After reading The Athens NEWS' “Being Black and a Bobcat” series from earlier this semester, Ghirmai Negash, a professor of African literature and director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University, said he felt that the conversation on diverse experiences at Ohio University needs to continue.
Negash sat down last Tuesday to discuss his personal experiences coming to and being a part of OU, as well as some of the cultural subtleties in and around Athens that he has noticed.
Born and raised in Eritrea (on the Red Sea in northeast Africa), Negash was forced to leave his homeland in the 1980s. “Because of the conflict generally in the region, I moved to Europe and I was a refugee in Europe,” he said. Only in his 20s at the time, he had to interrupt his university education in Ethiopia and was forced to finish it “stateless, basically” in Europe. “I had, practically, to start from scratch,” he said.
As a refugee “moving from place to place,” Negash said “the disruption” was the most jarring part of his journey moving to Europe and, later, the United States. “I don’t wish for anybody to be a refugee… You lose a lot of resources and part of your experience and humanity as well,” Negash said. “But if you are lucky, if you survive it… you learn about the human nature. You learn about the resilience of humanity. Maybe you learn a few things about yourself.”
In Europe, Negash said, one of the biggest struggles for him was with the language barrier. “Language matters because you cannot communicate with people, you cannot express your ideas, you cannot communicate your needs… If you don’t have the language, there is no access to the local culture,” Negash said.
Another issue Negash dealt with in Europe was his blackness in Western society. Growing up in Eritrea, race was not a concept people focused on, Negash recalled. “That was the first time I started being conscious about my identity as a black person,” he said. “So I understand it very well when people say race is a construction, that your identity is actually given to you by the other. And normally the ‘other’ is the ones who have the power culturally, economically, politically… For me, that was almost a visceral experience – to observe and understand how identities are really constructed – when I became a black man.”
Once he “started getting conscious” about his identity, Negash said he noticed that other people who were refugees or immigrants in Europe had similar struggles. “Communicating with them, living with them, studying with them, playing soccer,” he said, helped him become comfortable and settle down there.
After teaching for a while at the University of Asmara in his home country, Negash came to OU in 2005. “I speak like six, seven languages so for me, it was interesting to see that most Americans, the majority, actually are monolingual,” Negash said. Sure, some know French or Spanish, but the majority of the population speaks one language fluently, and that’s English. “If you are a monolingual person, that means there is no access, there is no gate, there is no vehicle for you to enter a different cultural space,” Negash said.
Of course, he also soon realized that OU is “a white university,” Negash said, as the majority of the students are white Americans. “At the same time, at Ohio University there is also what I would call this culture of diversity.”
THE CITY OF ATHENS IS “A very vibrant, dynamic, I would say progressive community,” Negash said. “At the same time, Athens is like an Island… you have, kind of, to balance what you say about Athens city with the broader neighboring context of appalachia.” Without understanding the context, he said, “you will make sweeping statements that are stereotypical.”
Though not all of appalachia is the same, “and we have to be aware of the dangers of stereotyping or objectifying… because no places or people are exactly the same,” he noted, after reading (and teaching in one of his classes) the non-fiction bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, Negash said he was able to better understand the culture of this region.
“(Vance) describes also the people in the rural areas, the white populations, their economic struggle – unemployment, poverty and then slowly, slowly disenfranchisement and deprivation as well,” Negash said. Those struggles may sound familiar to those who’ve studied oppressed groups. “When you read those kinds of stuff, you really start understanding the complexity of diversity, of the human condition generally,” Negash said. “That is where, I think for me, the compassion starts.”
Being a man of color has helped Negash better understand “the position of other marginalized groups,” he said. “It is… not impossible, but it is very, very difficult if you come from privileged communities to understand the struggle of marginalized communities because you take things for granted,” Negash said. “If you feel economically and culturally privileged, you live your life, life goes on.”
The educator said he has “great admiration” for people from privileged backgrounds “who understand and empathize and who are in solidarity with marginalized groups. But if you have power, if you have privilege... solidarity can become very abstract.”
