- A Traveler's Tale
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WHEN I RECEIVED the invitation to serve as guest editor for this twenty-fifth anniversary Here/Away special issue of Southern Cultures, I was far, far away. You see, I was trying to be fancy. My book Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia had just been published by the University of North Carolina Press, and in keeping with the unhealthy "What have you done for me lately?" publish-or-perish academic culture, I was already in search of my next research project. Gone Home was a labor of love. It is a study about mass migration, Blackness, Appalachia, race, identity formation, and the human condition; and, most important to me, it is a beautiful story about a group of people with whom I share roots—Blackalachians. Gone Home was so deeply nestled in the hollers of eastern Kentucky that, after nearly seven years of interviewing, researching, and writing for the project, I wanted to get away.1
I decided to go global. My next study would be a transnational history of racially segregated education. I had, for a long time, been captivated by the cries and demands of college and university students to "decolonize the university!" This rallying cry can best be understood as continuous waves of student-led movements that culminated in actionable demands that universities, and therefore their leadership, divest from the idea of whiteness as the supreme basis of being and knowing. These demands were not focused on white people, per se, but instead were targeted at redressing deeply rooted structures and ideologies that continue to make the educational experience for most students of color rife with encounters of exclusion, invisibility, and even hostility. [End Page 7]
Student demands have included calls for the diversification of faculties and administrations; for the removal of white supremacist monuments, building names, and iconography; and for the transformation of curricula to reflect intellectual contributions of those historically excluded from the traditional canon. As a result of a combination of these student-led movements, as well as the decisions of a handful of maverick university administrators and the great accelerator that is social media, universities have come up with multiple, if uneven, responses. For example, in the United States, major universities including Brown, Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia, and Princeton have launched formal, university-wide inquiries into their historical ties to racial slavery. These initiatives led to the establishment of new research centers, commemorative monuments, and more serious public conversations about the university's historical ties to slavery, racism, and the theft of Indigenous land.2
At the same time, students around the world continue to lead movements to decolonize the university. The "Rhodes Must Fall" movement began as a protest calling for the removal of a monument to British colonizer and businessman Cecil Rhodes from the epicenter of the University of Cape Town's campus. It gained international attention and grew into a movement that spread to university campuses throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the United Kingdom, and eventually took hold in the United States with the "Royall Must Fall" protests at Harvard Law School. With these and other calls to action, students around the world have been rearticulating the historical entanglements between race and the university within a global historical frame. Inspired by this rallying cry to "decolonize the university!," I wanted to know: Exactly how was it colonized in the first place?
While my first project was rooted in the mountain South, I approached my new research without borders. Instead of bounding my cases by any particular country, this or that university, or even by a specific level of education, I decided to interrogate the ideas, philosophies, and beliefs of those powerful men who so long ago built the ideological foundations upon which our separate and unequal education systems were founded. The research began as an archival hunt. I was tracing the lives and actions of those educationists whom scholar William Henry Watkins termed "the white architects of black education," the title of his landmark study on how white philanthropists shaped black education after emancipation. The research has taken me on a...