Dear members of the American studies community:
I hope this finds you and your family safe and well during these extraordinary and unsettling times. As we come to the end of a truly unprecedented semester, I want to thank all the faculty, students, and friends of the programs in American studies, Asian American studies, and Latino studies for your hard work, compassion, and collaboration.
We are living through a scary and confusing period. The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed more New Jersey lives than World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Many among us have lost friends or loved ones to the virus. Others are struggling to recover from the infection or are experiencing financial hardship as a result of the shutdowns caused by the pandemic. Our grief and loss are magnified by senseless racist violence in our country: the ongoing epidemic of anti-Black racism directed against African American lives punctuated most recently and starkly by the murder of George Floyd, and the unprovoked and ignorant attacks on people of Asian descent in America since the outbreak of COVID-19, echoing a long history of anti-Asian sentiments in this country since the 19th century. As Frances Lappé reminds us, as we approach the 21st century, “... we remain captured in a set of ideas about ourselves which is a legacy of at least three centuries.”
The impact of COVID-19 — at once scientific, economic, political, and cultural — and the consequences of American racism are intertwined. It has never been clearer how important it is that we take an inter- and multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the many intersecting facets of American life so that we might emerge from this crisis a better, more responsible, and more unified nation. In addition to being a scientific and medical challenge, COVID-19 has revealed how interconnected we all are. It has shown how life itself is not just a biological question but also a deeply ethical and humanist project: whose life counts; how do we take care of ourselves and each other; what are our responsibilities towards others, especially those most vulnerable.
The pandemic is a global struggle that demands the commitment and energy of our society and societies around the world. American racism is our struggle that demands the commitment and energy of our nation as a whole. In American studies, Asian American studies, and Latino studies, students and scholars come together to explore the pressing issues facing our country and our place in the world: issues of justice, poverty, education, race, gender, culture, and the environment. Among our community are literary scholars, practicing artists, engineers, biologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and more. I hope this is a time when you can truly see how critical our work is.
This summer, we are hosting several book clubs as a way to stay connected with each other and our students. In the coming academic year, we will continue to host virtual programs around topics of citizenship, comparative race studies, health and social policy, social and environmental justice, and much more. This September, American studies will host the Constitution Day program featuring Keith Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, who will speak on American constitutional crisis. In September 2021, Constitution Day will feature Rosina Lozano, associate professor of history, whose recent work on voting rights in the U.S. speaks hauntingly to the challenges of our democracy. Finally, the powerful work of our recent graduates on topics such as the Asbury Park uprising of 1970 and the current administration’s separation and detention of children crossing our southern border inspires us to do more and to do better.
We, as a community and as scholars, uphold the values of democratic practice, participation, and collaboration. The ideal of democracy is not to identify with someone just like yourself — that is easy to do — but to identify or empathize with someone wholly unlike you or whose interest is not your own. This challenge is not as impossible as it may sometimes seem when we remember that the Latin origin of the word interesse means “to be among.” Critical democracy is thus not about learning to give up one’s own interests for the sake of others; it is about learning to see one’s self interest as profoundly and inevitably embedded in the interest of others.
As we forge ahead, please join me in thanking Professor Judith Hamera and Professor Aisha Beliso-De Jesús for stepping in this past year as acting director and acting associate director. My deepest thanks to the staff in the Program in American Studies for their labor and wisdom. I send my sincerest wishes to you all for your continued health and safety
Anne Anlin Cheng
Professor of English and American Studies
Director, Program in American Studies
June 5, 2020