"It was, like, one day I was at college having fun, and the next day someone called me the N-word, and I had no avenue,” she says. She has on a red flannel button-down shirt, open over a tank top. There’s a crisp red kerchief around her head, knotted above a pair of hip blue-and-brown-tortoised glasses. “My parents don’t have the funds to drive to Oberlin when I’m crying and ready to self-harm. The only way that I can facilitate those conversations is to advocate for myself. That in itself makes me a part of a social-justice climate.”
Adams supported the fourteen-page letter of demands that was submitted to Oberlin’s president in the winter. “At that meeting, about the demands, there were a hundred people, literally,” she says.
“Even those who didn’t write it had things to put into it,” Taylor Slay, a fellow Abusua member, says. She is sitting next to Adams, taking notes.
Adams goes on, “Me trying to appeal to people? Ain’t working. Me trying to be the quiet, sit-back-and-be-chill-and-do-my-work black person? Doesn’t work. Me trying to be friends with non-black folks? Doesn’t work.” She draws out her final syllables. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work! So you’re just, like, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”
“I have to be political,” Slay says.
“I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.”
There were negative responses to the fifty demands (which included a request for an $8.20-an-hour activism wage, the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty).
But the alumni reactions were the worst, according to Adams. “They are quick to turn around and call twenty-year-old students the N-word, and monkeys, and illiterate uneducated toddlers, and tell us to go back to Africa where we came from, and that Martin Luther King would be ashamed of us,” she says. “We knew realistically that most of those demands were not going to be met. We understand legality. We understand finances—”
“We see the pattern of nonresponse,” Slay says.
Zakiya Acey furrows his brow. “The argument was ‘Oh, so students ask for this, but it’s not legal,’ ” he says. “But it’s what I need. And it’s what this country needs, and it’s my country. That’s the whole point. We’re asking—”
“We’re asking to be reflected in our education,” Adams cuts in. “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” She shrugs incredulously. “As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m goinghome, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
Like everyone else at the table, Adams believes that the Oberlin board’s denunciation of Joy Karega’s Facebook posts shows hypervigilance toward anti-Semitism and comparative indifference toward racial oppression. “We want you to say, ‘Racism is not accepted!’ ” Adams says.
Acey ... thinks professors often hide their racial biases. “But they’ll vote in a way that does not benefit the students,” he says. “Like, the way the courses are set up. You know, we’re paying for a service. We’re paying for our attendance here. We need to be able to get what we need in a way that we can actually consume it.” He pauses. “Because I’m dealing with having been arrested on campus, or having to deal with the things that my family are going through because of larger systems—having to deal with all of that, I can’t produce the work that they want me to do. But I understand the material, and I can give it to you in different ways. There’s professors who have openly been, like, ‘Yeah, instead of, you know, writing out this midterm, come in to my office hours, and you can just speak it,’ right? But that’s not institutionalized. I have to find that professor.”
Also, things are trickier now than in the past. “In the sixties and seventies, you saw an attack on oppression,” Acey says. “How do we stop this from happening ever again? Then you have the introduction of multiculturalism: Let’s satisfy this. Let’s pretend we’re going to be diverse. Whereas what college does now is—”
“It separates us,” Adams says.
“It separates us, but it makes us busy. 24/7.”
“Also, we’re the generation that has more identities to encompass in our movement,” Adams says. “No shade to civil rights, but it was a little misogynistic. It had women in the back. A lot of other identities—trans folks and all that—were not really included. And we’re the generation that’s trying to incorporate everybody.”
“And we’re tired!” Slay says.
“That takes work,” Adams agrees.
“We do our work in the middle of the night,” Slay says.
“We meet at 11 p.m., and stay up till two o’clock in the morning doing work, and go to nine-o’clock class, and do that over and over and over,” Adams says. “We don’t sleep. We rarely eat the food at—”
“We’re not even compensated financially, so that’s a lot,” Slay says.
“The older generations have been desensitized,” Acey adds.
“Desensitized!” Adams says.
“It’s, like, ‘This is what the world is.’ ”
“ ‘It’s been this way since the fifties.’ ”
Acey says, “We understand this institution to be an arm of—”
“Oppression,” Adams offers.
“The capitalist process,” Acey goes on. “We go through this professionalization through the university. And this professionalization is to work really unnecessary jobs.”
“When I came here, I’m, like, ‘Where are the people who are disabled?’ ” Adams says. “I know so many disabled people at home.”
She shakes her head. “It does not reflect the real world.”
If this is what's headed toward German universities over the next decade, I'm glad I got out when I could.