Former Penn State Professor Doesn't Remember a 'Happy Valley'
1 year ago
African American Studies professor recalls her miserable initial Penn State experience
The recent Sandusky child rape allegations have been cast as a “scandal” to be overcome, rather than a window through which the fiction of “Happy Valley” can be revealed.
I taught at Penn State in the Department of African and African American Studies for six years and State College was never a “Happy Valley” for it' s students or faculty of color while I was there. I remember it as a place that was not just racially homogeneous, but often racially hostile.
In 2000, the university made concessions to vocal student activists demanding more institutional support for black history, culture and politics courses in order to try to broaden the university climate in the wake of death threats and the discovery of a dead body of a black man nearby. It was the students’ successful mobilization of national news media that loosened the university purse strings and created the means to bring me and other black faculty to campus.
It should be no surprise then that I experienced “Happy Valley” through the lens of race and racism. The high concentration of white supremacist hate groups in central Pennsylvania, the prison-dotted landscape where brown and black urban bodies were held, the obvious tension between the relatively more liberal “gowns” (university students and faculty) and the largely conservative “town,” the culture clash between the rural, urban and suburban student populations, the hyper-masculine sports culture and the alcohol-soaked party school atmosphere often worked together to create not just a sense of isolation, but a sense of active discomfort.
This is not to say that there were not many welcoming individuals at PSU. But their collective weight could not counterbalance the many stories that black faculty and students shared among each other about notes shoved under office doors, bomb threats at the local high school, or being harassed when shopping, driving or daring to live too far outside the campus.
It’s been discouraging to hear that part of the response to the recent discovery of the sexual abuse of children, the surrounding cover-up and the shocking ethical and moral choices of the officials in charge has been the stated desire to return back to an imagined idyllic time of unity and peace. It is this sensibility that sent me back into my archives to recover a journal entry I wrote in my first weeks teaching at Penn State in 2001 -- a time when my friends and family checked in with me almost daily out of concern for my well being.