The Swarthmorean, Writing About Race, and Me
By Rachel Pastan
There’s a story the writer Antonya Nelson tells about her Kansas childhood. When she was five years old, she, her father, her pregnant mother, and her four siblings were in their station wagon in a shopping center parking lot when a tornado came through, picked the car up, turned it over, and dropped it again. Somehow, none of the seven, unseatbelted people were hurt.
What a thing to happen! A parking lot full of cars and theirs the only one caught in the whirlwind. What were the chances?
What were the chances that I, a middle-aged white woman who has spent most of the last 30 years alone in a room writing, would find herself lifted off her feet and swirled around by a windstorm of opinion, speculation, and outrage in regard to the proper role of her community newspaper in covering race in the town of Swarthmore, population 6,400? When I took the job as editor of The Swarthmorean, I could not have imagined it. But that is where I find myself now. Inside the tornado.
In scores of letters to the editor, social media comments, emails, official statements, and sidewalk conversations, people have expressed opinions about what happened in mid-May that caused me and associate editor Satya Nelms to resign from The Swarthmorean.
While I continued working for the paper, I felt I had to keep quiet. This is the first time I am speaking publicly about it.
I gave my contractually required 30 days notice on the morning of May 12. Satya, who had no contract, resigned a few hours later, effective immediately, and published a piece explaining why. The next day, the newspaper’s three co-publishers announced my resignation in a provocative “letter from the publishers” on their website, yet my name continued to appear on the paper’s masthead. That confused a lot of people. Had I maybe not resigned after all? Had I resigned and later changed my mind?
I did not change my mind.
This essay is my attempt to explain what happened. Also to sketch what it felt like inside in the tornado as my ordinary life, like Nelson’s family’s station wagon, was turned upside down.
Published continuously since 1893, The Swarthmorean is an eight-page weekly that covers local government meetings, business openings and occasions, and interesting things local people do — like running through all the town’s streets in one day, having their dead tree made into a giant sculpture, or building a miniature library as an Eagle Scout project. We publish a calendar of community events, run the police blotter and obituaries, and, in June, print the photos of every graduating high school senior. We feature poetry by residents in National Poetry Month, and disseminate neighbors’ summer reading lists in July.
Toward the end of 2018, the paper’s two longtime publishers announced that they were looking for new owners. The internet had made the business more difficult, they said, but they hoped someone with “the interest, energy, and talent to create a new, exciting chapter” might take their places. That was when my bosses stepped in. It was important, they believed, for a community to have a newspaper. So, although they had not published newspapers before, they acquired it.
About ten months later, when I became the editor, we started covering more serious issues more often. I knew from the beginning that was something I wanted to do. But serious issues never got all that much space. For one thing, covering them well took a lot of time and effort, and the paper only had a staff of two and a half: me; Satya, whom I hired six months after coming on board, and who was only half time; and a third person who did layout and ads. Dedicated volunteers wrote some features and did copyediting and proofreading. The paper, which has a circulation of about 1,400, really is a community affair.
The First Conversation
The first hint that my publishers were not happy with what, in their May 13 letter, they called the “editorial balance” of the paper came at a regularly scheduled weekly meeting on Monday, April 26. (Satya, who was usually at these meetings, was out that day.) One of the publishers told me that we had received a letter from a subscriber complaining about some of our content. The letter writer, an older white woman, said that too many stories were “focused on what the editors perceive as politically correct.” She referred specifically to a recent article I’d written about zoning issues in the town’s historically Black neighborhood. She wanted to cancel her subscription.
The letter writer had left a copy of her missive at the workplace of one of my bosses, and he wanted to bring it to my attention. He told me he thought it made some good points. He said he also had spoken to another person — someone near and dear to him — who believed that The Swarthmorean was exaggerating problems relating to race relations in our community. In this (white) person’s long experience in town, my boss told me, whites and Blacks got along well.
A second of my bosses tried to explain the problem with an analogy. My predecessor as editor, he said, had written a great deal about Swarthmore College basketball coach Landry Kosmalski. One could write too much about anything, he said; I happened to be writing and publishing too much about race and Swarthmore. He hoped I could see that it would be a good thing for me to do less of it.
