About 150 Temple University students and North Philadelphia community members gathered April 10 to fight back against racist attacks on the Department of African-American Studies carried out by College of Liberal Arts Dean Teresa Soufas.
The rally and march followed a similar demonstration organized last month by graduate students from the department that was met with a strong police presence, including a police dog. This failed attempt at intimidation spurred undergraduates in African-American Studies and other student activists, including Party for Socialism and Liberation members, to initiate the protest.
The struggle to defend African-American Studies began last year when the then-department chair retired. Dean Soufas, who has a long history of arrogant disrespect toward Black faculty members, gave the department an outrageously short amount of time to choose a new chair. When professors elected Dr. Kariamu Welsh, a nationally prominent scholar, Dean Soufas simply rejected the overwhelming vote without giving any explanation.
To qualify to be department chair, a candidate needs to meet a number of professional and academic qualifications. The only eligible faculty member who is willing to take the position, after Dr. Welsh’s dismissal, is a white professor who does only a quarter of her work in the African-American Studies Department. Dean Soufas’s creation of a scenario where the department is led by a white professor unfamiliar with the discipline is a clear attempt to undermine the goal of African-American studies—to understand oppressed people as subjects, not objects.
In the meantime, African-American Studies has been led by an interim chair, a white professor from the English Department. This leadership vacuum has diminished the standing of the program at Temple, which once was among the most respected in the country and the first to offer a doctorate in the discipline.
These issues and more were addressed by speakers at the rally, who were enthusiastically received by the crowd. After several students shared their experiences with the department and reflections on recent developments, prominent community activists encouraged demonstrators to keep up the fight. Among them were Sukhari Rose, a former leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Pam Africa, a world-renowned revolutionary and leader of the international movement to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Rally organizer Kashara White read an open letter composed by the undergraduate students to Dean Soufas, saying: “Why is it that the issue of diversity always falls on Black Studies? Why don’t you teach communism and socialism alongside capitalism in this university?” She continued, “We are committed to the study of the human condition for the betterment of humanity for all. We are prepared to take action and we will not stop until we get what we rightfully deserve.”
After the rally, protesters marched through Temple’s campus, bringing their message to even more students. Favorite chants included, “Black Studies is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Dean Soufas has got to go!”
If the enthusiasm of the crowd, the number of protesters who volunteered to get involved and the frightened reaction of Temple administrators and police is any indication, students and community members made serious progress toward their goal with the April 10 rally for African-American Studies. In one of the most thoroughly racist cities in the country, a demonstration of this character is immediately linked with the regime of police terror, mass incarceration, poverty and other injustices wrought by the capitalist system.