A Word About Special Interests
Politicians regularly denounce and dismiss what they call “Special Interests” or “Special Interest groups.” Of course, these terms are often (but not always) coded language referring to issues or people that are either non-white, non-male, non-privileged, or by definition, non-important by “mainstream” standards. Typically, Blacks, Latinos, women, the poor, the gay community and many other marginalized people comprise such “special interests.”
Fortunately, organizations comprised of committed people form to protect and advance these varied “special interests.” Unions for example represent the “special interests” of workers and in doing so are responsible for making the workplace more tolerable and empowering for all of us. Tenant associations fight to protect the “special interests” of people that rent apartments in residential buildings. All renters have such groups to thank for the establishment of rent caps, written leases which clearly specify rental terms, tenant and landlord responsibilities, housing courts, and a list of protective regulations with which so-called “landlords” must comply. In similar fashion Black Student Unions formed in the 60s and 70s to represent the “special interests” of Black students attending thousands of predominately white colleges and universities throughout the nation.
Many Black Student Unions Have Lost Their Way
These initial organizations came into being during the tail end of Civil Rights crusades and the birth of Black Power. It is my opinion that too many Black Student Unions today have abandoned the traditions of education, resistance, and Black empowerment they were created to maintain. Political rallies, demonstrations, protests, political education for high school and college students, support for Black Studies Departments, cultural programming and demands to recruit and retain more Black faculty and students, are now too often replaced with cookouts, fashion shows, parties, Hip Hop concerts and spoken word poetry events.
Certainly these events have their place on a college campus, but when such events take place to the exclusion of serious and sustained political activity, by an organization founded specifically to take political positions, we have a serious problem on our hands. Naturally, my critique does not apply to all BSUs; some have valiantly continued and expanded on the work of their predecessors. Unfortunately, in a selfish and apolitical era when we are told how “post-racial” America has become, political and community-oriented BSUs are exceptions, not the rule.
My Personal Experience
My critique of contemporary Black Student Unions is informed from the perspective of a practitioner and scholar. During the late 80s as an undergraduate student at Syracuse University, I (then known as “Quentin Stith”) had the honor of being a two-term President of the Student African American Society (SAS). While I was conscious prior to becoming a college student, I came into my own as a leader and organizer because of SAS and its example. Later, as a grad student at Cornell University, where I was President of the Africana Graduate Student Association, I wrote my Master’s thesis about the Black student struggle to create Black Studies Departments during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. As a doctorate student in African American Studies, I have focused my research around Black college student activism during the Black Power Movement. This incredible journey of activism and scholarship began with my experiences as an undergrad at Syracuse University.
SAS was our Black Student Union. This organization represented the issues and interests of all Black undergraduates on campus and did so for about 20 years prior to my arrival in 1986. When I note that SAS fundamentally changed the landscape of Syracuse University I do not exaggerate. Besides providing culturally relevant programming for Black students, conducting political education and developing competent Black leadership, SAS created the African American Studies Department (and later fought to maintain and expand it), was instrumental in the fight to secure a Blue-light system on campus (providing protection for students at night), protested CIA recruitment efforts, challenged Apartheid, protested tuition hikes, advocated for Black community members that worked on campus, and held weekly meetings to raise consciousness among our constituents.
We were privileged to receive mentorship from committed Black faculty members like Dr. Janis Mayes, Dr. Randolph Hawkins and Dr. Micere Mugo among others. And I am proud to note that many of the students involved with SAS and its leadership have gone on to do important work in the areas of politics, education, film, philanthropy, community development, religion, music, nonprofits, and countless others. It is important to note that SAS was a protest organization, but we did far more than protest. As I recently posted on Facebook:
Just for the record, the Student African American Society at Syracuse University didn’t spend all of our time engaging in protests and demonstrations. We also developed significant relationships with local Black students, community leaders, and workers, worked with Black high school students, brought powerful speakers to campus, organized educational, cultural, and social events, encouraged and facilitated Black academic/professional excellence, supported local Black business owners, fought for studies abroad in Africa, had the Community Folk Art Gallery expanded, funded, and staffed, and defended the rights of local Black residents that worked in dining halls at the university, in addition to the rights of Black professors. We cannot allow others to revise (rewrite) our history. Were we angry? Yes. Did we protest a lot? Yes. But we did a lot more and got things done for our people and (quiet as kept) several others. Those of us who are now alumni must lend our wisdom and resources to contemporary Black SU students, and teach them the principle of Sankofa; “It is no crime to go back and fetch what you have lost.”
History of Black Student Unions
As indicated earlier, SAS did not begin with my arrival to Syracuse University, but almost 20 years earlier in 1967. Several committed and pioneering Black people grew from these experiences and this period as undergrads at Syracuse University. Among these were St. Clair Bourne, the documentary filmmaker, Vaughn Harper, a university basketball star that later became the famous voice of WBLS’ “Quiet Storm” radio show for 30 years, and Suzanne DePasse, (who among other things helped discover the Jackson Five, produced the Motown 25th Anniversary telecast, along with “The Temptations” and “The Jacksons” miniseries).
The very first Black Student Union began a year earlier at San Francisco State University, the same campus where a year-long student strike led to the creation of the nation’s first Black Studies Department in 1968. Organized mostly by student and young Civil Rights activist Jim Garrett, the organization essentially placed various Black groups and students under one umbrella (hence “Union”) and set out to advocate for Black liberation, solidarity and increased opportunities for Blacks on campus.
Within a couple of years, BSUs sprang up on white college campuses throughout the country. Along with protesting racial injustice and American militarization and increasing student enrollment and Black faculty, perhaps the greatest institutional legacy of BSUs was their successful fight for Black Studies Departments. Proactive, political minded and committed Black students (along with community activists, intellectuals and artists) are largely responsible for creating a Black student/intellectual presence on white college campuses, and creating numerous employment and political opportunities for Black professors.
A Sankofa Call for Today’s Black Student Unions
The term “Sankofa” is a Ghanaian concept originating from the Akan people. It means “It is not a crime to go back and fetch what you have lost.” In concluding this blog entry, I issue a Sankofa call to contemporary BSUs who have abandoned serious and sustained political struggle and have become in too many instances, social clubs providing entertainment and opportunities to socialize. Your very presence as Black college students is testimony to the struggle and vision of those who came before you. Let other groups entertain and socialize. Black Student Unions have a mandate to agitate, organize and politicize. This is especially true since white supremacy is still alive and well and hard-fought Black Studies Departments around the country face downsizing and questions of their “relevance” from white university officials. I also issue a Sankofa call to Black professors and BSU advisors. Many of you were part of the first BSUs in this country. As seasoned elders in the struggle, you have an obligation to descend from the ivory tower, mentor Black Student Unions and push them to continue the legacy upon which they were built. If we fail in this responsibility, who will be there to protect and advance our “special interests” on American college campuses?
To facilitate Black Student Unions reclaiming their purpose and activism, I’ve written a book entitled, The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook. It is must reading for Black college students and BSU leaders.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.