"In the spirit of open communication, I decided to make an attempt to track Stanford’s coronavirus response, specifically through its leadership communications."
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We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a normal part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned by police or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead blackbody to gaze upon or hear about or position oneself against – Claudia Rankine
We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a normal part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned by police or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead blackbody to gaze upon or hear about or position oneself against – Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”
At Stanford, there’s been a great deal of discussion surrounding the place of Black studies on campus. It goes without saying that I echo the voices demanding the departmentalization of AAAS, demanding faculty lines for Black scholars, demanding a claim that’s been long overdue. That’s not the labor of this writing – the validity of Black studies as a discipline is not up for debate. Rather, I want to speak to my own relationship to that body of scholarship. I want to speak to the words and writings and scholars that I’ve clung to over the past months.
I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved this spring, as part of a directed reading in postcolonial literature and tragedy. The text came amid a slate of several other works interfacing with Blackness and the colonial encounter – among them Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I gravitated immediately to Beloved – her writings were some of the first that put me on my current academic path. But I found myself especially enthralled with the house on 124 Bluestone Road. 124, the spiteful, full of a baby’s venom. 124, the house that haunts.
That haunting finds home across African-American literature, and it’s one to which I continually find myself returning. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life, Frederick Douglass invokes it. “Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen,” he writes, “were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” The sight of the ship reminds him of his own state. Yet, he notes the irony in that imagery: the ‘white’ signals a hegemonic purity where he sees ghosts and subjection. That violence seems only visible to him – yet it exists nonetheless. Harriet Jacobs, too, reckons with these ghosts in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She writes of “living death” – caught between states of being, caught between objecthood and selfhood, between embodiment and spectrehood. She writes of the “loophole” – the seven years in which she hid in a crawl space beneath the roof of her grandmother’s house after escaping her captor, that state of suspension between promises of freedom and its actualization. These too are things that haunt. Douglass and Jacobs alike write of this haunting–the lost Black lives and false promises that underwrite the physical, the ghosts surrounding the ship, the Black woman hidden in the attic.
I return to Morrison’s work in our current moment, and the image of that haunted house, disembodied howls enclosed in its walls and venom trapped under its floorboards, takes on a new valence. I'm reminded specifically of the “undecipherable language clamoring around the house,” as images of Black suffering dominate the digital sphere. I can’t help but think of the “mumbling of the black and angry dead” that found home in 124. George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, with its rapid proliferation of the video of his murder across social media, forced these ghosts into the foreground. The names and images of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Oluwatoyin Salau, Tony McDade, and countless others momentarily dominated social media –the haunting entwined with Black death finding a new terrain. In her essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine too invokes these ghosts in the contemporary. “We live in a country where American assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings,” she writes, “there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.” It is these corpses, past and present, that I find myself looking to in this moment. These bodies that force themselves into the present, these apparitions that underwrite the quotidian. The past few months have made the spectre of Black death hypervisible – our increasing dependence on the digital space, in some ways, has made it inescapable.
Frank Wilderson writes of the world’s dependence on the spectacle of Black death in Afropessimism – his intervention is critical in reading the reproduction and circulation of Black death in the digital space.“We are being genocided, but genocided and regenerated,” he writes, “because the spectacle of Black death is essential to the mental health of the world…our death must be repeated, visually.” I can’t help but bring that reading to the digital sphere – our current moment mirroring the “rituals of healing” that Wilderson describes. The argument that this hypervisibility has catalyzed the upheavals of the past months is one that I’ve seen often. But in understanding this white dependence on the spectacle of lynching as one that is fundamental to this country, the circulation of these videos across different videos take on a more sinister meaning.
Violence against Black people occupies an important position in the white racial imaginary, as Zoe Samudzi writers in her essay “Whiteness and the Contemporary Lynching”: “Whiteness transmutes atrocity images into ephemera, into a thing to be collected, more quickly than we would like to imagine. Arguably, the almost industrial production of these lynching videos…de-exceptionalizes the event. ”These videos and images of Black death, repackaged and recirculated across media at a dizzying rate, feed into a pattern of learning and forgetting new hashtags that were once people. These cycles become a way of marking time, counting ghosts. And if these ghosts feed into “a piercingly mundane echolalia that flows seamlessly into the tapestry of American inequality,” as Samudzi describes.
