In Celebration of Black History Month



Black educators play a central role in the lives of all Swarthmore College students. Black people from all fields and backgrounds work relentlessly to provide an invaluable educational experience here. This series is an exploration of their impact through the perspectives of Black students. We hope to identify and uplift the historic and present significance of the presence of and creation of Black educators at Swarthmore.

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” -W.E.B. DuBois


Black students at Swarthmore are winning.

Black Swatties are leaders, champions for social justice, powerful artists, and much more. Every day, in the face of exclusion, they succeed in all fields, including in their academic achievements. Black students are constantly spurring the success of the institution. At times, this is at the expense of their mental wellbeing. While Black students are excelling, finding an academic path can be challenging. In search of their academic truths, Black educators serve as necessary resources.

Research around black students’ experiences at predominantly white institutions has served to illuminate the obstacles faced by minorities in academia, even in our own community. Lydia Koku ‘18, a Special Major in Sociology and Education, for example, has taken this type of research upon themself.  Their thesis is titled ‘This place wasn’t made for you’”: How Racial Socialization History informs Black College Students’ Sociopolitical Development. Koku has spent their undergraduate career identifying challenges that Black college students face, and learning how trauma plays a role in their self-realization. “I know that being a Black student at an elite, predominantly white institution is hard, for most people, most of the time. An array of expectations and judgments and biases are mapped onto our bodies, sending us consistent messages that we don’t belong here and never will. Undergoing this socialization in college while simultaneously internalizing the same messages from the world outside of the “bubble” can result in experiences of race-based traumatic stress for Black students.” While Black students at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI’s) are striving, they are expected to navigate a space that is unfamiliar and actively excludes them. Black educators make all the difference in helping them higher education a place of belonging.

Consequences for speaking out against both the microaggressions and blatant instances of discrimination at Swarthmore leave students with a choice. They often must decide between expelling energy to improve the institution, or remaining silent and going unheard. This phenomenon follows Black students into their classrooms. It is important that conscious efforts are made to make Black students at PWIs to feel supported. In a New York Times article, Chris Lebron warns of the dangers of the absence of Black educators from the education of Black students. “Consider what it means for that child to be told with a straight face that there is such a thing as an American dream even as their daily lives open up more opportunity for the kind of macabre nightmares the most comfortable of us tend to think are reserved for despotic so-called Third World nations.” Black teachers are able to help Black students cope with this contradiction, because they themselves are testimonies to hope in the face of reality. Lydia Koku articulates this struggle, “Black students are always finding ways to contend with and reject the narrative that we don’t belong, especially when we have the support of people who look like us in positions of power. While having Black professors doesn’t erase the daily realities we experience, representation can certainly help mitigate it.” When Black students strive toward academia, they aspire to embody a term and narrative that they haven’t had a chance to define. Black professors are a testament that one day, this self-definition will occur, and that this journey is worthwhile. AynNichelle Slappy ‘20 recalls this sentiment from advice she received from Professor Elizabeth Ndeto from the Linguistics department. When she asked her for guidance in handling confrontation in exclusionary spaces, Professor Ndeto said “Do not shy away from confrontation in fear of being misinterpreted. Rise to it and defend yourself. With poise, of course.” Professor Ndeto was able to anticipate her fear of being stereotyped as aggressive and threatening, so her strategy alleviated a lot of her concerns.

Koku articulates the many ways in which professors can make impact. “Not all Black professors are “supportive” and support looks differently per person. But for me, knowing I can trust and rely on Black faculty (eg. Dr. Anthony Foy, Dr. Nina Johnson, Dr. Joseph Nelson) has definitely facilitated my undergraduate experience.” Support from Black teachers comes in a variety of forms. The Black educators of the community has created an environment that has fostered solidarity, pride, and self-expression amongst young Blackademics, in the face of historical exclusion.

As Black History Month nears its end, Voices hopes to highlight the experiences students have had with those in academia who have supported them, guided them, and most saliently, paved a way for future students to better understand and navigate higher education. We thank not only our professors, but staff and administrators, as well.  For that, the Voices Collective is immensely grateful.