students were once able to convince administration of the importance of black history in the 1960s, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot be done again today. Although back then black students were the primary leaders in the increasing of representation, we cannot do it alone again today. We need the help of white allies so that change can happen more rapidly and effectively; there must be an immediate dismissal of apathy. The Melville incident was not an isolated incident and something similar is bound to happen again however I hope that when it does happen again white students and administration have the ability to condemn those actions and uplift the black population rather than marginalize them. Students are our future – UMass has the power to change thousands of views on race; capitalizing on this opportunity can be the first step in improving racial literacy not only across college campuses but also society as well.

Works Cited

Baumgartner, Kabria. “‘Be Your Own Man’: Student Activism and the Birth of Black Studies at Amherst College, 1965-1972.” New England Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 286-322.

“DRUM.” Student Body Publications (RG 45/00/D7), vol. 1, no. 2, 1969, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries.

King, LaGarrett Jarriel. “Teaching Black History as a Racial Literacy Project.” Race, Ethnicity & Education, vol. 19, no. 6, Nov. 2016, pp. 1303-1318.

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