In this sense, these images are simultaneously spectacular and quotidian, and I’m once again reminded of the ghosts that Morrison, Jacobs, and Douglass wrote of. I’m reminded of the haunted house, of the vessel robed in white, of the crawl space. And I’m deeply aware of the potential they hold. They offer a way forward, a way to imagine better possible futures. But they also risk reincorporation into the current racial imaginary, fed into an echolalia that ultimately reifies our current state of subjection. I look to these spectres, both in literature and the digital space, to mark out the work of destabilizing white supremacy. But I’m acutely aware of the stakes, especially in this moment. This act of attending to ghosts must be undertaken with care, in a way that I’m still working to actualize. I look to the discipline of Black studies for that guidance. I look to the writings of Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, among countless others, for how to do that work with care. I’m indebted to these scholars, and as I look to make sense of this current world and my own mourning, I look to their words.
Arundhati Roy wrote that this pandemic is a portal, and I want to extend that to this upheaval. We’re in the midst of struggle for possible worlds on the other side. The powers-that-be are already preparing one for us – a world surveilled, the subjection of state violence, its ghosts fed into the machine. We can let that possible world become reality, or we can imagine a better one and fight for it. For me, Black studies underwrites that nascency. It gives shape to the world I’m ready to fight for.
"In the spirit of open communication, I decided to make an attempt to track Stanford’s coronavirus response, specifically through its leadership communications. First, I assembled a 'corpus' of emails written by Provost Persis Drell or President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, all 12 of which are available for reference here. Then, experimenting with a simple text analysis (tf-idf) in Python, I gathered the top ten most significantly frequent words in each email, organized by descending frequency in the table below. What I found was that this ongoing pandemic introduces new challenges to all communities, but more so for those who have been excluded from such communal bodies."
Isolation, hands, self, symptoms, increasing, Vaden, two, undergraduate, steps, actions
Instructors, weekend, scheduled, person, class, classes, course, spread, online, tours
Undergraduates, graduate, major, coursework, based, asking, shared, personal, steps, important
Dining, restrictions, undergraduate, country, currently, Saturday, number, actions, go, meal
Graduate, absence, contracts, leave, online, person, fellowships, released, allow, option
March 16 (follow-up)
Orders, read, essential, functions, today, employees, coronavirus, counties, graduate, issued
Instructors, teachanywhere, delay, decision, high, assist, zones, timed, site, goals
Construction, housing, safety, under, critical, priority, facility, infrastructure, central, proceeding
March 20 (follow-up)
Us, distant, learning, experience, bay, crisis, area, faculty, same, socializing
Summer, programs, projects, asking, world, faculty, graduate, during, each, pay
Connected, pandemic, hope, help, world, difficult, find, studies, digital, connect, learning, together
Employees, firms, services, businesses, contract, cares, child, pay, program, benefits
It’s possible to trace the timeline of Stanford’s pandemic response through these top ten terms: In early March, confirmed cases nearby began to increase, and the university placed two undergraduates in self-isolation due to possible exposure to COVID-19. Early March also marked the beginning of to take preventative health measures, such shifting classes online. In mid-March, the university modified dining services and asked students to leave campus, if possible, due to Santa Clara county restrictions and orders.
In late March, the university delayed the start to an online Spring quarter, provided an update on construction, and urged community members to support one another through “distant socializing.” On April 2, the university followed up on summer programs, asked senior leadership to take voluntary pay reductions, and continued to support regular employees, but not contracted workers.
On April 6, President Tessier-Lavigne highlighted the digital campus offerings and rallied together the Stanford community to stay connected. Finally, on April 14, due to pressure from organizers, such as Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights, the university extended pay continuance for directly hired employees and promised to support contracted workers.
