November 17, 2008

Assistant Professor of English James Peterson

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LEWISBURG, Pa. – James Peterson would like to explain to his 9-year-old son why some of his peers at school call him names or refuse to sit next to him, he told a group at the Bucknell University on Sunday.

He wants to prepare his son for the day someone may not want to date him or be on the same team as him. And he would like to share books and music that offer a wider perspective on history and tap into the struggles young, African-American men face while making their way in the world.

That time will come when James Braxton Peterson III turns 14 and is "on the precipice of being an adult," the older Peterson said during a keynote address of the 8th annual Black and Latino Male Conference this weekend at Bucknell. Peterson read from a letter he plans to give his son in 2013, which also is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the letter, he encourages his son, whose great-great grandfather was a slave, to embrace his history but also learn from it and "never accept mediocrity."

"The most important lesson is to educate yourself," Peterson said in the letter."Be critical. Don't be bitter. Bitterness eats at you from the inside and prevents you from being critical."

Building leadership, success
More than 100 students and faculty and staff members from Bucknell and other member institutions of the Consortium on High Achievement and Success attended the conference Friday through Sunday, said Rolando Arroyo-Sucre, Bucknell's chief officer for diversity and equity and coordinator of the team organizing the conference. Founded in 2000, the consortium is a group of 37 private, selective liberal arts institutions, including Bucknell, focused on building leadership skills and academic and social success among students of various cultural backgrounds.

The theme of this year's conference was "The Fire This Time: Politics, Economics, and Identity," a play on the James Baldwin collection of letters and essays, The Fire Next Time, (first published in The New Yorker then later released in 1963). Baldwin's writings focus on race relations in America in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The book addresses issues including speculation about the future election of a black president.

Other keynote speakers included Cary Fraser, an associate professor of African and African-American studies and history at Pennsylvania State University and Shaun Harper, an assistant professor of higher education management at Penn State.

"The idea is not to say, 'My diversity is greater than yours,'" Arroyo-Sucre said. "Our goal is not to separate but to embrace."

Among the topics of discussion were the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president and how race and gender impact academic experiences. Conference participants also shared ideas about how to enrich their college experience and build a more inclusive environment that reflects and celebrates differences among faculty and students.

Own the past, seize the present
Peterson's speech, "The Fire This Time: Quakes in the Underground and a Letter to My Son," drew from Baldwin's writings, in particular a prophetic letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1963, on the eve of the civil rights movement.

Peterson asked the audience to consider how they may embrace the election of Obama and at the same time respect the painful history that makes the event remarkable. He also challenged them to keep focus on social issues such as the need for reform in prisons and public schools and to pursue higher education – perhaps even a career at a college or university.

"The single challenge to your generation is to make some seismic quakes in your underground," Peterson said. "As men of color, we must recognize that the bar has been raised."

Beyond race and gender issues, the conference is intended to build a sense of community and friendships.

"It's a great opportunity to have Bucknell open its doors to this conference," said Ken Miles, a conference speaker who graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 2007 and now works for NBC-Universal. "It gives us the ability to understand some of the challenges black and Latino males face in higher education."

Proposing solutions
Khalid Bashir, a first-year student from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., said participants shared similar experiences and proposed solutions. Suggestions ranged from providing tips about where students of various ethnicities can get their hair cut – because many stylists do not know how to cut every kind of hair – to starting an intercollegiate conference promoting across-the-board diversity, including people of different genders, sexuality and socio-economic means.

"When you're not in the majority, people might forget what your needs are. They may not relate, or maybe you don't have the funding to do some of the things they are doing," Bashir said. "For the most part, people here are coming from a lower, middle-class background. This is an opportunity to go off campus and experience what others are experiencing. It's sort of empowering and inspiring to see people from other institutions and to see how they made it through."

Giovanni Andino, a first-year student at Capital Community College in Hartford, CT, and the father of two children, said Peterson's message resonated with him.

"He definitely embodies my feelings as a father and the premise of legacy and implementation," said Andino, 28. "He solidified the difference between bitterness and critical thinking and how to navigate that so that your judgment is not clouded."

Contact: Division of Communications

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