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Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Scarcely two months later the transfer was completed, and I became a Professor of Afro-American Studies. It seemed like a lark – one more change of field in a career in that had seen me teaching Philosophy, Political Science, History, and Economics. As I walked across the campus on a warm June day, I scarcely realized how completely that simple move was to transform my perception of American society, and the world’s perception of me.

The office buildings at the University of Massachusetts are for the most part ugly functional structures, with neither charm nor history. Bartlett Hall, where Philosophy is housed, could pass for the regional offices of the Veterans’ Administration. My new department was located on the East side of the campus in a four story brick building that was indistinguishable, architecturally, from the dormitory across the street.
Walking up the front steps of my new home, I saw a striking black and red wooden plaque over the door proclaiming that this was “The New Africa House.” Inside, I found the walls covered with brilliant murals, painted, I later learned, by the students of my new colleague, Nelson Stevens. It was years before I was told something of the history of the building and the role it had played in the struggles of Black students and faculty on the campus.

The building had indeed originally been a dormitory, as the layout of rooms and large communal bathrooms on each floor testify. But in 1969, during a protest against the racial policies [or lack of policies] of the university, a group of Black students were chased by threatening White students back to their dormitory. The Black students barricaded themselves in the dorm, told the White students there either to join forces with them or get out, and liberated the building, declaring it to be their space. The newly formed Afro-American Studies Department responded by moving itself collectively into the now-emptied dorm, and the building became The New Africa House.

This seizure of space was symbolic of the ambitious dreams of the department, for the founding faculty were not simply establishing yet another academic department. Instead, they sought to create what can only be described as an entire counter-university in which the experiences, struggles, triumphs, and wisdom of Black Americans, and more broadly of all the peoples of the African Diaspora, would take their rightful place in the Academy.

The first and most pressing need was to give the small but growing number of Black students on the campus a structure of support, counseling, and legitimation. To that end, members of the department, who had been providing these services on an ad hoc basis in addition to their normal teaching duties, created the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students. Esther headed it up at the beginning. CCEBMS [or “Sebs”], as it came to be called, began the work of overcoming the hostile and unwelcoming environment that routinely confronted Black students [and students of other minorities] when they came to UMass.

In pursuit of its dream, the department recruited a broad spectrum of scholars and artists. Over the next few years, historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, writers, literary critics, painters, sculptors, dancers, and musicians came on board. Simply calling the roll of the faculty in those early days gives some sense of how grand the vision was. Among those who taught in the department in the early days were jazz immortal Max Roach, Johnetta Cole, later to become President of Spelman College, sociologist William Julius Wilson, Shirley Graham Du Bois [the second wife of W. E. B.], the great James Baldwin, and Africa’s most distinguished writer, Chinua Achebe. Still in the department when I arrived were Jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp and Stevens, one of the founding members of the Black Arts movement.

New Africa House quickly became not merely a classroom building or an office building but a world. In addition to the department and CCEBMS, it soon housed a restaurant, a barbershop catering to Black customers, a radio station, and even a day care center. Old-timers tell stories of groups of six -year olds marching up and down the steps chanting revolutionary slogans. The memories of these struggles, of three decades of triumphs and defeats, were gathered in New Africa House as I approached it that day, though at the time I was oblivious to them.

My very first day in New Africa House was something of a revelation. I walked up to the third floor, and wandered down the hall looking for the department office. As I drew near, I heard a sound that was entirely new to me in academic surroundings: loud, unforced, hearty laughter. Not snickers, or smirks, or hedged giggles, with which I had become all too familiar during my many years in the UMass Philosophy department, but big, healthy belly laughs. My new colleagues were clearly people confident of their accomplishments and commitments, comfortable with themselves and the world around them, free of the convolutions and status anxieties that make most university departments so ready a target for satire.