It took me some time to process this conversation, which was startling and troubling to me. I knew that under my direction we were publishing a lot of pieces about race in the paper (though not as many, I’m pretty sure, as we published about gardening and trees). We were also publishing a lot of pieces about Covid-19 and the agonizing decisions the school board was making about whether and how to reopen the schools. Over the last year, race and Covid have been the central issues in America, and Swarthmore is part of America. Writing about how those issues manifested themselves in our community seemed to me to be a central part of my job.
I knew some people didn’t agree with my approach. I’d read that letter from the disgruntled subscriber my boss had brought to my attention. The writer had emailed it to us, and also dropped off a hard copy at my office. But pleasing everybody was not my job.
Nonetheless, I found myself preoccupied by my bosses’ request. Was it reasonable? Was I overdoing my attention to a subject that might be of more interest to me than to others? Could I write less about race — less, specifically, about Swarthmore’s small Black community, which has a long and complicated history in our town?
And what exactly was I being asked to do less of? I could easily identify a couple of articles from the last few months I was pretty sure would have bothered some people: the zoning piece for one, and also an essay by a writer who had compiled a bibliography of resources about the history of race and Swarthmore.
But what about more ambiguous pieces, like the short profile, slated for publication the following week, of an elderly African American man who had grown up in Swarthmore’s historically Black neighborhood? Would that fall into the category of stories my bosses wanted fewer of? When they saw it in the paper, would they think I had immediately and intentionally defied their wishes?
On Wednesday, April 28, I wrote an email to the publishers giving them a heads up about the profile. I also expressed what, at that point, were still inchoate, confused concerns about what they had asked of me. I tried to explain what I found troubling while not making assumptions about their attitudes. I wrote,
I also feel frustrated (maybe you do, too) by what seems to me to be the attitude of at least some white Swarthmore residents — that, if their point of view is that race relations were (are) good, then race relations were (are) good. Period. And if anyone says otherwise, it’s because those people are misunderstanding something.
It would take me a few more days to move through befuddlement, worry, confusion, and the sense that I could make things right if only I could find the right words, and arrive at clarity about what exactly I was being asked to do.
The Second Conversation
On Friday, April 30, two days after receiving my concern-expressing email, my bosses invited me to meet with them. “We think it might be time to have another in-person discussion, just the four of us,” they wrote in an email — meaning the three of them and me. We settled on Wednesday, May 5.
That Wednesday afternoon, on the terrace of the Inn at Swarthmore, my bosses told me again — at greater length and with more explanation — that there was, in their opinion, too much writing about race and Swarthmore in our newspaper.
I can’t claim to know what they felt or thought, or how they came to decide the issue was important enough to require a formal sit-down. All I can tell you is what they said. I did not record the conversation, but I did take some notes. And some of the discussion feels seared in my memory.
Here are some of things they told me:
- It’s not good for a newspaper to have too much content about any one thing (basketball analogy employed again here).
- Some controversy is good. They referred specifically to their “publishers comment” of August 2020, entitled “Lisa Palmer, the WSSD School Board, and Our Civic Leaders Are Failing Us,” about what they considered the travesty of the local public schools remaining closed because of Covid concerns. But too much controversy, they said, is too much.
- Conversations about race are important, but hitting the same note over and over by writing too much about things that turn people off is a problem. They said they were not asking me to stop writing about “these things” — just to do it less often.
- In the past, the paper did a good job keeping people happy.
- It would be good if we could get back to more of the fun features the paper used to run more of, like The Floating Photographer and personals. (I agreed with this right away — I like those things too.)
- There’s a perception among our readership that we have “a new editorial bent.”
- We have to keep in mind that the paper is a business. In the last eight months, subscriptions have been flat. It would be a shame for the community if the paper died.
Here are some things they did not say:
Rachel, our subscriptions have been flat for the last eight months. We’re concerned, and we’d like to talk it over with you and brainstorm some possible solutions.
