Civil rights activist Dick Gregory has authored a stinging rebuke to student protesters at Seattle University, asking that they stop trying to get a dean fired for saying the name of Gregory’s memoir, titled Nigger.
Students at Seattle University’s Matteo Ricci College have been occupying the office of dean Jodi Kelly for the past two weeks, and they show no signs of stopping. They have vowed to remain until the university meets several demands, which include Kelly’s resignation and the adoption of a new curriculum that features more diversity and fewer and “dead white dudes” (Matteo Ricci currently offers a liberal arts program centered on the Western canon).
The standoff has continued without end largely thanks to the occupiers’ demand that Kelly be fired, which university president Stephen Sundborg has dismissed as totally unacceptable. One of the chief grievances lodged against Kelly relates to an incident last year, where a black student complained to Kelly about the lack of diversity in the curriculum.
In response, the student said, Kelly recommended to her Gregory’s memoir, which happens to bear the title Nigger. Kelly used the book’s title three or four times, and even though she was just referring to the book, the student said she was left emotionally devastated.
“I did not go to class,” the student said two weeks ago, when the story first surfaced. “It is not her place to tell me not to be offended. This woman needs to be removed. I’m worried about the students that come after me.”
Now Gregory has released an opinion piece of his own, denouncing the effort to get Kelly ousted.
“I am not offended by Dean Kelly’s use of the word ‘nigger,” Gregory says in his piece, published by Inside Higher Ed. “In fact, I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better. I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents. Years ago my mama told me, ‘Son, sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never hurt you.'”
Gregory has a long history of both civil rights activism and unusual beliefs (he is a big fan of conspiracy theories), so it is notable that in his view the three-week sit-in at Matteo Ricci misses the mark.
Gregory says he has corresponded directly with Kelly, and finds no reason to believe she holds racist views.
“My communication with Dean Kelly leads me to believe that she respects students’ intelligence enough to share with them the autobiography of a black man who was honest enough to name his book Nigger,” he writes. “Students, your dean didn’t name the book — I did. I am hopeful that my autobiography will become required reading at Matteo Ricci College — and I am certain that it will be enlightening. I’ll even provide the books for free.”
Gregory adds that instead of trying to tear down Kelly for using the name of his book, they should focus on bigger issues.
“I tell students they should be concerned that some of their classmates can’t walk down the streets in certain cities without the fear of being shot by both gangbangers and misguided police officers,” he writes. “They should be concerned about violence and sex assaults on college campuses. The National Rifle Association wants to arm students — and that doesn’t bother you? Students should be concerned about the exorbitant cost of education and subsequently student debt, the next financial crisis. Also, students should be concerned about a job market that is not going to be waiting on them upon graduation.”
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