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Saturday, July 10, 2010


There were lighter moments, during which I enjoyed some of the sheer fun of being a member of the Afro-American Studies Department. In October, 1993, I drove to New York City with Bill, John, Ernie, and Nelson to attend an enormous celebration at Carnegie Hall of the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of our patron saint, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. [Du Bois was actually born on February 23, 1868, but the celebration was being held in October.] The event was intended as a fund-raiser organized by our colleague, Du Bois’ step son David Graham Du Bois, son of Shirley Graham. The idea was to raise a ton of money for the Du Bois Foundation, which David heads. We had dinner before the celebration at a small restaurant, and then we all walked up Seventh Avenue to Carnegie Hall. Nelson got it into his head that it was time to teach the white boy how to walk Black, so as Ernie, Bill, and John collapsed in laughter, Nelson strutted up the avenue and I followed, imitating him as best I could [Nelson’s walk is a wonder to behold, and I am not sure my highly amused colleagues would have done much better.]
When we got to Carnegie Hall, we ran into Esther, who had come down from Amherst in another car. Everyone was there. I have never seen so many well-dressed Negroes and superannuated Jews in my life. I held onto Esther’s coat and tailed along as she greeted one luminary after another. One tall woman rushed up, threw her arms around Esther, and gave her a big kiss before going off. “Who was that?” I asked. “Betty Shabazz,” Esther said, searching the crowd for more friends. “You mean the widow of Malcolm X?” I sputtered, astonished. “Yes,” she said, “Betty did a degree in the Ed School at UMass. We are old friends.” As the evening wore on, I began to realize that my colleagues knew, and were known by, just about every Black man or woman who had become famous in the struggles over the past thirty years.
In the end, despite the fact that Carnegie Hall was sold out, the event lost money. The last straw was Bill Cosby, who went on so long on stage talking about his friend Herbert Aptheker that the union stage hands had to be paid overtime, which ate up the slender profits. I took that as a cautionary lesson for my own nascent fund raising efforts.

My friends from pre-Afro Am days always had two questions about my new academic home. Why had I transferred from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies? And What did I do in my new department? Each question had a subtext, of course. The simple answer to the first question was that I joined the department because they asked me to. But the unexpressed assumption behind the question was that I was on some sort of good works or social welfare mission, bringing the wisdom of the ages to the benighted savages of New Africa House. The truth was a good deal simpler. As a philosopher, I have always prized intelligence, which is, after all, a philosopher’s sole stock in trade. My former colleagues in Philosophy were, by and large, very smart, though in a narrow and uninteresting way. But with the noteworthy and happy exception of my old comrade-in-arms, Robert J. Ackermann, few of them were capable of carrying on a genuinely interest¬ing conversation. Indeed, during my twenty-one years in that department, again with the exception of Bob Ackermann and Ann Ferguson, I cannot recall ever learning a thing from any one of them, or hearing any of them say something that struck me as genuinely fascinating.

By contrast, my new colleagues in Afro-American Studies were smart, knowledgeable, politically engaged, and interesting. Talking to them, I never had the distressing feeling that I was speaking a foreign language to someone intellectually challenged. It is not merely that I learned from them – vastly more, I suspect, than they ever learned from me. It is something much more fundamental: there were levels of irony and nuances of moral and political judgment in their conversation that keep me perpetually on my toes. When Mike Thelwell saw my son, Patrick (by then a grandmaster) on television, playing and beating the first Black International Master (now Grandmaster) Maurice Ashley, he called me up and in perfectly deadpan Jamaican English, asked me why I had not instructed my son not to humiliate a brother. I had to do a good deal of verbal tap-dancing to conceal my failure to realize that he was teasing me. In later years, when I worried endlessly about how few applicants we had to our doctoral program as the deadline approached, John Bracey would say, in avuncular fashion, “Bob, stop worrying, they are out there, but they are operating on C.P.T.” [Colored People’s Time.] John was right, of course.