As these communications progressed, there was an increasingly saturated presence of community-building rhetoric, as university leaders leaned towards collective diction, such as “us,” “connected,” and “together” (highlighted in the table above). In fact, while not represented in the table, the frequency of the terms “community” and “communities” increased with each successive email, as graphed to the left.
While calls to come together in community are certainly needed in an unprecedented time, they raise certain questions: How does Stanford define its community?
Who belongs to the communities that Stanford claims to support? And who is discounted?
As we take comfort in our academic and social communities, among others, let’s not ignore the importance of workers in our campus communities. Throughout this rapidly developing pandemic, Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) has advocated for pay continuance and health benefits for all of the university’s service workers.
On April 14, Stanford responded to those demands, but according to SWR, “workers themselves have not been informed of any changes,” and the university has not clarified any steps of action, beyond vague promises to provide “support.”
I am reminded of the timelessness of Hannah Arendt, as she wrote, “Not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever, has been the calamity of which has befallen ever-increasing numbers of people.”
Thus far, Stanford has laid off contracted worker, offered no guarantee of paying service workers for the remainder of the county’s shelter-in-place orders, and neglected safety measures for service staff. To draw from the list of frequent terms used by university leadership, being in community during this pandemic means staying “connected,” sharing “hope,” and providing “help,” as much as we are capable.
Stanford workers are undeniably community members, as well. For those of us who are fortunate to be supported as part of Stanford’s “community,” let’s hold our university accountable to its rhetoric.
Regina T.H. Ta is a freshman at Stanford, prospectively majoring in Comparative Literature. She hopes to bridge her interests in storytelling and digital humanities with activism.
There has always been talk about creating a space where student activists from different movements and issues can convene to build solidarity. However, the activism that we were already involved in was consuming all our unscheduled time and the thought of adding another commitment to meeting with other activists on a regular basis was daunting. So a consistent initiative to gather activists across campus never seemed to come to fruition during my undergraduate years even though we all agreed it was necessary.
During the 2017-2018 school year, I was a student activist with Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035). I was recruited by a friend and we were working together with other friends and acquaintances who would graduate by the end of the year. I was a part of the technical group and our job was to comb through lengthy documents like the draft Environmental Impact Report and write critiques that SCoPE 2035 would use for infographics, town hall meetings, and community workshops.
There were weeks when the work felt crushingly overwhelming and we all searched for relief and support wherever we could. What became a glaring challenge over time was that our efforts could ultimately become a short-stinted venture once the majority of SCoPe’s members graduated in June 2018. How could we maintain an initiative that requires so many students’ free time to thrive when most of its student activists were leaving? What would happen to the organization’s connections, documents, and acquired knowledge?
Adding to the pressure of a potential organizational fallout, the General Use Permit application process was to enter a critical stage in the 2018-2019 school year: decisions would be finalized in a few months. We needed more momentum than ever to pressure Stanford to develop equitably and care for all of its members instead of shirking responsibility by fiddling with legal jargon and loopholes. Luckily, none of that happened. While we did not achieve our full set of demands for an equitable Stanford, we were able to pressure Stanford to withdraw its application and try again in the future, when current student activists will have graduated and their political supporters no longer in power.
My experience with SCoPE allows me to see great potential in the Scholarship and Activism for Justice community. They can build the student activism archive that will ensure previous students’ efforts are documented and accessible to future students. This archival conversation is important because the learning curve is extremely high for student activism. When students have access to movement history and existing resources and support networks, the workload becomes more encouraging. For example, our last guest speaker was Veena Dubal, a law professor advocating for workers’ rights. I can imagine how important Veena’s mentorship could have been as our student group combed through hundreds of pages of the environmental impact report to formulate our demands for Stanford workers’ rights. My hope is that the next group of student activists pressuring Stanford to develop equitably in the new cycle will have the resources and mentors that we did not through the Scholarship and Activism community and platform.
Aitran is a senior studying International Relations. She's an immigrant from Vietnam and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her two main projects currently are a thesis on Israeli-Palestinian water relations and The 2020 Project, an initiative to register 100,000 AAPIs to vote by the 2020 Elections.