Words + Words + Words

Literary scholar Sandy Alexandre honors and thanks all of the justice-seeking words that came before our 2020 ones.

Sandy Alexandre; photo by Jon Sachs

"Like high decibels shattering glass, the frequency and accumulation of these insistent words can chip away at the structural integrity of systemic racism, thereby exposing it for having lacked true 'integrity' all along." 

— Sandy Alexandre, Associate Professor of Literature


As a Black scholar of literary studies, I want to honor and thank all of the justice-seeking words that came before our 2020 ones — words that either vocally or in written forms of communication sought and fought for racial justice in the world and on this campus. Verily, thank you! I want to make sure to acknowledge that any courage I might have to form what could ultimately be justice-generating words is actually the cumulative effect of so many years of so many people speaking out and making those demands before me — the largest proportion of them agitating before I was even born. Like high decibels shattering glass, the frequency and accumulation of these insistent words can chip away at the structural integrity of systemic racism, thereby exposing it for having lacked true “integrity” all along.

Let me tell you, these words on this page would almost need to be thickly embossed in order to show, clearly and conspicuously, how indebted they are — indeed, how much they stand on the substance and heft of other words more powerful than mine could ever hope to be. But I dare say a better and more feasible alternative to embossing my words on this Faculty Newsletter is pointing you to at least some of these preceding words to which I keep referring.

Altogether, the particular set of words I want to point you to constitute 9 reports and 177 recommendations that have been offered up to the Institute about the varying states of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Institute throughout the past 10 years at least. So while I take this moment and take up this space in the Faculty Newsletter to make sure I thank all of the ancestors, activists, agitators, petitioners, grassroot movements, and freedom fighters who paved the way and modeled the courage for us to continue in the struggle for our collective liberation from the racist (and therefore unjust) systems that bind and hamstring all of the ways we move in life — whether some of us know it or not — I want to remind the powers that be that change-seeking words deserve more than just our thanks.

The way to thank words (along with the efforts to put those words together as wellcrafted arguments, irrefutable evidence, persuasive data, and stirring cris de couer) is to take them seriously: listen to them, read them, analyze them, and take them up on their offer to show and tell us how to become more fully realized as an institution of higher education. After all, how much higher than another’s can we claim the education we offer to be, if it’s not poised to evolve with and ahead of the times?

How and why do you get to call yourself a higher form of education if you’ve done the reading but your response to it clearly suggests that you didn’t really understand its complexity or that you weren’t quite up for the task? Where is the virtue in claiming to be higher if that height could be attributed, if even just facetiously, to our sitting on a pile of insufficiently addressed reports? Why is MIT wasting its community members’ precious time by encouraging them to produce reports about systemic problems at MIT that MIT doesn’t, then, reciprocate in kind with a commensurately systemic solution to them? MIT can’t piecemeal itself out of systemic problems. Halfstepping just won’t do.

We are all going to need MIT to value the data of words. Indeed, in the large scheme of the world’s history of justiceseeking words, a collection of 9 reports and 177 recommendations isn’t really as staggering as it could be, especially if (as the Academic Council Working Group on Community and Inclusion [ACWG] implores) MIT enlists all hands on deck to help implement the sum of those recommendations. To conclude, I’ll riff on the word sum.

In that famous play that bears his namesake, Hamlet is at once sarcastic, dismissive, and philosophical when he describes something he is reading as being a bunch of discrete "words, words, words." In the title of this piece, I’ve adapted the famous repetition of those words in order to remind us that words, especially pleading words, do indeed amount to something.

They add up! In this particular case, these 9 reports and 177 recommendations amount not only to an understanding that MIT has a serious problem that requires a serious solution but also to a call to action.

So let’s thank the words and their creators by getting serious and staying there for posterity. Instead of evading the words and their concomitant lessons, let’s respect them for revealing who we are and what we’ve sadly become by rote. Our claims to being and providing higher education depend on this kind of sustained moral vigilance, our will to always be and do better, and our ability to address the kinds of systemic problems that would bring relief and justice to so many if those tenacious problems were, in fact, proactively stunted and stemmed.

Stem. Now there’s a word we might all learn to be grateful for anew, if we had the courage to apply its meaning as a verb — and not as an acronym! — to our approaches to addressing social problems. Stem patterns of racism. Stem racist tendencies. Stem racism.


Suggested links


Sandy Alexandre's MIT webpage

MIT Literature

Alexandre receives Bose Innovation Research Grant

Profile at MIT News: Sandy Alexandre

Book: Properties of Violence