Rachel, we’ve had some complaints that the paper is doing too much coverage of race and Swarthmore. As the editor, what are your thoughts about that? How do you think we might respond, if at all?
To be clear, they also did not ask me to stop writing about race and Swarthmore altogether. They said they thought it was important subject matter. They just wanted less of it.
I asked them how much, in their view, was the right amount.
I asked which stories, exactly, they wanted fewer of.
They told me that they could not say. They said they were not exactly sure.
I said I would have to think about what they were asking. I repeated that several times — that I needed to think. I was confused and troubled, but it was difficult for me, in that moment, at that table, on that drizzly Wednesday afternoon, to get my thoughts in order.
I left the restaurant and walked home. It was about 6 p.m. I went upstairs and undressed and got into bed. Through the curtains came the sounds of neighborhood kids playing basketball, people walking their dogs, the occasional car. Swarthmore going about its Swarthmorean life.
An hour later, I got up and got dressed again and went downstairs. I sat on the couch with my husband and my 23-year-old daughter, and for the next two hours I talked at them. I could not stop talking. I was trying to make sense of what had happened by giving voice to every thought that came into my head.
In the middle of all that talking, I had a strange experience. A physical sensation came over me as though I were a vessel filling slowly from the bottom with cool water. This coolness rose up through me and with it a kind of clarity. Oh, I thought. I see what they are asking me to do.
They are, at bottom, asking me to prioritize the feelings and perspectives of the white people in our community who don’t see race as much of a local problem and don’t like having articles about it in their community paper.
They are asking me to give less room to the stories, feelings, and experiences of the Black people in our community who have shared their sometimes painful feelings and experiences with me and with our readers.
I can’t do that, I thought. I won’t do that.
Rather than do that, I would resign.
I was shaking as those thoughts rose through me. But also, for the first time since the initial conversation on April 26, I felt clear and calm.
Those feelings wouldn’t last long.
Talking to Satya in the Park
The next day, Thursday, May 6, I met my associate editor, Satya Nelms, for our weekly editorial meeting in Umoja Park. “Umoja” means “unity” in Swahili, and the park sits at the northern boundary of the town’s historically Black neighborhood, halfway between my house and Satya’s apartment building. Because of the pandemic, we always held our editorial meetings in the park if the weather was nice enough. (Otherwise we talked on Google Meet.) I had been dreading the meeting because I knew I would have to tell Satya about my conversation with the publishers. I guessed that what they had to say would not be easy for her to hear.
Satya, who joined the paper in July 2020, is Black. In addition to covering borough council meetings, writing book and movie recommendations, and producing articles about everything from the grief people are feeling during Covid to members of our community who move from house to house around town, Satya frequently brought her perspective as a Black woman to our pages. She wrote honestly and directly about what she was feeling, even when she knew that those feelings might be foreign or confusing to many in our largely white readership.
Indeed, she wrote those pieces in part because her feelings might be foreign or confusing to many white readers. I came to think of her editorials as gifts (though she would not have put it that way). Hers was a clear voice speaking about what it was like to be Black in our country, and in our town, for anyone who wanted to listen.
After Satya became associate editor, we began covering race somewhat more often. Partly this was because of her writing, and partly it was because, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the whole country had turned more of its attention to race. I was proud of what we were publishing. I felt lucky that, in Satya, I had found not only a strong writer and a reliable editorial partner, but someone who brought to our pages experiences and ideas that were significantly different from mine. I was grateful that she could write about one of the defining issues of the moment from the inside.
I also felt lucky to have Satya working for the paper because I liked her so much. Our Thursday editorial meetings were usually the highlight of my work week. I loved talking things over with her, hearing what she was learning as she researched her pieces, swapping information about what was going on in town, and planning future issues together. Sometimes we talked about what we were reading and recommended books to each other. Sometimes we talked about our kids, hers aged 2, 7, 12, and 14, mine aged 23 and 26.
But on May 6, as I waited for her at the picnic table under the trees, I felt only dread.
