Professor William Sturkey looks out at the students in his Race & Memory at UNC class, meeting for the first time just a year after demonstrators pulled down Silent Sam. He sees students who have been involved in activism since their first year or since the ropes were thrown around Silent Sam on that stormy night. Others are learning about UNC’s complex racial history for the first time.
His class is one part of the larger Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University initiative, spearheaded by the College of Arts and Sciences and introduced this semester.
In an era of rising racial and political tensions on campus, where discourse often takes place on social media, the initiative encourages classroom discussions about the role of race in UNC’s history and how that fits into the larger national and global picture.
“It takes some sort of reckoning to involve talking about truths about the past — to help us heal those wounds and move forward in the future,” Sturkey said. “Ultimately, the big goal is to make sure our children and grandchildren aren’t fighting about a Confederate monument 50 to 60 years from now.”
The timing of the initiative is no coincidence.
Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, the senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs in the College of Art & Sciences, said talks about creating it began in January. And this month, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced the upcoming launch of the University’s Commission on History, Race and Reckoning.
Sturkey’s lecture focuses on the 225-year-old history of race at UNC. There are 17 other classes students can take, with disciplines ranging from geography to anthropology.
The classes are split up into two categories: foundational courses, on U.S. and Southern racial politics, and new directions courses, which look at the topics studied through a diverse, comparative lens.
“Foundation courses are a basic story of which we’re clearly a part,” Colloredo-Mansfeld said.
New directions courses take the students out of the University. North Carolina is not unique, Colloredo-Mansfeld said. Efforts for civil rights and liberation, racial prejudice and protests against monuments have unfolded around the world and at various points in history.
“New directions (students) learn from South African experience, French-colonial experience, and even from Ancient Greek drama and the stories they have on reconciliation,” Colloredo-Mansfeld said.
Colloredo-Mansfeld said that many students already use their classes to engage with faculty and raise questions about events on campus, and what it means for the future of the University.
The Reckoning initiative now gives them a solidified, academic space to do so.
“(The initiative) allows students to make a connection with events on campus and also gives them a chance to connect with students from different classes,” Colloredo-Mansfeld said.
Junior Veda Patil said she has tried to have conversations about race with her peers, but they often descend into defensiveness, justifications and disavowing personal responsibility. It’s even made her reconsider friendships.
Having Sturkey, a Black historian, facilitate discussions about racial politics in a classroom is a large part of why she signed up for the class.
“We’re history makers in our own way by participating in this collaborative process of reckoning with this history,” Patil said. “It gives an air of gravity to the whole situation. This isn’t a typical one credit hour class.”
Kipp Williams, a co-president of the Campus Y, plans on taking the lessons he learns from Sturkey’s class to his own organization.
“The more that I personally learn and uncover, the more I can share with my peers,” Williams said. “The more informed we are as a community, the more we can do to strengthen our University and encourage it to change.”
Sturkey said UNC is not the first University to launch an initiative like this, nor is it the most comprehensive.
“Every decision we get to make about what we do about our own history is restricted or enabled by the political considerations,” Sturkey said.
Sturkey said all Americans might want to move on from the wounds of race in this country. Yet they must come to terms with the reality of the past.
“There are two visions on how to move on,” Sturkey said. “One is to put a Band-Aid on it and say, ‘OK this doesn’t exist anymore.’ And that’s the way we’ve been doing things for a long time. Or, we can deal with it so it doesn’t continue to fester in the way that it has, so it doesn’t pop up in every 10 to 15 years and to deal with it in a more responsible manner.”
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