The Johns Hopkins Department of English has watched with horror the continued state-sanctioned murder of Black Americans, and the violent repression of principled dissent that followed. We condemn the militarization of our public spaces, including and especially in our home city of Baltimore, and affirm our belief that Black Lives Matter everywhere.
We also know that Departments of English Literature, like ours, have long had a part to play in entrenching institutional racism. A central element of literary study has been to select and elevate a small number of authors to define a language, a tradition, and a national culture, and to tell a story of humanistic values that too often entails selective humanization. The study of literature has frequently been an exercise in exclusion: which voices are not worth hearing, which experiences and lives do not rise to the status of “serious” writing.
Determined scholars and students have persistently pushed at these barriers, and their hard work has brought in new voices. The study of creative and critical writing by Afro-diasporic, African, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities — and a critical eye to exposing the entanglements of hierarchies, racial and otherwise, within the dominant tradition — have not only enlarged the discipline; these efforts have also had a salutary effect on how people both in and outside of the academy understand the traditions that shape us. Still, these scholars and fields are often on the outside looking in. This work is in its infancy.
The Johns Hopkins Department of English is committed to doing that work. Over the past half decade, in particular, we have begun to address these shortcomings in our own department. We have re-imagined our curriculum to focus scholarly attention on the rich Black cultural heritage of Baltimore and the wider world. Numerous initiatives from our Department over the past few years have sought to provide safe and interrogative spaces for the elevation of Black scholars and the study of Black traditions both local and global: the founding of the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts, an initiative designed to foster organic links between Johns Hopkins University and the African American communities of Baltimore; the African Writers event series of readings, class visits, and lectures; a conference on Early Black Utopias; and the historic appointment in 2018 of our first African-American Department Chair.
We know that this is just the beginning of what must be done, and that battling institutional racism requires deep institutional change. To that end, we commit to:
- Continued recruitment, retention, and graduation of underrepresented minority graduate students;
- Completing the roll-out of our Global and Minority Literatures requirement for undergraduate English majors, including an expanded range of course offerings and extra-curricular events;
- Significant changes to our department-housed journal ELH, including an expanded and racially inclusive Advisory Editorial Board, as well as active recruitment of work by and about BIPOC writers.
As our nation reels from its ongoing reckoning with inequality and injustice, we are determined to rise to the challenge of representing a vast and complex field of literary expression. With colleagues elsewhere, we stand ready to redress the constitutional failures of our profession.