We didn’t have a lot of time that afternoon. I had an interview to get to, so I told her about my meeting with the publishers right away. I repeated what they had said about how it was bad to write too much about any one thing; how some people had complained that our coverage of race was too one-note; how they wanted us to include more fun stuff; how they’d reminded me that paper was a business and said it would be a shame to see it close.
I tried to speak gently, because I suspected these things would be hard for her to listen to. They were. Some of Satya’s writing for the paper had been deeply personal. Being told it wasn’t wanted — that some readers objected to it and that our bosses wanted us to cater to those objections — was painful. Both of us cried.
Then I went to my interview, and she went home to her family.
The next morning, Friday, May 7, I emailed the publishers. I said I had gathered my thoughts and would like to have another conversation with them.
I wasn’t sure what would happen in that conversation. When they heard what I had to say, would they fire me? Would I resign? I thought I might, but I hadn’t made up my mind. Maybe, I thought, they would say something that would convince me to stay.
Later that afternoon, I got a text from Satya. She said she had decided to resign as associate editor. She would keep working for a few more days, maybe a week, and finish some things up. She told me she was writing an editorial explaining why she was quitting.
I was stunned. For reasons I can no longer understand, it had not occurred to me that she would also be thinking of resigning.
The next day, Saturday, May 8, Satya sent me a draft of her editorial, “Why I Resigned From The Swarthmorean.”
In the piece, Satya says how proud she is of the work she and I had been doing at the paper. “I joined this publication to be of service,” she writes, “and part of that service involves making this community aware of things it may not have noticed or would rather not see.” She reports that the publishers asked us “to stop writing so many heavy and racially charged pieces.”
Toward the end of her piece, she writes that the publishers’ directive required her to prioritize
the comfort of privileged white people who would rather not be confronted with the ways in which they and their neighbors contribute to the oppression of Black and other marginalized people, and I won’t do it. I did not join the paper to make everyone comfortable.
I have heard people object that the publishers did not in fact issue a “directive” to us to write and publish less about race and our town. It’s true that no one ever said, “Rachel, The Swarthmorean must publish fewer stories about race and Swarthmore.”
But it’s also true that when your three employers invite you to a meeting specifically to ask you to do something, that boils down to a directive. It’s the power differential that makes it so.
I would add that, in my third conversation with the publishers, when I explained my objections to what they had asked (I’ll get to what I said in a minute), no one said to me,
“Wow, Rachel, you make some good points. Give us some time to think about them.”
No one said, “Well, you’re the editor, and it was just a request. Of course you’ll do what you think is best.”
The Third Conversation
On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 11, the publishers and I met again. They listened politely and quietly while I told them what was on my mind. I had notes, but I had spent the last few days going over and over what I planned to say, and it turned out I didn’t need them. Here is a summary of what I said.
1. We publish a lot of different kinds of things in our newspaper for lots of different kinds of people. But what some people seem to be asking for is not more of the kinds of things they like, but less of something they don’t want to see. You’re asking me to prioritize the feelings and attitudes of those (white) people over the feelings and attitudes of the (nonwhite) people who tell me how much it means to them to see themselves and their concerns and issues in the paper. Some of those (nonwhite) people have said in my presence that they don’t know if they can keep living and raising their children in this town because of the racism they’ve experienced here.
I don’t think that asking me to prioritize the feelings of the first group over the feelings of the second group is an okay thing to ask. And I won’t do it.
(I did not say then, but I still wonder — why can’t those people just turn the page if they see an article they don’t like? I read The New York Times and The Delaware County Times every day, and each of them has columnists whose ideas appall me. Sometimes I read them, but often I just don’t.)
2. You can’t even tell me what exactly you don’t want — how often is too often, or which pieces, exactly, are the wrong kind of pieces. This requires me to try to get inside the heads of people who think in ways I disagree with and try to guess what they would consider acceptable. That’s pernicious. And exhausting.
3. You’re not trusting my editorial judgment.
4. You told me that this request was driven by business concerns because subscriptions are flat. But why not come to me and say, “Subscriptions are flat, let’s talk about why that might be. Are the articles too long? Is it because the post office is delivering so many papers late? Or maybe it’s the pandemic?” That you go to race coverage first as the culprit — that’s a problem.
