BY MIYAH BYERS
Yesterday, Oberlin College made a historic move: the institution just announced that it has elected its first Black president in its 184 years of existence– AND she’s a woman. Here she is: Carmen Twillie Ambar.
As for some of Ambar’s background, here is an excerpt directly from the college:
Recent election days have left me beyond disappointed, but I can finally put the #NotMyPresident to rest (for now). A bit of balance has been restored in the universe. I lost one great president, and now I’ve gained one much closer to home. This is not only a victory for the college or for students of color, but a victory for Black women.
Oberlin’s track record with Black students and faculty has been far from perfect. Just this past year, the administration denied a 14-page list of demands spearheaded by Black students and supported by others. In addition, after an incident of racial profiling followed by a violent citizen’s arrest/official arrest, the administration did nothing more than abate tensions between student protestors and Gibson’s (the local bakery involved). This is not the first run-in students of color have had with this establishment, as Gibson’s has a history that is nothing short of questionable in regards to racially profiling Black and Brown students and faculty.
Until recently, the college has been selective when publishing details of its history with former student Edmonia Lewis.
Lewis was the first professional African-American sculptor to gain international recognition for her artwork. Her career at Oberlin was short-lived. According to Oberlin’s website, she began studying at the college in 1859 because “it was one of the few educational institutions to in the United States to admit women and African Americans.”
She was then accused of poisoning two of her white roommates, but was acquitted soon after. However, her trial was highly publicized and she was brutalized by “white vigilantes.” This, among other things, prompted her departure from the school. In regard to this, Oberlin’s website says “In 1862, she left Oberlin, in part, because of harassment and did not graduate.” The Center for Women and Transgender People is now named after her.
This year, artist Fred Wilson paid tribute to her legacy with his ‘Wildfire Test Pit’. He placed plaster casts of Lewis’ work in juxtaposition to other paintings and pieces of various artists of African descent. Lewis sculpted under a Greco-Roman influence (neoclassical). This created an interesting dialogue between two seemingly separate worlds brought together over time and through bloodshed– Europe and Africa. To encounter these lines of narrative, physical movement through the space and in between the pieces was required. The ‘Test Pit’ was not about glancing, but about drawing closer and listening with intent. Fun fact: “Wildfire” was Edmonia’s Chippewa name.
Lewis’ story is not a new one: a brown person, ’embraced’ by a predominantly white institution which ultimately fails to protect them and uphold the so-called legacy which led them there in the first place. This reality has become all too familiar for Black women. Since our introduction into Western civilizations and the emergence of American chattel slavery, we have wrestled against the white supremacist institutions that define the world in which we live. Guiding our bodies through the pain, poison, and suffering and out of harm’s way has been a generational struggle.
And this is why the election of Oberlin’s first Black female president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, is such a feat. It is a testament to the strength and resilience that we, Black women, have come to exhibit over time; and it is evidence of the life force, the “ancestral sacred creative”, the Aśe that flows through all connected to the diaspora. We can be abused, fetishized, appropriated, unappreciated, and underrepresented, and still go on to become entrepreneurs, CEOs, models, actresses, doctors, lawyers, scientists, writers, chefs, and whatever our wonderful minds can dream of: Oh, and maybe even become the next president of the world renowned Oberlin College.
I cannot speak for my peers, but this moment in Oberlin’s history means a lot to me. I was called to Oberlin by some internal compass; you could call it fate. To be honest, I wasn’t that concerned with who the president was because I just knew that Oberlin was the place that I needed to be. However, even I underestimated the game-changing power of representation: to have someone who resembles you, your parents, your grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles be in a high and well-respected position of authority changes the way you see yourself and your abilities.
And it isn’t just because Ambar is Black. Just because someone looks like you doesn’t mean they will look out for you. It is, however, because of what Ambar’s blackness means: Us Black and Brown people are sacred. When we are born, we lose our individuality; we are woven into the fabric of our ancestors–All the kings, queen, empires, civilizations, triumph, suffering, and bloodshed that has come before us and will come after us. This is our legacy. For the college to elect–for the first time– a Black woman into its highest position is its first step towards finally honoring that legacy.
However, all that glitters is not gold. There is much work to be done. Ambar will not get a free pass because we see ourselves in her. In fact, because we (Black students) see ourselves in her, the stakes will likely be even higher. We make this place what it is. We push the college to uphold and enforce its inclusive and progressive values. We expect and will demand social justice at every turn–even when everyone else is calling us ‘liberal snowflakes’–because every human being deserves the right to be safe while being themselves. Most importantly, we expect this new president to do the same, because this is the Yeopeople way. But I have faith–all the faith in the world–because Black women have been through it all. Black women move mountains, split seas, and do the undoable. So, welcome, President Ambar–and be unforgettable.
Until next time–Give thanks. Smile and B serious.
If you would like to do any further reading, here is a list of texts/works/resources I referenced in writing this piece:
Marta Moreno Vega. “The Ancestral Sacred Creative Impulse of Africa and the African Diaspora: Ase, the Nexus of the Black Global Aesthetic”. Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, Vol. 5 (1999), pp. 45-57.