In honor of the anniversaries on campus — the 50th anniversary of the BCC, 50th anniversary of the Black Studies Program, and 25th anniversary of the Chester Children’s Chorus — the college is Celebrating Black Excellence through programming for this year. The Phoenix, in addition to event coverage, will be publishing features of students on campus who embody Black Excellence in the many forms it takes.
Paul Buchanan ’21 stepped onto Swarthmore’s campus excited for the opportunity to be in a socially-engaged environment. His list of projects and activities demonstrate how he has taken advantage of resources on campus, like the Lang Center, Intercultural Center, and Black Cultural Center since his first year at the college. Buchanan is a core member of Students for Justice in Palestine, Historian for Students of Caribbean Ancestry, an Intercultural Center intern, executive board of Our Art Spoken in Soul, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and co-president of the Petey Greene Program. As an activist, writer, and leader on campus, Buchanan has left and continues to leave his mark on Swarthmore.
In the activist community at Swarthmore, Buchanan has found people with similar passions who inspire him and encourage him to grow both as an individual and an activist.
“In all of these organizations, we have such a great relationship because we’re all passionate about the same thing and we all work hard,” said Buchanan. “[The people I work with are also] all funny, kind, and honest people and looking at them as an example of how I can be better in my own efforts in organizing and trying to help things has made me better as a person, activist, and organizer.”
While Buchanan has been able to pursue organizing and activism at Swarthmore, he has also become frustrated with the way activism is treated by the administration. He was an active member of the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence and was disappointed by the college’s response to the protests that took place at the end of last semester despite the college’s commitment to social engagement.
“[I am frustrated with] the way that the administration has responded to all the work that we’ve done which is either to tokenize it and lift it up as an opportunity to showcase the school’s ‘commitment’ to organizing and social responsibility without actually offering any help, or demonizing and attacking it,” said Buchanan. “I would love it if people could organize non-violently on this campus and not be treated as if they are antagonistic for no reason.”
Buchanan, as a Black activist at a predominantly white institution, has also found challenges within the activist community regarding inclusion.
“Last semester, organizing at the end really sucked. There were a lot of microaggressions and a lot of silencing of Black voices. There was a lot of erasure of not just Black but also people of color in general from that movement. Part of that was not O4S’ fault and part of it was,” said Buchanan. “I’m still grappling with how to come to terms with all of that.”
Buchanan feels that the activist groups organizing against fraternities last semester made their best efforts but have left people of color to the wayside.
“I think those groups did their best, but they did happen to leave people of color behind along the way. Especially with how the organizing was presented to the media and publicized: who got interviews and who didn’t,” said Buchanan. “It’s just also the fact that one of the founding members of O4S was a Black person and it felt like their name and their influence was being completely erased from the conversation over the past year.”
While Buchanan holds these criticisms, he is ultimately appreciative of the activist community.
“I think that the activist and organizing community on this campus is extremely resourceful, extremely intelligent, and we all work super hard. We all care so deeply about so many things. But we’re not perfect, and people make mistakes,” Buchanan said. “I think what is going to be the test of how we continue to operate and come together is how we move forward from here.”
Buchanan, also a writer, recently voiced some of these concerns in a five-part poetry series, “Red Summer”, on Voices. While he didn’t initially intend to publish his poems, decided he wanted to voice his frustrations in this way.
“I didn’t write those poems with the intention to share them with anyone. For me, poetry writing is a very cathartic process and that’s where I channel my emotions. After everything that happened last semester, I had a lot of stuff that I wanted to process and get out,” Buchanan said.
The content of these poems also address the struggles of being a Black student at the college. After publishing the series, Buchanan received support and gratitude from other Black members of the community.
“A lot of Black people messaged me privately and were like ‘thank you for speaking to the concerns that I have’ and ‘thank you for giving your voice’. Some Black people who have graduated reached out to me and were like ‘I feel like you spoke up for me’,” said Buchanan.
For Buchanan, these messages were encouraging. He is, however, upset that many people have the same problems who don’t feel comfortable sharing that with the larger community.
“There are a lot of people on this campus who feel the same way I do which is not [good in a certain way],” said Buchanan. “And it means that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone outside of their friend groups and the Black community. They feel like they won’t be listened to if they breach those concerns with the administration.”
Though Buchanan believed that President Valerie Smith would be supportive of the Black community when he first arrived on campus, his perception of President Smith has changed.
“Like a lot of people that I’ve talked to in the Black community here, part of the reason I came to this school was because of President Smith, the image of having a Black female president of this institution made me feel like I would be heard and listened to and valued on this campus. Over the course of my first two years at Swarthmore. I came to realize that President Smith wasn’t necessarily as supportive of the Black community here as I thought she was going to be.”
Buchanan feels that there are concerns the Black community has that need to be addressed and that the Black Excellence celebration does not acknowledge.
“We’re celebrating Black excellence but the Black Studies [program] isn’t a full department still? We’re celebrating Black excellence, but the Black percentage of this college is 6%?,” said Buchanan. “We’re celebrating all these things and yet the Black community’s current issues on this campus … are still present.”
While Buchanan’s participation as a socially engaged scholar and activist has accumulated criticism, he is ultimately grateful for his time at Swarthmore and has hope that the college can improve to reach its full potential.
“I do want to clarify that the opportunities I’ve gotten here have been amazing and the people that I’ve met here have been amazing,” said Buchanan. “The reason I am so critical of this school is because I see what we can be and I see the possibility for a future where Swarthmore College is actually what it says: a socially conscious and responsible school. I can see that we can head in that direction if we want to, the issue is whether or not we do it.”
“It’s out of love. Love and deep, deep deep-seated frustration.”