(At this point, one of my bosses said I had misunderstood him, that he had always maintained that worrying about subscriptions was not my job. It’s true that he had told me that in the past. It’s also true that, in our May 5 meeting, as part of his explanation about the request he and his co-publishers were making, he remarked that subscriptions had been flat for eight months and said that it would be a shame if the paper died.)
5. You told me that writing about anything too much — like basketball — would be a problem. But race is not like basketball. For one thing, it touches on many aspects of life and therefore is a part of many stories.
6. You said it seems to people as if the paper has a new editorial bent. It does. I’m the editor, and this is my bent.
At the end of the meeting, they thanked me for my honesty. They said it was important to be able to have hard conversations about difficult topics. They said that, if I felt I could not continue to work for them, would I please let them know sooner rather than later.
I said I could not continue to work for them. I told them that I was resigning.
The following morning, Wednesday, May 12, they emailed me to ask me if I would be willing to keep working through June 11. I replied with a brief letter of resignation (“I believe our recent conversations have clarified ways in which our visions of the paper are not compatible”) and said that I would be happy to stay through June 11.
One reason I agreed to stay was that my contract required me to give 30 days notice. Also, I had several important stories nearing completion, and I wanted to see them finished and published. Then too, I didn’t want to be responsible for the paper abruptly ceasing to appear.
I want to say something here about the publishers — my bosses. Each of them in his own way works hard to improve our community. Each has donated his time, money, and other resources to support the arts, to participate in civic organizations, and to work for needed political change in our county. They bought The Swarthmorean when it needed buying because they thought it was important that our community have a newspaper. To the best of my knowledge, they have made no profit from this endeavor but returned all revenues back to the paper. All the work they do to keep The Swarthmorean going (and sometimes it’s a lot of work) they do for free.
Word Gets Out
Shortly before 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 12 — a couple of hours after I submitted my resignation — Satya resigned by email effective immediately. (Both Satya and I worked as 1099 contractors, but I had a contract while she did not, so she had no mandated notice to give.) In her email, she said that if the publishers wanted more information about her resignation, they could read the piece she had written about it. She pasted “Why I Resigned From The Swarthmorean” below her note.
She also published the piece on Medium and posted a link to it on her Instagram.
Shortly before 1 p.m., I got a text from one of my bosses. He asked me to review what Satya had posted. He said that what she had written in her piece was not true — that, for example, they had never issued a “directive” — and said that the statements she was making were harmful to the paper and to the publishers’ reputations. He said that the gap between what had happened and what Satya had written must be a result of how I had “characterized” my recent conversations with them.
I texted back:
I conveyed what you said to me as clearly, accurately, and gently as I could. But even for me the request, as I tried to explain yesterday, landed as a prioritization of the comfort and desires of one group over those of another. That’s how that request seemed to me. But [that] it seems even more that way to Satya is not that surprising.
Later that day, my phone began to ring. A Swarthmore Borough Council member called me to find out what had happened. Our state senator — who lives on the street behind me — called. Some members of a local progressive political group called. (The following day, the mayor would come to see me.)
When I got up the courage to look at social media, it was overwhelmingly, but certainly not entirely, supportive of Satya. People said the publishers didn’t deserve her, that her voice had been important to the community, that they had seen their own struggles in what she had written, that the choice between seeking money and opposing racism was an old one. Some suggested a campaign of letter writing to express disappointment. Others said they would cancel their subscriptions.
One person said that racial equality wasn’t a real problem in America. Another asserted that local newspapers should be fun (you can find that serious stuff anywhere, they said). One person said that there are always two sides to any story, and people should wait to hear what the publishers said.
That happened the next day.
I was at work on Thursday, May 13, bundling the new edition of the paper for the weekly mailing as I do every Thursday, when I saw an email from someone I know slightly that referred to a statement by the publishers. I had no idea what the guy was talking about. I started Googling.
Pretty soon I found “Letter From the Publishers” posted to The Swarthmorean’s home page.
