Viral tweet on Queen’s death garners support, criticism
Dr. Uju Anya is an expert in critical applied linguistics, an associate professor of second language acquisition, and the child and sibling of survivors of genocide. As of Friday, she is also the author of a viral tweet that has since been removed from the platform.
“I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating,” Anya wrote on her personal Twitter account on Sept. 8. Her partner, Dr. Sirry Alang told The Tartan that the tweet culled thousands of likes and went viral even before Jeff Bezos picked it up and called Anya out.
Bezos retweeted Anya’s post and wrote, “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” The attention, Anya told The Tartan, put a target on her back. Carnegie Mellon then condemned Anya’s “offensive and objectionable messages,” which “absolutely do not represent the values of the institution.” It also said, “Free expression is core to the mission of higher education.” Twitter removed Anya’s post a few hours later.
As a private institution, Carnegie Mellon is not beholden to the strictures of free speech granted in the first amendment. The University’s freedom of expression policy, last updated in 2007, does not place limits on speech unless it violates the law or challenges rights of Carnegie Mellon community members.
In the backlash to Anya’s post, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz explained in an interview with The Tartan, “The University itself is not the object of criticism for the speech.” However, he said, “when a professor says something that’s very controversial, and there’s a lot of criticism of it, it’s not unusual for a university to make sure the public understands that this is the private expression of that individual and does not reflect the views of the university.”
Anya understood this principle and included “views are mine” in her Twitter bio. “I understand where they were coming from in their need to protect institutional and financial interests,” Anya said of the university’s response. “I would also hope that they understand where I'm coming from.”
Carnegie Mellon could not be readily reached for comment.
In the late 1960s, the Republic of Biafra — a secessionist state largely represented by Igbo people — fought for independence from Nigeria. The Nigerian government won the war with arms and ammunition funded by the British government. It also weaponized hunger; Biafrans suffered one of the worst famines in modern times.
As the direct descendent of Igbo survivors, Anya said she does not see the legacy of colonialism as abstract. “Those slaughtered included members of my family. I was born in the immediate aftermath of this genocide, which was directly supported and facilitated by the British government then headed by the monarch Queen Elizabeth II,” Anya explained.
Alang, an associate professor of Black communities and the social determinants of health at the University of Pittsburgh, was frustrated by the rhetoric in Jeff Bezos’ tweet. She would not have argued with a comment that said, “This is very visceral, this is very vile, it’s very harsh to wish [death upon] an old grandmother who was beloved by so many people. … Instead, he discredited her as an educator.”
The personalized nature of the response was emblematic of the misogynoir — the intersection of misogyny and racism — that Black educators constantly experience, Alang told The Tartan. “He has no understanding of what Black women professors go through and what it means to educate. That’s not his field,” she said.
Alang collaborated with Drs. Chelsey Carter, Nelson Flores, Crystal Fleming, and Dick Powis (of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Stony Brook University, and University of South Florida, respectively) to draft a petition in support of Anya. As of Sunday, it had garnered more that 2,000 signatures. Nelson wrote that the response triggered by Anya’s post “begs the question of whose deaths are mourned versus ignored or celebrated.”
Carnegie Mellon students also sprung to Anya’s defense, asking students to sign a petition in solidarity with Anya that has drawn upwards of 230 signatures.
Alongside this support has come a large amount of negative feedback. Instagram users have flocked to Carnegie Mellon’s Instagram page, with many calling for the University to fire Anya. A petition against Anya that was posted a few months ago has been recirculated. It has over 1,570 signatures and dozens of comments employing violent language to target Anya, including aspirations of her death. The petition criticizes Anya’s use of the word Akata, which has been used as a West African slur to characterize African Americans. The term has also been reclaimed by students and a Nigerian author.
Alang underscored the experiences of her and Anya as Black women in academia. “We do not go a week in our lives without getting emails from people telling us that we do not belong in institutions of higher education,” being called slurs and told “our work is garbage and asking us to go back to where we came from,” she said. “It comes with the job.”