The second question also concealed a suppressed premise. Since I knew considerably less about Afro-American Studies than one of our undergraduate majors, what could I possibly teach in my new department? Well, I had a go at it. I taught an undergraduate course on the political economy of race and class, drawing on my knowledge of radical economics. I cobbled together a course on Black Philosophy, using collections of writings by such Black philosophers as Bernard Boxhill and Lucius Outlaw, and writings by African philosophers debating the existence of an authenti¬cally African philosophy. I taught in Afro-Am a seminar on Ideological Critique that I had first offered in the Philosophy department. But I knew, and my colleagues knew as well, that Black Studies was not my field of scholarly expertise.
The course on the political economy of race and class had some delicious moments, to be sure. At the very beginning of the semester, a young Black student from Springfield showed up. Al Lizana was something of a celebrity on campus, a bigwig in the student government, eventually serving a term as the student representative to the University's Board of Trustees. I was flattered that he had signed up for the course. The next class period, Al was joined in the front row by about seven other students who had not been there the first day. These, it turned out, where all his cousins. As their guide and protector, he had come along first to check me out. When he decided that I was o.k., the rest of his extended family enrolled.
A rather tense moment arose one day while we were discussing Fanon's Black Faces, White Masks [a very powerful book, which I recommend if you have not looked at it.] One of the traditional rationalizations of slavery, of course, is that it is the legacy of the curse that Noah laid on his son, Ham, and Ham's son, Canaan [Genesis, Chapter 9, for those of you who are not intimately familiar with the Good Book.] African-Americans, it was said, were the descendants of Canaan, and hence condemned by Noah to be the servants [i.e., slaves] of the descendants of Shem and Japheth. I asked whether any students knew the story of Noah and Ham. A number of hands went up, including Edes McCrae's. This was one of the things I really loved about teaching Black students. In an age when undergraduates seemed less and less literate, they could be counted on to know the Bible.

I called on Edes, who gave a very creditable account of the Bible story. I then remarked what a really kooky rationale for slavery it was, because of course Ham wasn't Black. "Oh yes he was," said Edes. "Now Edes," I replied as gently as I could, "Noah and Shem and Japheth weren't Black, so how could Ham and his son be Black?" "But it says in the Bible that Ham was Black," she said with great confidence. "No it doesn't," I said, getting a trifle rattled. "But it does. My grandmother told me so."

Now, I was new to the Afro-American Studies Department, and I had a great deal to learn. But I was not stupid, and I knew that one of the things you didn't do is tell a young women that her grandmother was full of it. So I dropped the subject and moved on to more profitable topics.

Still and all, I really was not competent to pull a full load of courses in Afro-American Studies, so I undertook to handle all of those departmental chores that absorb the time and try the patience of senior professors. I took on the Chairmanship of the Personnel Committee, a time-consuming administrative task. Eventually, I became Graduate Program Director of the new doctoral program. I ran the admissions process for that program. I also became the sole fund-raiser for the department, endlessly seeking money to support our new graduate students.
An ethnic allusion will perhaps make clear just how my role in the department evolved. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, the orthodox Jews faced a problem imposed upon them by the rigor of the Talmudic laws to which they submitted themselves. Religious law forbade them to work on the Sabbath, and “work” was interpreted so broadly that even such simple tasks as lighting Sabbath candles were forbidden. The practice arose of hiring a little Gentile boy from a nearby town to come in on Friday evening and perform these proscribed chores. This lad was called the “Shabbes goy.” I became the Shabbes goy of the Afro-American Studies department.

Meanwhile, our doctoral program proposal was slowly ascending the administrative ladder, though not nearly fast enough to satisfy me. There were hitches along the way. No sooner had we drafted a full-scale proposal, with multiple attachments, in conformity with the official documents sent to us by our campus administration than the Higher Education Coordinating Council promulgated an entirely new set of guidelines, designed to make the process nigh on impossible to complete satisfactorily. We dutifully recast our proposal to meet the new guidelines, and sent it on its way again. At the very first stage of campus approval, we ran aground, thanks to the racial anxieties of a professor on a Faculty Senate Standing Committee who had been handed the job of recruiting a three-person review sub-committee from the faculty as a whole. After nine months of stalling, she allowed as how she couldn’t find anyone to serve because they were all afraid of saying anything negative about a proposal put forward by a group of Black people. In twenty-four hours, we rounded up three very senior unimpeachable scholars to perform the review, and the proposal resumed its journey.

In the first flush of excitement, at the end of the summer of 1992, with a completed proposal in hand, I had rashly predicted that we would surely complete the approval process in time to launch the program in the Fall of 1995. This was not merely misplaced optimism. I was at that point fifty-eight years old, and I was beginning to worry that I would not be around to see the first class of students get their degrees. But nothing can be done that quickly on a university campus. Even getting appro¬val to offer a new course usually takes an entire year. So 1992-93 passed, and 1993-94, and 1994-95 began. Finally, the proposal made its way to the office of the President, then to the Trustees, and on a triumphant day in October, was approved by the Higher Education Coordinating Council. We would have our doctoral program, after all. I mailed out a host of the eighteen thousand new brochures I had designed and ordered, and we were officially launched. The next Spring, we selected seven promising applicants from the twenty-nine who applied, and sat back to await their arrival.

