Photo by Mark Katz
Josh "Rowdy" Rowsey, center, at the Silent Sam Cypher
Given the mass shooting
that unfolded last week in San Bernardino, local law enforcement’s swift responses to two, unrelated 911 calls just beforehand from UNC-Chapel Hill, reporting alleged armed individuals on campus
, now seem like even less of an overreaction.
But even after UNC’s Public Safety Department deemed everything “all-clear,” there still remained an entirely different kind of rifle-wielding threat to black students on campus: the Silent Sam monument, which honors the alumni who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Over the years, many efforts have been made to have the monument removed. But the most recent call-to-action arrived last week, through music.
On most Wednesday nights in Chapel Hill, you’re likely to find a large cluster of hip-hop enthusiasts gathered in the Pit of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus for a weekly, freestyle rapshare ritual, The UNC Cypher. But last week, UNC Cypher organizers—in conjunction with The UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities—moved the event up several hours and relocated it several hundred yards across campus to the Upper Quad, next to the inhospitable Silent Sam.
I watched as Silent Sam Cypher co-organizer and UNC graduate Josh Rowsy—or “Rowdy Rowsy,” as he goes by on days like this, when he’s representing the UNC-based hip-hop collective No9to5
—rapped line after line of improvisational rhymes. He handed the audience a giant thesaurus to pass around and to choose words for him and fellow emcees to employ in their freestyles. Immediately, volunteers began shouting words apropos of the black students’ sentiments toward the monument, like “malcontent” and “distraught.” The mixed-race crowd had their own angry descriptors on reserve, yelling them out to the emcees almost as if they were publicly scolding Silent Sam. No one needed a thesaurus.
“We’ve been trying to bring the cypher to a new level where it makes statements and represents more than just rap,” said Rowsy. “The Silent Sam statue has been something of conversation and controversy for quite some time.”
Coincidentally, just as the Silent Sam Cypher was wrapping up, a letter from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and University leadership
arrived for UNC students in response to mounting racial tensions on campus.
“I want to make it clear that no member of our community is less important than any other. None of us should be made to feel—in our classrooms, libraries, or laboratories, or in our offices or residence halls or in any public or private place—that our presence here is anything other than an achievement rightly earned and celebrated.” wrote Chancellor Folt. “It concerns me deeply and personally whenever members of our community do not believe that they are treated as though they belong at Carolina.”
More specifically, the letter introduced seven initiatives—which may or may not have been indirect responses to a list of demands made on Nov. 20th when a large, majority-black group of UNC student-protesters stormed into UNC’s Memorial Hall
—interrupting a “Town Hall on Race and Inclusion” just after Chancellor Folt introduced the evening’s guest moderator, Chicago Tribune
journalist Clarence Page. Of those demands, one called for the removal of the Silent Sam confederate memorial from campus. Chancellor Folt’s letter, however, made no such mention of any efforts.
Between free slices of cheese pizza provided by the cypher’s organizers, geography professor Altha Cravey told me that a colleague in her department told her about the Silent Sam Cypher, which is why she decided to walk across the quad to watch with the crowd of about 50 people. In August, three UNC police officers confronted Cravey outside of her Carolina Hall office
about a “Hurston Hall” poster that she had hung in her window. Displaying the poster was Cravey’s gesture of solidarity with the Real Silent Sam Coalition’s campaign to rename Saunders Hall to Hurston Hall, after celebrated black writer Zora Neale Hurston. Cravey is just as ardent about the the removal of the Silent Sam memorial.
“It’s gotta come down. It’s just a question of when,” says Cravey, standing just several feet from where, for the moment, freestyle raps and a drummer’s snare and kick had hijacked the Confederate spirit of the Silent Sam memorial. “I wish the chancellor, Board of Governors, Board of Trustees and the legislature would recognize that this is an affront. It’s not only an affront because of what’s there, it’s an affront because it’s right here where we walk into campus, and where we greet other people who walk into campus."