People asked why I had abruptly transferred from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies. In their voices I heard the unexpressed question, "Why leave a department like Philosophy for that department?" Some made it clear that they thought I was slumming, doing good works in the Ghetto. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I am a philosopher, and as anyone will tell you who knows philosophers, what we value above all else is intelligence. Quite simply, my new colleagues were smarter than my old colleagues. I do not measure intelligence by the ability to write a backwards E. By intelligence, I mean a complex, ironic, nuanced grasp of social reality, a self-awareness that finds expression in complexities of syntax and diction. Judged in this way, my old colleagues [with the notable exception of Bob and Ann] were dodos, boring literal minded people who had neither self-understanding nor a grasp of the larger social world. In Afro-American Studies, I could carry on a conversation.

Esther wasted no time. In July, shortly after my transfer, we began work in earnest on the proposal to create a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies. Almost immediately, someone – I think it was John Bracey, Jr. – had the idea of building the program on the foundation of a required first-year seminar in which our students would read masses of classic works in Afro-American Studies and write scores of papers. In this way, we would define a core of intellectual material that would be shared by every student in the program, no matter what he or she went on to specialize in. At that first meeting, we began the exciting and exhausting task of choosing the books.
The first dispute was over how many books to require. John argued hard for one hundred, but the rest of us didn’t think we could get even the most dedicated students to read carefully one hundred scholarly works in two semesters. In the end, we agreed on fifty as a reasonable number. If the seminar met two afternoons each week during the Fall and Spring semesters, that would work out to just about one book for each meeting. A paper on each book – fifty books, fifty papers. Now began the debates over which fifty books to include.

Internal politics as well as intellectual demands dictated that we devote half the list to history and politics and the other half to literature and culture. John is an historian, and faced with the prospect of being forced to limit himself not to fifty works of history, but to a mere twenty-five, he made one last effort to expand the list to one hundred. We beat him down, and went to work.

This is perhaps as good a time as any to say a few words about the people engaged in this collective creation of a canon. My new colleagues, I learned very quickly, were an extraordinary group of people, quite unlike the members of any Philosophy department I had ever been a member of. Virtually all of them came to the University of Massachusetts from some form of radical Black activism, and a quarter of a century later, their world view, intellectual style, and personal commitments were still shaped by that experience.

Esther, as I have said, came from the sit-ins in Greensboro. John Bracey, although an academic brat [his mother taught at Howard University] with an archivist’s encyclopedic knowledge of documents, texts, and sources in Black history, came out of a Chicago Black Nationalist experience. John is a man of enormous presence and intellectual power, very much the scholarly center of the doctoral program, who is as much at home teaching in a local prison as he is poring over documents in the Library of Congress. He has edited countless collections of documents both from the ante-bellum period of slavery and from twentieth century political movements in the Black community. A burly man with a full beard now streaked with gray, John was the first academic in the United States to teach courses on the history of Black women, and he recently co-edited a large volume of materials on the relations between Blacks and Jews. John is an inexhaustible source of bibliographical references, archival information, and stories about Black scholars, most of whom he seems to have known personally. One day, after he had given a one hour impromptu lecture in the Major Works seminar on the location of Herbert Gutman’s scholarship within the entire sweep of modern historiography, I complimented him, and told him how impressive I found his command of the literature. “That’s just what historians do,” he replied, but I suspect there are few scholars now teaching who could have pulled that lecture out of their memory banks
Michael Thelwell was the founding Chair of the department. Mike is a novelist and essayist, and also an expert on the Civil Rights movement, in which he played an important role. He has a special affection and respect for the work of Chinua Achebe, who is in fact the godfather of Mike’s son, Chinua. Soon after joining the department, I sat in on the course Mike teaches from time to time, on Achebe’s novels, and had my first sustained introduction to the literature produced by the great African writers.

