Monday, November 6th, 2017...3:41 ampierrec

Dear my Black Sista…

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Dear Esther,

My name is Chelsea-Mia Pierre. I’m not too sure how many black woman attended Dickinson before me, but I am one of them now in 2017. I really enjoyed learning about you in class the other day, and I’m not too sure why I haven’t heard of your name before Dickinson. I think it’s admirable for Dickinson to place so much recognition on you, but I kind of wonder if it’s out of guilt. They didn’t know that you once existed until some students in 2012 investigated. It was not until then your family received an apology letter from the college, you got a building named after you, and a whole section on your life in the archives room in the library. In my opinion, Dickinson lacks proper recognition and representation of people of color on campus and I think they’re using you as “the first African American female to graduate Dickinson” as proof of their “inclusivity” on campus. I think having someone like you enrolled in this institution in the early 1900’s and now almost bragging about it is them saying “we started as a white institution that tolerated the presence of black people, therefore, we are more accepting than most private institutions.” I think it’s comforting to know that someone who looked like me made it to graduation at Dickinson in tougher times than I’m in now, but I am tired of being proof, a statistic, or a photo on their website to portray a deceiving “all inclusive, diverse” campus.


  • Thank you for bringing up the tokenization of Esther Popel Shaw! I had not thought about it in that way, even though it should be obvious that Dickinson, like many other institutions, tokenize black folks and other people of color. It’s interesting to also think about how we as members of both the college and a greater society, continue to use women of color as icons but also don’t really appreciate their labor. I took Esther Popel Shaw’s name and message for granted until we learned about her story in class. That’s my bad but it might also be a result of being conditioned to not explore women’s and people of color’s stories. Thanks for sharing, Chelsea-Mia!

  •   Professor Seiler
    November 7th, 2017 at 1:15 am

    Chelsea-Mia, thanks so much for sharing this post with our CR/HR community. To clarify one detail, it was around the turn of the present century that Prof. Sharon O’Brien, prompted by a student’s question, started looking for EPS. This detail shift does not, of course, correct for the belatedness of the College seeking her/her family out, or the attendant risk of tokenizing EPS. To the latter point: do you think the fact that many students hadn’t heard of EPS suggests the contrary, or that the College hasn’t quite figured out how to talk about EPS?

  • I’m really moved by your comment that “it’s comforting to know that someone who looked like me made it to graduation at Dickinson in tougher times than I’m in now,” because I think that really illuminates a comparison between your reflection on your own experience and on EPS’s. Our visit to the archives gave our class so many examples of what it was like for EPS to be a student at Dickinson as a Black woman, including not being able to live on campus and being notified that her daughter would not be able to either, even years later. While that is no longer the case, we are living in a different time with its own sets of problems and issues to be faced. The EPS Papers are a really powerful way to approach thinking about the history of Black women’s experiences at Dickinson.

  • I found this post very moving and intimate and I think what you’re saying is really important. I also agree with Janel’s point that while the issues EPS faced may not be the same ones that we are currently facing, they give us the context and framework to understand them. I also think that Dickinson tokenizes EPS, especially because you hear more about her as “the first black woman to graduate from Dickinson,” which deserves to be brought up, but she was also an incredible protest poet and contributor to the Harlem Renaissance and was very active in campaigning for civil rights, which are not really popularized. How would you ideally frame and educate the Dickinson community on EPS?

  •   Charlotte Hayden
    November 8th, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Thank you, Chelsea-Mia. I can never experience what it’s like to be a person of color at Dickinson or in the world, but reading your letter gives me a glimpse. Your statement, “I am tired of being proof, a statistic, or a photo on their website to portray a deceiving ‘all inclusive, diverse’ campus” makes me want to cry: Dickinson inflicts “inclusivity” on its students of color, not on the white students who are unaffected by racism but who most need education on racial issues. Yet students of color have to bear the burden of Dickinson’s alleged inclusivity, which is not fair because they do not seem to get a choice in the matter.

  • Really good point, Chelsea-Mia, I was actually thinking the same thing during the presentation but didn’t know how to articulate it. Esther Popel Shaw shouldn’t be worthy of particular attention because she was female and African-American, but because she was a genuinely kind and ingenious soul with many creative works in her own right. Her disadvantage shouldn’t be her most noteworthy asset. It annoys me when institutions single out and laud minorities simply because of their minority status, rather than on their actual works (as if to suggest that their status is the best thing about them). This brushes against the argument for affirmative action, especially since Shaw’s descendants get free tuition because of her past mistreatment. I question these borderline tokenist practices but also the problems of complete academic meritocracy. Though Esther Popel Shaw’s impressive success despite her social disadvantage should be recognized, she should be celebrated regardless of and expanding beyond her biological makeup.

  •   Professor Seiler
    November 14th, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Hi, Peter–Just confirming that your comments *did* finally come through. If I may respond to this one: I don’t think it’s fair to say that Dickinson has “lauded” EPS exclusively because of her race. What Malinda Triller-Doran has done, for example, is *collect and preserve* her work. Second, offering a Dickinson education to EPS’s descendants (and not publicizing / promoting the College for doing so) is not affirmative action. It’s reparation.

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