Five questions with Professor Valerie Johnson

Five questions with Professor Valerie Johnson

Historical commission member weighs in on monuments, free speech

Valerie Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College and chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. She is also one of only two Black members of the 17-member North Carolina Historical Commission, which must approve any proposed removal, relocation, or alteration of historical monuments on state property.

The usually sedate historical commission became the center of a roiling controversy this summer when it was charged with deciding the fate of several Confederate monuments in downtown Raleigh. Students, faculty and staff at UNC have also been pushing for the commission to take up the question of removing the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus.

Ultimately, the commission decided to delay the issue until its meeting next April so that a subcommittee can examine the issue as well as a 2015 law governing monuments and what the commission can or should do under it. Johnson, who is part of the subcommittee, pushed for that delay rather than the swift solution that the most passionate voices on either side of the controversy had hoped to see.

Policy Watch caught up with Johnson this week to talk about the ongoing Confederate monument controversy and her feelings on other developments at UNC as a former faculty member.

Some were disappointed when the North Carolina Historical Commission delayed its decision on the Confederate statues in Raleigh until April. What can you tell us about what’s happened since then? I’m sure you’ve heard plenty from people on both sides since the delay.

Johnson: The committee still has to be convened, the subcommittee that was proposed. But [Gov. Roy Cooper] has appointed a new chair, Dr. David Ruffin. We’ll wait and see what happens under this new leadership.

I like his understanding as someone who grew up with the statues and is where he is now – I think it’s a reasonable place to be.

Especially the statues that are dedicated to the Confederacy are dedicated to maintaining white supremacy. It was a physical reminder to people of where their place should be. I think we’re going to have a robust discussion. I think people have their minds open to all the possibilities – at the end of our fact-finding and our discussion about what that legislation really means.

But it’s not going to go away. If folks think if they’re quiet, it’ll just go away – it won’t.

I have been receiving e-mails and letters from people. Most of the letters I’ve been getting have been people who have a fondness for these statues, for their heritage and they’re pushing us to remember that heritage. But there are many different ways that heritage can be memorialized. I think we should be mature enough to respect all the different viewpoints.

Before you were at Bennett, you were a professor of African American studies at UNC. You’ve spoken publicly about being uncomfortable with the Silent Sam statue and members of your department and students avoiding that part of the Chapel Hill campus so that you didn’t have to walk past it. There was already sentiment for removing the statue then. Did you imagine at that time there would be this much momentum for removing it now?

Johnson: When I first got there and got acclimated to the campus and what the major memory points were, I really felt like it would continue to be there.

Then in the History Department – especially among graduate students – they were really advocating for them to rename Saunders Hall and have the real story of Chapel Hill be told.

I remember looking out from Alumni Hall and looking at those two dorms and understanding that slaves not only built those two dorms but that they were servants there. They couldn’t go to school there, but they were servants.

How do we recognize those contributions when there’s nothing there?

There was a movement for a free-standing black cultural center and that happened.

Silent Sam came up and I remember talk that this needs to come down. I think by there being conversation and the teaching in some of our African American history courses, conversations were happening. As I stayed longer I thought: if we can build a free-standing cultural center, if we can do some of these other things, it’s possible.

But it’s not erasure. We’re not talking about erasing the history. We’re talking about putting it in a place where it’s a truer reflection of the history. If you have a big, gigantic statue to something that touts the supremacy of one group over another, that’s not a true reflection of the history. You have one single view of that history.

I know this is a point of contention. Because some say the Civil War was an honorable cause. But for those of us who believe in the Union and understand what was at stake, it was seditious activity. We can have conversation about that, but if that’s the only statue that is there, the only thing that is interpreting that aspect of history, you will get folks who recapitulate that – that it was an honorable endeavor, an honorable war. I want that to be in contention.

It was not okay to enslave other humans. It’s still not okay. Full stop. Period.

PW: What has it been like for you to see the changes that have come about at UNC since you left the campus? Not only the growth of the movement to remove Silent Sam, but the changes that have come about under a more conservative General Assembly and Board of Governors?

Johnson: I left UNC in 2004 and I came to Bennett at that time to direct the Africana Women’s program.