One day in the Fall of my first year in Afro-Am, I was a deeply moved participant in a little ceremony – there is really no other word for it – that brought closure to that awful moment fifteen years earlier when I had done my imitation of an ante-bellum plantation owner. Mike, whose office is catty-corner to mine across the hall, invited me in for cup of tea. With an air of great formality, he told me about an old West African custom among the Igbo and other peoples. Young men of the same age, who together go through the rituals of passage to adulthood, form a bond of comradeship, and ever after think of one another as brothers. Boiling water on a little hot plate and carefully putting tea bags in two cups, Mike noted that he and I were of roughly the same age, and hence should think of one another as part of the same age cohort. Not a word was said of the confrontation all those years ago over the Black provost, but I knew that he was once and for all offering to forgive me, and was welcoming me into the brotherhood of those who had together created and sustained the department for a quarter of a century. We have never spoken of this, but when he reads these words, he will know how grateful I am to him for the generosity of that gesture.
Directly across the hall from me was the office of William Strickland. Bill is a political scientist and activist who ran the New England part of Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. He grew up in Roxbury with Louis Farrakhan, and went to Harvard after preparing at Boston Latin. Bill is a talented polyglot who is prone to lapse into Spanish, French, or German. He has long-standing connections with scholars and political figures in Cuba, and a while back took part in a ceremony in Havana celebrating the publication of the first Spanish language translation of W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. Bill and others worked with Vincent Harding thi years ago to found the Institute for the Black World in Atlanta, and more recently has served as a consultant to the prize-winning television series, Eyes on the Prize. Although our colleagues would almost certainly dispute it, I think Bill and I are currently the politically most radical members of the department.

The last member of the group who crafted the doctoral program is Ernest Allen, Jr., currently the acting Chair. Born in Oakland, he was part of the Black nationalist movement there and in Detroit before coming to UMass. Ernie is an expert on Black intellectual and religious movements, and has done ground-breaking work on the Nation of Islam and the various Black Masonic lodges of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although he is, like the rest of us, thoroughly secular in outlook, his speech is peppered with the images and expressions of Black evangelical Christianity, and he is prone to cry “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” as he walks down the hall toward the department office.

There we all were, gathered into Esther’s office, arguing endlessly about which fifty books constituted the core of the field we were seeking to define. Mike argued unsuccessfully for the inclusion of at least one of Achebe’s novels. Bill insisted that Gunnar Myrdahl’s classic work, An American Dilemma, be added to the list, but John countered that it is full of mistakes and has long since been superseded. And so it went.

And what was my role in this high-powered intellectual argument? The simple answer is scribe, amanuensis, and general dogsbody. All those years ago, at Harvard, I had sat and listened as my colleagues dropped the names of works of historiography during the meetings of the Soc. Sci. 5 staff, and here I was, thirty-four years later, doing exactly the same thing. As John or Mike or Bill or Esther or Ernie would mention a book, I would write it down, pretending that the title wasn’t complete news to me. There were some embarrassing moments. Since it was my job to type up what we had agreed upon for our next meeting, my ignorance was on display to all. “Sinclair Drake,” John gently pointed out to me, was actually “St. Clair Drake,” a distinguished Black sociologist and co-author of the classic work, Black Metropolis. Cane was of course not written by Gene Tumor, but by Jean Toomer, Plum Bun by Jessie Fauset, not Jessie Faucet. And so on and on. My colleagues were endlessly tactful with this new member of the department. After a while, Bill Strickland took to drifting into my office from across the hall and asking whether I had read this or that work of Black political theory. The answer was always no [despite the fact that I featured myself something of a political theorist], and he would answer, gently, “Well, you might be interested in looking at it.”

After several more meetings, we nailed down our list, and with occasional changes, it has stood the test of fourteen successive classes of doctoral students. Every one of the students who enter gthe program must start his or her education with us by reading all “fifty books” [although with successive additions and subtractions, the number has crept up to fifty-six.]

Scholarly argument, activist credentials, laughter – these were my first impressions of my new department. But very quickly, I was exposed to a rather darker side of the African-American experience. Since getting official approval for a new doctoral program is a forbiddingly difficult process at the University of Massachusetts, involving review not only by a hierarchy of committees and administrators on campus but also by the President’s Office, the Board of Trustees, and a state agency called the Higher Education Coordinating Council, we decided early on that it would be prudent to consult the chief academic officer on our campus, the Provost and Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs. So we invited that luminary to visit with us in our offices in New Africa House.