Once I had recovered from the elation of having our doctoral program approved, it occurred to me that I had a small problem. In the Fall, seven eager young people would show up to begin their doctoral studies. Inasmuch as I would be the Graduate Program Director, they would look to me for advice. And I did not know anything about Afro-American Studies! There and then, I decided to read all fifty-three books on the first year reading list during the summer, before the students arrived. I bought them all, and sat down to begin.

The books piled up on the coffee table until they threatened to block the view of my living room. Fifty-three books, twenty thousand pages of African-American history, politics, fiction, essays, and poetry. It was the first day of June 1996, and I had to read them all by September 3rd. There I sat, knowing next to nothing about the history, the trials, the triumphs, the artistic creations, the experiences of Black folk in America. To be sure, I had managed an anti-apartheid organization of Harvard graduates for two years, and for the past five years, I had run a little one-man scholarship organization raising money for poor Black university students in South Africa. I had picketed Woolworth’s in the sixties, supporting the young Black students who started the modern Civil Rights Movement with their sit-in in Greensboro. But I knew virtually nothing about slavery, Reconstruction, share-cropping, Black Codes, Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, the World War I riots, or the Black Arts Movement.

I am a slow, methodical reader, incapable of skimming lightly through a book. This is fine if you are going to be a philosopher. Close reading of a small number of famous texts is what philosophers do. I often pointed out to my students during my days as a Professor of Philosophy that you could get a pretty fair education as a student of philosophy by mastering perhaps twenty-five or thirty texts from the Western tradition. Indeed, if you were willing to treat all of Plato’s Dialogues as one enormous book, you could probably bring the list down to twenty titles. So the mountain of volumes awaiting me was daunting indeed. It was going to be a long summer.

I sighed, and reached for the first book on the pile. It was the seventh edition of John Hope Franklin’s classic work, From Slavery to Freedom. I didn’t take notes. I just read carefully one book after another, in the order prescribed by our syllabus, making marginal comments, as I have always done. My goal was to immerse myself in them, so that I would have a grasp of the over-arching shape of the story of Black Americans.

As the title suggests, Franklin’s work is an up-beat history of African-Americans, beginning with the torment of the Middle Passage and slavery, and taking the reader out of that darkness and into the sunlight of freedom. First published in 1947, the text has been revised again and again to incorporate the tribulations of post-war Jim Crow, the triumph of Brown vs. Board of Education, the drama of the Civil Rights Movement, and the struggles over affirmative action. Every page is filled with names, dates, and events about which I knew next to nothing.

John Hope Franklin was the Dean of African-American historians, held in the highest esteem by younger Black historians, many of whom he trained at Chicago and Duke. In a profession that for generations did not even acknowledge the Black presence in America, save in the most dismissive and abusive of terms, John Hope had to struggle to gain any sort of professional recognition. Eventually, his White colleagues were forced to admit the weight of his scholarly contributions, and elected him the first Black President of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association. I knew none of this on that day in June. To me, the book was just the first in a large pile waiting to be read.

After plowing through Franklin, I read a collection of four famous slave narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and followed that with Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980, by August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. This last work struck me as an odd pairing with the Franklin and Gates, but my colleague John Henry Bracey, Jr. was the protegé of Augie Meier, and later his collaborator on a number of scholarly essays and editorial collections, so it seemed that we were engaging in the time-honored academic practice of introducing our students to those who had been our own mentors.

I read on. Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery is a classic thesis book about the role of Caribbean slavery in the growth of British capitalism. Originally his doctoral dissertation, it argues the striking and controversial thesis that the growth of British industry was funded by the profits from the slave trade and the sale of slave-produced Caribbean sugar. Black Majority by Peter Wood, another classic work, focuses on the early period of slavery in South Carolina. This is a natural successor to the Williams, because of the important link between Barbados and South Carolina during the eighteenth century. Reading the book, I learned for the first time of the hideous practice of “seasoning” newly captured Africans in Barbados – which is to say beating them into submission – before selling them to South Carolinean plantation owners. Peter was an old friend of mine from my struggles against apartheid at Harvard, and I was delighted to encounter him in the pile.

