Former Penn State Professor Doesn't Remember a 'Happy Valley'
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.
The Happy Valley façade has far too long operated as faux-shared consensus, which silences contrary opinions and erases alternative experiences. It’s hard to voice your own experiences of threat and marginalization in the context of overwhelming praise for the “quality of life” in “Happy Valley.” It’s hard to articulate that you sometimes feel afraid—as a woman, as a black person--when everyone is talking about how they never even bother to lock their doors. As people of good heart and faith debate the next steps for the PSU community the goals should not be to go back to some imagined time of unity. The goal should be to go forward in a different way to rebuild community with radically different building blocks.
Here’s my journal entry from August 2001:
"New Faculty Disorientation"
When the university president asked if there were any questions at the New Faculty Orientation someone earnestly asked him to explain the origins of the school mascot’s name. After a brief pause, the room erupted in appreciative laughter. His anecdotal reply faded into a drone as I imagined how nice it must be to have your biggest problem at The New School be “cultural illiteracy” about school traditions.
My concerns were as basic as survival. Hate mail, death threats, and sit-ins thrust this school into the national spotlight before the ink on my job contract had time to dry. Unclaimed black corpses were found in surrounding areas, student leaders were assigned bodyguards and attendees of graduation had to pass through metal detectors. It took a combination of student protest and unfavorable nationwide publicity to force the university to the negotiation table to endorse a deal they now seemed profoundly ambivalent about implementing. It took a combination of faith and vision for me to try a make a life here.
So while I haven’t given much thought to team spirit, I have wondered whether the particular way race and sports are juxtaposed in the American psyche would mean that my six foot three husband would be asked by random strangers about the “team”-- because what else would a tall black man do with his life but play ball? I have wondered how often fanaticism (whether elation at winning or despair at loosing) would turn into mob mentality and riots—and if the combination of alcohol and school spirit could turn lethal for a black person in the wrong place (not at home) at the wrong time (after the game).
By the midday, the word diversity had been uttered close to thirty times (I counted) and the tale of The New School’s long standing commitment and proactive policies to create a multicultural and tolerant campus climate had been disseminated through audio and video, accompanied with vigorous nods and applause. No one seemed aware of the irony in the fact that fewer than eight of the 150 new faculty members were black.
By the end of the day, I felt as if I had partaken in both a seven hour-long infomercial and a fraternity rush. Like any good corporate sales pitch, The New School described their structure, functions, and guiding principles and validated our indispensability as faculty/employees. Like any good frat, The New School left us with a hunger to “belong,” a paranoid awareness that we were being judged at all times, and lots of logo'ed merchandise.
The look on many of my peers’ faces as they departed the conference room into the last of the late afternoon sun, confirmed that they had indeed bought (into) something. Unlike them, however, I knew that my relationship to this institution would be complex, contradictory and most likely, shaped by contestation.