The Provost was the same Glen Gordon who had just approved my appointment as Co-Director of IASH, a pleasant Political Scientist of no discernible scholarly accom¬plishments or intellectual distinction. He had never actually set foot in New Africa House, and over the phone displayed a certain uneasiness about venturing to what he obviously thought of as the other side of the tracks, but at last he agreed, and on July 13, 1992, at 3:30 p.m., we all sat down in Esther’s office for a chat. As soon as the meeting began, it became clear that Gordon had grave doubts about our ambitions, and it was very difficult to avoid the conclusion that he just did not think a group of Black people were capable of putting together a satisfactory proposal. “There is a great deal of paperwork,” he kept emphasizing, conveying the impression that he was not entirely sure we were literate.

The rest of the department had had a lifetime of experience with the condescensions and racism of White administrators. They had long since learned to choose when to give voice to their outrage, and when to refrain in the service of some larger end. But I was accustomed to being treated with deference and respect in academic settings – one of the fringe benefits, I now realize, of being White. So as the Provost went on, I started to get angry. Then, abruptly, the Provost changed his tune. Something we said – I cannot now recall what it was – suggested to him that this project might be viewed as a contribution to multi-culturalism, then becoming a popular cause on our campus. So long as a doctorate in Afro-American Studies were viewed in that light, and not as a standard academic degree, he allowed as how he could see his way clear to supporting it.

I completely lost my cool. “If the Philosophy department didn’t have a doctoral program, and came to you with a proposal to create one, the only thing you would ask is whether it was academically sound. But when the Afro-American Studies department comes to you with a proposal for a doctoral program, you ask whether it is a contribution to multi-culturalism. Are you saying that you hold our department to a standard different from the one you hold the Philosophy Department to?”

This was 1992, and academic administrators had become accustomed to the most meticulous even-handedness and punctiliousness in any matter even remotely touching upon race. My question was little more than a rhetorical flourish. No department Chair, Dean, Provost, Chancellor – or, for that matter, Admissions Officer or Dorm Counselor – could actually admit to treating Black people any differently from anyone else, for all that they routinely did.

The Provost thought about my question for a moment, and replied, “Yes.”
We looked at each other. It had become clear that we were in the presence of a someone who was a greater danger to himself than he was to us. Very gently, Esther brought the conversation to a close and sent the Provost on his way. It was my first lesson in the realities of what it meant to be Black on a White campus.


Angus said...

“The Black students barricaded themselves in the dorm, told the White students there either to join forces with them or get out, and liberated the building, declaring it to be their space.”

I am genuinely curious, why do you prefer that formulation to something like: “Chased by a band of White racists, the Black students took cover in the dorm. They then kicked all White students – racist or not – who weren’t on board with their brand of political activism out, and took the building over.”

Is it because (a) you think the Whites who didn’t want to join forces deserved, for that reason, to be evicted, (b) telling the story in your way highlights that the Black students were engaged in a revolutionary struggle, to which the moral concepts we ordinarily use don’t apply (but if deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it how should one evaluate (actions in?) a struggle – eschew individualistic moral language altogether? Or is there no non-political, Archimedean perspective from which to answer that question?), or (c) something else (e.g. it makes for a better story)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, the simplest answer to your rather heated question is that my description contains a good deal less judgmental language than yours ["liberated" is really the only loaded word in my sentence], and thus allows the reader to visual what happened and to draw his or her own moral conclusions. Remember, I wasn't there. I was telling a story that had been told to me, and I had no clear idea who the White students were and how they responded to the Black students' demand. Notice, by the way, because it is actually an important fact about the political position of the members of the department, and also of their students, who very much took their lead from the faculty, that no attempt was made to declare the space a "Blacks only" space. White students, and later on, White faculty, were welcomed into the classrooms and the department.