Early in the Summer, I read The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, written by Herbert Gutman as a response to Patrick Moynihan’s notorious “benign neglect” memorandum on the African-American family. Through the sort of painstaking archival scholarship that Moynihan did not trouble himself with, Gutman demonstrated that against all the odds, in the face of the brutality and disruptions of slavery, Africans and their descendants had created and maintained strong family units. Often, they were forced to counter the destructive effects of slave sales by substituting extended kin relations for those of the nuclear family. If a father or mother was sold down the river, an “aunt” or “uncle” would step in to take over the burdens of child-rearing. This practice of kin caring for children continues down to the present day, putting the lie to Moynihan’s claim that the economic troubles of Negroes are due to an absence of what are today called “family values.”
As the weeks passed, I became more and more absorbed by my reading. Some of the historical works were fascinating and beautifully written. Judge A. Leon Higgenbotham’s In the Matter of Color deals with the law of slavery in six of the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary war. For the first time, I learned something of the extraordinary complexity of the early attempts by judges and lawyers to find in the English Common Law some justification for the racial oppression of chattel slavery.

I was ravished by the outpouring of vivid contemporary detail in Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, an astonishing book about the ways in which the slaves experienced and reacted to liberation at the end of the Civil War. In Litwack’s pages, the slaves and freed people began to come alive to me as individuals, with passions, skills, and a fully developed ironic understanding of their own situation. More perhaps than any other single work in the pile, this book weaned me away from my tendency to look at Black men and women rather than to look at the world through their eyes.

Some of the books were solid, workmanlike monographs, useful for fleshing out the story of the African-American experience: Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom, a portrait of free Blacks in Philadelphia; They Who Would Be Free, by Jane and William Pease, telling the story of Black abolitionists. Another old friend from anti-apartheid days, Nell Painter, turned up with Exodusters, her account of the migration of freedmen and women from the South to Kansas in the years just after the Civil War.
Later in the summer, I worked my way into the twentieth century, reading Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, a massive work, more than eight hundred pages long. This is a classic sociological study of the Black community in Chicago, one of the first major works of urban sociology. Only years later would I learn that Drake had been one of John Bracey’s teachers, and a major figure in Pan-African and American Negro political movements. For the moment, I was content to learn something about the Black community in the South Side of Chicago, which I had lived next to but had never explored during my two years at the University of Chicago.

The literary half of the list started slowly, with Clotel, Iola Leroy, The Conjure Woman, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin representing pre-Civil War fictions. Clotel, a novel by an escaped slave, William Wells Brown, is based on the belief widely held in the Black community that Thomas Jefferson had fathered mulatto children by one of his slaves. It took the miracles of modern science to demonstrate to the White community that the oral traditions of Blacks are frequently more reliable than the written assurances of established scholars.

Near the end of the summer, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston, Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, and Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin. Our students were in for a treat!
I was so absorbed in the enterprise of reading this huge stack of books – checking off titles, shifting volumes one by one from the to-read to the already-read pile – that for much of the summer, I did not take the time to reflect on the experience I was undergoing, but slowly, little by little, as I drew closer to the end of the list, I began to realize that something quite remarkable was happening to me, something I had not anticipated when I began my labors.

This was actually the third time in my life that I had attempted a concentrated bout of reading of this magnitude. The first time had been in the Spring of 1958, when I read the major works of Western political theory, and then went on to read twenty thousand pages of European history in preparation for teaching Freshman history at Harvard. The second time had been just twenty years later, when I immersed myself for a sabbatical semester in theoretical economics so that I could master the modern mathematical reinterpretation of the economic theories of Karl Marx. Each of these efforts had greatly broadened the scope of my knowledge and insight, but neither had in any fundamental way changed me. I was the same radical philosopher after the political theory, history, and economics that I had been before.

But as the story of the African-American experience washed over me in all its horrible and glorious detail, the very structure of my perception and conception of America underwent an irrever¬sible alteration. I saw everything differently – I saw the Puritans differently, and I saw Rodney King differently; I saw the Civil War differently, and I saw O. J. Simpson differently. I saw my colleagues differently; I even saw myself differently. By the time the summer was over and nothing remained in the pile of books to be read save The Negro Caravan [which I never did manage to plow through], I found myself living in a world I had never before inhabited, seeing the world through entirely new eyes.