The letter opens like this: “We are saddened that a conversation we had with our editor about the paper’s editorial balance is being misinterpreted as an effort to limit coverage of matters of social justice.”
The letter goes on to say that Satya and I had resigned (I had not announced my resignation), and that they, the publishers, counted themselves among our biggest fans. Later in the letter, they reaffirm their commitment to “important conversations about race, injustice, politics, education, the environment, and other topics.” They write,
Over the past two years, we have worked hard to revitalize The Swarthmorean by providing more relevant, meaningful, and timely content. Our readers have appreciated the changes we have made. We are proud of our staff and the bold direction … the paper’s content has taken since we became publishers.
I found the letter hard to read. The first sentence boggled my mind. How could the conversation about the paper’s “editorial balance” be “misinterpreted” as an effort to limit coverage of matters of social justice when less writing about race and Swarthmore was exactly the rebalancing they had asked for?
As discussion on Facebook, Nextdoor, and Instagram ratcheted up, perhaps the biggest surprise to me was how thoughtful much of it was. There was very little name-calling or vitriol. (You’ve got to love Swarthmore!)
One post in particular, from a neighbor named Kabeera Weissman, explained something I had been trying unsuccessfully to put into words. She wrote that few articles published in The Swarthmorean in the past hundred years had been either written by people of color or addressed issues of social justice. “In other words,” she wrote, “there has likely been a long, unjust imbalance in paper coverage. Under Rachel and Satya’s editorial guidance, that balance shifted.”
“What’s at stake in this discussion of ‘balance’ in our town paper,” Kabeera continued, “is really all about who has power in our town, whose voices matter, whose stories matter, whose pain matters, and who decides.”
Opening the Closed Door
This is the point in the essay where I confess that, when Satya first sent me her editorial, I was horrified. Was she really going to publish that for the whole world to see? Was she really going to publicly call out the respected community members we worked for? Couldn’t she see that she was calling down a rain of fire?
Well, of course she could. I don’t believe she relished it. But I believe she felt it was important to let the community know what was happening at its newspaper.
Satya is quiet, friendly, introverted, sympathetic, warm, and — in my experience — someone who always gives other people the benefit of the doubt.
She is also Black. Living in this world as a Black woman — being the mother of Black children — she has had a different set of experiences than I have. I know she is concerned about the world her children are growing up in — even here in Swarthmore.
If it had been up to me, I would have let the conversations I’d had with my bosses stay in the rooms where they happened, behind closed doors. I would have told a few friends what happened, then buried the whole experience deep in a dark corner of my mind and done my best to forget all about it. But after I got over my horror at what Satya had done, I saw that it was the right thing to do.
A group of white people sat in a room deciding how much coverage of race was the right amount for our town. That’s so often how things work.
I realized that I had to speak about what had happened too. After all, I was there.
Some people have told me how sorry they are that my bosses asked me to stop writing about social justice in our newspaper. But as I’ve made clear, they did not ask me that. I can’t imagine them asking me that.
They said, What you’re doing is good; please just do it less. They said, It’s fine to raise your voice, but don’t raise it too loud.
At the beginning of this process, after the first conversation with the publishers, I found myself wrestling with the question of what is too much — how loud is too loud — as though I would be able to find an answer. I was so occupied with the wrestling that it took me a while to see that the request was in some ways worse than a blanket prohibition would have been. Because it was not extreme — because it was framed as a disagreement about proportion — the request was insidious. It wormed its way inside me and made me question everything.
That charming essay by a (white) college student about her community quilt project — it briefly discusses a quilting class she took that taught, among other things, how Black women have used quilts as acts of resistance. Was that okay to publish?
The article by a Black woman about her Instagram project collecting pandemic stories from students from marginalized groups. Was that okay to publish?
The Swarthmore Human Relations Commission was discussing a mechanism for reporting bias incidents in town. Should I report on it? Maybe wait another week or two?
And what about stories about people from other marginalized groups? The report on the forum about the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in our town, or the calendar of Pride Month events at the public library — should I ration those out too? Or were stories about race the only problem?