I guess I’ll start with…I’ve been back on the campus a few times for programs, especially connected with the Sonja Stone Center and Institute of African American Research. We have such great faculty and the students are so on point. I’m always wary of the chill that comes with being afraid to express yourself, and that’s what we’re seeing with the discussion around a speech policy.

I want to know that I can be in a classroom where we can raise discussions, exchange perspectives and not be afraid that a sanctioning will occur. I stand firmly that academic freedom allows us the space to creatively address differences and the way we disagree.

When you start with the chilling of speech, you’re moving toward fascism. I will go all the way there. It gives the illusion that we’re all on the same page.

College, especially, is a time when we should have that free flow of ideas – when we decide who we want to be in the world and how we want to be in the world.

I may be in a class of 25 students. I don’t expect us all to agree but I do expect us to respect each other’s opinions and to be respectful. I’m concerned about civility. When you’re confronted with this very rigid, silencing behavior you’re cutting against people’s abilities to differ. That leads you to violent conflict.

We don’t all need to be in lock-step. That’s a scary way of humans interacting with one another.

These measures to stifle various opinions are problematic and troublesome. It only hardens people’s positions. It doesn’t allow for a more organic way to respond.

PW: What was your reaction to the Board of Governors barring the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights from litigating?

Johnson: That was so painful to watch unfold. I felt a kind of visceral pain.

Who will be there to speak up for people who don’t have access, who don’t have power? What it does is ensure that only those who have access to wealth will be able to assert their rights. It keeps widening the gap between people who have wealth and do not. Wealth isn’t evenly distributed but neither is access, neither is the ability to create wealth.

When you have a place like the Center for Civil Rights where people are willing to use their talents and abilities to help folks who will not be able to buy that…that makes democracy work better. You have to get all those voices into the system. If wealth is the measure, it’s not a democratic system. There are structural reasons why some folks don’t have access to these things and helping them litigate to have their rights defended is exactly what an academic center should be doing.

PW: You’re an academic who believes in activism, in taking your expertise into the world and speaking on issues. Do you worry that the academic environment is becoming hostile to that in North Carolina and beyond?

Johnson: I do. It is disturbing. I’m disturbed by that kind of chill that some of my colleagues will have around – how can we actually exercise our academic freedom in the classroom? Will there be reprisals? It’s already kind of tricky if you’re not tenured. It shouldn’t be this politicized.

If what you say is not popular or isn’t accepted by a certain segment of the population, does that mean you should no longer be allowed to teach? It calls into question a liberal education – “liberal” in the sense of an exchange of ideas. I maintain that we are better as a society when we as a people can exchange those ideas and when we can participate freely in political activities.

There are subtle and not so subtle ways in which those discriminatory practices chill their ability to exercise their full citizenship. The promise and the beauty of public education is us working together to improve our society and find ways to meet together without having to be the very same. So I believe in the equality of access, but we don’t have to be the same.

That move toward silencing folks – being afraid you won’t get tenure because you have opinions that aren’t appreciated by the governing body – that keeps you from being able to be the sharpest academic you can be; doing your research unfettered.

This is where you might call it arrogance on my part. But I remember making the decision as a graduate student that I wasn’t going to be held hostage to tenure. I decided to dedicate myself to doing what I know to be right rather than what was safe. I enjoy the ability to teach the way I need to teach, to interact with my students in a very rich and fulfilling manner. That’s what I would want for anyone engaged in an academic enterprise.

I embrace the scholar/activist ideology. A lot of what I think about and what I do is in service to my community. It is not enough just to engage in research just for the sake of research or putting out a publication. To me, there’s a practical application –  doing what needs to be done in the service of the community. That could be sponsoring a particular speaker, using my expertise to go out and speak on these issues, serving on commissions.

I serve on the Historical Commission because I know I have a perspective that is not just mine but I bring a whole community with me. When we’re debating the business that comes before us, I think it’s important to have those connections to a community.

We produce work that is used out there in the world – the ideas that are placed out there. We are participating in that. I think it’s important to have folks who take the time to put ideas out into the world and it’s important to get out there in the world with your expertise.