For example, Negash said if you are a woman or a person of color walking on campus at night, you may have certain concerns that men or white people generally wouldn’t think about. “The problem of people of color, marginalized groups generally is knowing that there is really something that others can and you cannot do… It’s like a hidden wall,” he said, paraphrasing author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“It is something you are always kind of guarding yourself against… in any place, you feel culturally, socially you have to be careful,” Negash said. “In the classroom with the things you say… even in discussions, there is a point where you cannot talk about certain things even when it is about the curriculum. So those are the constraints. You see it outside the classroom, outside the university and within the university.
“This is really how discrimination and being othered works,” Negash continued. “It is systemic: it’s in the system, and it’s not made for you as an individual. There is a history of oppression and, in the case of African Americans, slavery and the Jim Crow experience, it is embedded in the culture that it becomes impossible, really, to disentangle it, even sometimes to fully understand it.”
NEGASH SAID THE UNIVERSITY HAS done a “really good job” of recruiting students and faculty of color, “but it has not made the transition from that to something structural, systematic, sustainable. I don’t think there is any plan, even.” This transition from a focus on numerical representation to an integrated approach to diversifying campus is crucial, Negash said. “Minority faculty and students, will bring perspective and a different kind of knowledge to the university,” he said. “You are not doing it just for them, but also because you want to diversify knowledge and diversify the perspective of the university: that’s why you need them.”
At the same time, Negash said, the university must ask, “What is the incentive for a student or a faculty member to join Ohio University? What do we have to offer them? You have to offer minority students a curriculum that really actually aligns with their… needs – academic, cultural, social. They have to be able to recognize themselves in the curriculum,” Negash said. “So I think Ohio University also needs to rethink, renovate diversify radically… the curriculum content.”
Although Negash enjoys teaching his global literature class and other classes where he can incorporate global perspectives, “Sometimes I feel, ‘OK, this is a one-off thing for the students and there is no follow-up,” he said. “Then (OU) would need, maybe, to start thinking about bigger things, such as prominent, iconic minority scholars and writers. They can infuse the university curricular system with new ideas, creating dynamism, academic and pedagogical energy at higher frequency.”
Hiring “top-notch,” well-known scholars of color as faculty “will have a trickle-down effect,” Negash predicted. “These people could attract students and faculty and that is the incentive. Ohio University really needs to ask itself, ‘Why should these people come to this place?’
“It’s good for the university as well,” Negash added. “If you have these people, it will help the recruitment, the retention of (minority) students and junior faculty. I know, for example… I’ve been at this university for 13 years. Some African Americans have asked, ‘What is here for us?’... So incentives must be created – academic incentives, resources – for the minority academics and scholars to stay longer, to invest, to become part of the institution.”
WHEN IT COMES TO INTERNATIONAL diversity compared to domestic diversity, Negash said, “I do not see them as separate.” There is, however, “this infamous tension between African Americans and Africans, for example,” Negash said. “African Americans believe or have the perception that Africans come here – or, generally, internationally diverse faculty – and they take the jobs that they should have taken.”
Part of that conversation, he said, is the idea that scholars from Africa don’t have the same understanding of African Americans’ experiences in this country that African-American scholars would. That tension and those differences, however, are perhaps amplified at OU, where domestic diversity seems to be falling short, Negash said. “In the context of Ohio University, the institution just needs to invest seriously and heavily in domestic diversity,” he said, “which means African Americans, LGBTQ community... students from Appalachia, and all other minority groups… because if there is no balance between domestic diversity and international diversity, then there will be, always, this kind of unnecessary tension.
“You cannot have social justice internationally if you don’t have it locally,” Negash added. “By the end of the day, oppression affects people the same. That’s it.”
It would be nice, Negash said, to see “more coming together, pulling together of international students and domestic students” on campus. “For me, the oppression in Africa and the oppression here are really the same,” he explained. “It’s just the specifics that are different, the details… but the impact of, for example, poverty and being denied basic human rights are the same. Everybody’s struggle is to have a dignified human life.”
What needs to happen, Negash suggested, is for people “to recognize our differences, because the differences are there, and you should never deny the differences or reduce them to being the same. But given that, I think the collaboration, the solidarity could be built if people were more, I think, open to acknowledging various different contributions by people globally, I guess. At the end of the day… the earth is very limited, so you have to share it.”