These questions and doubts (I think of them as a white person’s questions and doubts, though I trust some white people would not have had them) spiraled through my confused mind. It was getting to be like a dust storm in there.
One friend said it seemed as though the publishers wanted a sprinkling of social justice stories so they could feel good about themselves, but not so many as to put off a certain kind of reader. Maybe that was it. Or maybe that’s unfair.
Swarthmore is a progressive community. Our population is about 6% Black, but many lawns sport Black Lives Matters signs. Many white neighbors attended last year’s Juneteenth celebration, hosted by residents of the historically Black neighborhood. The Swarthmorean publishers are (as far as I can tell) pretty progressive guys. I know they care about making their community and the world better, even if they don’t agree that my approach to editing our newspaper was the right tool for that mission.
I’m guessing that a lot of neighbors who did not like what Satya and I did with The Swarthmorean would agree that people in the largely poor and majority-Black city of Chester, just three miles down the road, have serious problems and need help. Swarthmore has a lot of connections to Chester, and many Swarthmore residents are very involved in schools, soccer programs, music programs, food banks, and politics there.
The problems here in our affluent, educated community can be harder to see. I think a lot of us still have trouble understanding — believing — that there’s work to do here too.
But I can tell you this.
Many parents in our community feel that their Black and brown children are not treated equally in our schools, and federal civil rights data indicate that our schools (like most schools) punish Black students more often and more severely than white students.
The rapid gentrification of Swarthmore’s historically Black neighborhood makes some longtime residents feel that they no longer belong in their own community. It’s not pleasant to be raking your leaves and have a passerby assume you’re the hired help.
Black residents have told me they feel they are more often watched and stopped by police than their white neighbors are. (A member of our police force said that police have to follow up on 911 calls, and if more Black people are looked at suspiciously by their neighbors, that is not the police force’s fault.)
Over the many years I read The Swarthmorean before I became its editor, it seemed to me that the same people kept showing up in its pages again and again, and that those people were overwhelmingly white. I thought if the paper could include more faces — if it could tell more stories of Black, Chinese, and Muslim Swarthmoreans (among others) — it could help members of those communities feel more like they belonged. Maybe changing representation in the paper would even help white residents feel more like their nonwhite neighbors belonged. Who knows — maybe then they’d be less likely to call the police on them.
What I was trying to do with The Swarthmorean was not going to prevent police brutality in Philadelphia or get polluting waste-to-energy plants out of Chester. But this is where I live, and it was what I thought I could do.
What Comes Next?
For a week or two in early May, everything around me seemed to be exploding. I was sure The Swarthmorean was dead. Maybe the town too. Everything seemed to be in fragments, ripped apart. I felt sick, raw, and full of dread.
But after a few days, I had a realization. In fact, I saw, pretty much nothing had changed. Probably nothing was going to change at all.
Sure, my own daily life would be different. Satya’s too. But the newspaper most likely would continue on under a different editor. And as for the town? People would quickly forget the hullabaloo. They’d move on. I began to feel sick in a different way.
Which brings me back to the story about the family in the station wagon in the tornado. Do you remember that the mother was pregnant?
In the story, after the tornado sets the car back down, the family goes to the hospital to get checked out. Everyone is fine. Except that it is impossible to know about the unborn baby. This was in the 1960s. Technology was limited. Would the baby be all right? Would it not? There was nothing to do except wait to find out.
For me, the unborn baby in Antonya Nelson’s story is a symbol of the future. At the end, we don’t know if the tornado will have made anything happen — will have changed anything — or not.
Will the tornado that hit The Swarthmorean this May change anything in our town? Will some of the talking we’re doing about race move us forward? Maybe set the stage for more conversations about important issues in our community? Spur us to work together to find solutions?
Will it perhaps set us back? Will the angry things people have said to and about each other harden divisions and engender mistrust?
Or — worst of all — when viewed in the rear view mirror, will what happened be nothing but dust?
This essay is the only way I know to keep the conversation about race and Swarthmore going. Publishing it is my attempt to make what happened here in May 2021 not have been for nothing.