In August, the esteemed American novelist, activist and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker was disinvited from giving the keynote address for the University’s Center for the Education of Women’s 50th anniversary event in March. On her blog, Walker expressed her disappointment in the University’s decision. Just a few days later, this news made national headlines, and the University wasn’t looking too hot for disinviting a world-renowned writer and peace activist committed to transformative change.
The University then announced a few weeks later that it had extended a different invitation to Walker, this time for the Zora Neale Hurston Lecture co-hosted by the CEW and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies next fall. Walker has accepted the new invitation and will speak on campus in November 2014.
While I’m thrilled that Walker will come to campus — though it’s a bummer that I will have graduated by then — the “ending” to this highly embarrassing and murky situation is far from peachy. Walker’s reinvitation doesn’t excuse the University from answering some serious questions that have come to light through this incident.
What symbolic message does the University send when it appears to silence and monitor a prominent Black, female activist? What does this incident tell us about the voices of figures who hold critical, counter-hegemonic perspectives — in this case about Palestine and Israel? And finally, what does the case say about donor transparency and accountability at the University?
Too often, women of color are policed for how they behave and what they say. This marginalizing is perhaps even more severe for women activists who promote alternative models of framing and understanding of social and political issues.
The revoking of Walker’s initial invite must be read against the backdrop of a campus that has a lot of work to do in fostering an inclusive college climate: underrepresented minority enrollment — including Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans — is worse now than it was 10 years ago, falling from 13.6 percent in 2002 to 10.2 percent in 2012. Just as troubling is the 6.6-percent representation of women of color from underrepresented groups in 2011 and the 7-percent representation of women of color faculty in 2008 — only 3 percent for full professors. Campus climate certainly goes beyond statistics, but these numbers nevertheless point to something telling and distressing that can’t be detached from campus happenings such as this one.
Walker’s racial liberation activism stretches back to the Civil Rights Movement, where she mobilized Black voters in the south during the 1960s and demonstrated alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1963 March on Washington. She continues her activism through more recent events: in March 2003, on International Women’s Day, just 11 days before the United States dropped its first bombs on Iraq, Walker was arrested in front of the White House with a number of other anti-war woman activists. Walker demonstrated because she believed the lives of Iraqi women and children to be just as precious as American lives, but the petty charges waged against her made clear that her anti-racist, anti-imperialist message posed a threat to the mainstream warmongering narrative.
But perhaps even more unsettling to the status quo — and her stated reason for being disinvited from the University in the first place — are Walker’s views on the Israeli government’s military occupation of Palestine. Walker joined the Freedom Flotilla in 2011 to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and prior to that, in 2009, she travelled to Gaza with the anti-war feminist organization, Code Pink, in wake of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week assault launched by Israeli military forces that resulted in the deaths of 1,416 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. In a show of extremely disproportionate force, Israeli-armed forces repeatedly violated international law and exercised collective punishment by dropping white phosphorous on densely-populated communities. On her trip, Walker spoke out against this assault and implored Israel and Egypt to open their borders and end the ongoing siege of Gaza, a territory roughly the size of Detroit inhabited by nearly two million people.
Most pressingly, the Walker case begs a question of transparency: Who’s calling the shots? While the University insists that Walker’s disinvitation had nothing to do with her political positions or the content of her speech, her agent noted that the disinvitation happened at the request of an unnamed donor’s “interpretation” of her “comments regarding Israel.”
How can we challenge such decisions — or similar future ones — and hold their actors accountable if we don’t know who affects the decision-making? It’s unfair and shallow to point to those who are the face of the University — that is, CEW and its administration, as bearing the brunt of responsibility in answering these questions. Rather, those who play a more behind-the-scenes role in the decision-making must also respond.
Obviously, donors to the University are crucial for the role they play in sustaining campus life. But where is that role ever clearly defined? At what point do the perspectives of alumni and donors — many of whom are no longer on campus and may not realize the changing climate — encroach on what voices are welcomed on campus and what views students are exposed to? The University community must openly and urgently confront issues of academic integrity and financial pressure to ensure that such insidious behavior has no place on our campus.
Zeinab Khalil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.