How exactly had my perceptions, my conceptions, and I myself changed? It is not so easy to put the changes into words. The change was not merely a matter of accumulated information. I now knew about the Stono Rebel¬lion, and I understood the structure of the triangular trade that circulated slaves, raw materials, and finished goods among Europe, West Africa, and North America. I had for the first time some feel for the complex detail of the laws governing slavery in the Colonies and then in the United States prior to the Civil War. Perhaps most important of all, I understood that the long, painful saga of Black men and women in America was not a story of slow, steady improvement, but rather an endless repetition of hopes raised and then dashed, of advances followed by brutal reversals. But facts were not the substance of what had happened to me, though they played a role, to be sure. Rather, I was for the first time beginning to see America from the standpoint of African-Americans. Let us be clear. I was still, as I had been and am now, a New York Jewish intellectual from a non-religious middle-class family. I was under no illusions about being Black or thinking Black. But because I had made the life choice to change my departmental affiliation, with everything that meant, I found myself beginning to be able to see how the world might look to my colleagues. And it was starting to look the same way to me.

I think more than anything else my perceptions were altered by the sheer repetition of detail in the books I had read – the fictions as well as the historical accounts. Reading about one whipping or one lynching is upsetting. Reading statistics of the numbers of whippings or lynchings is an education. But reading description after description, in book after book, of maimings, killings, whippings, and lynchings in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century ¬made me finally understand why so many of my colleagues seemed deeply, irreversibly pessimistic about the prospects for anything resembling racial justice. To them – and, by the end of the summer, to me as well – the beating of Rodney King was neither remark¬able nor unexpected. It was an episode that was continuous with almost four centuries of oppression.
The images of the fictions blended in my imagination with the factual accounts dredged from archives by historians. The Battle Royal in Invisible Man, the lynching in Uncle Tom’s Children, the bitter unfairness of the ending of If He Hollers Let Him Go were no more terrible, no more implausible, indeed no more powerfully realized in their literary settings, than the purely factual accounts of the Negro who was lynched on the stage of a theater before Whites who had paid to see the show.

Stories have a power to shape our experience, to impose interpretations on what we think we know – both true stories and fictional ones. The story of America organizes our collective social memory, high-lighting turning points, bringing some facts into sharp focus, concealing others. If our national story is told wrongly, we shall forget our real past, and then – because stories have this power – we shall misunderstand our present and lose the ability to shape our future. Freud says somewhere that if there is any one subject that it is not permitted to discuss in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that one subject. Race is the dirty little secret of the American story – not greed, not sex, not power. Until the American story is rewritten with the fact of slavery and its aftermath given its true place, none of us in the White community will be able to understand the story of America aright.


C said...

This was really quite interesting, especially the commentary on the books that you read (I now have some new books to add to my reading list) and how they changed you. My curiosity is piqued by your comment about how your viewpoint on the Puritans and O.J. Simpson have changed. What do you see that is different now than it was before?

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Is it possible to list this reading list on the webpage or to send it via e-mail?

Wade said...

I am curious about the thirty-or-so books that might give a student a good grounding in Western philosophy. Would it be possible for you to post or e-mail the titles you had in mind (or some of them)?

Thank you for these autobiographical posts, I've been enjoying them very much!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, I seem not to have the list on my computer, which is weird, but I will get itr from the Department secretary and post it in a few days.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

C -- once again, I shall put in a shameless plug for my own writings. As I shall relate in a little bit in my Memoir, I wrote a whole book to answer your question. It is called AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN. If you look at it, you will find that most of the first chapter of that book, which really is autobiographical, has been included in this Memoir, but the rest of the book addresses your question.

C said...

I will be investigating your book. I am interested in the transformation process, although my original question was more that my interest was piqued by your mention of the Puritans and O.J. Simpson, since I am curious how your views on those topics changed in particular (the Civil War and Rodney King are much clearer to me as examples of how your viewpoint changed). Perhaps I am simply ignoring something that should be importantly obvious and as I will be checking out your book from my university library tomorrow, I will soon see where you explain those changes. A brief Google search, however, seems to indicate that you reference them as you did on the blog but there isn't any further explanation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

C, I think that is right. After you have taken a look at the book, come back to me with more questions. briefly, about the Puritans, when I was a young student at Harvard, Perry Miller and others were doing work on the Puritans, and in their discussions of Colonial America, the role of African slaves [and of native American slaves] did not come up much if at all. The focus was all on religious issues, etc. I came to see the colonization of the North American continent very differently after my bout of reading.