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Thursday, July 8, 2010


It must have been roughly at this same time that I had a small epiphany, a moment of self-understanding that helped me to make sense of the direction my life and career had taken. I was sitting at my computer desk one day in my lovely second floor book-lined study, glancing out the window to my left at Buffam Brook, which ran behind our house, musing on the odd trajectory of my career. After a quite successful start to my professional activities, I had chosen to rusticate, first in Northampton, then in Pelham. I was pretty sure that the philosophy profession had totally forgotten about me, although the periodic publishers' royalty reports suggested that someone out there was still reading my books. I was, it seemed to me, something of a failure. I thought to myself, "Here I am, almost sixty, and yet I have no disciples, no former students who are carrying on my work. No one looks to me, as so many former students look to Van Quine and Nelson Goodman, as their mentor. Surely that is supposed to happen to successful philosophers when they reach this age" And then, I was struck by a thought that had never occurred to me before. I did not want disciples! I was actually somewhat uncomfortable on the rare occasions when a student or reader uncritically embraced my views as his or her own. I recalled that lovely ironic passage in the Preface to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, one of my favorite philosophical texts: "But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed on so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I wanted, what I had always wanted, was to wrestle with a great and difficult text until it yielded up its secrets to me, and to fashion and refashion it in my mind until I could exhibit its simplicity, power, and beauty. Then, in my books, or in the classroom, I would be able to share that power and beauty with others. I realized that my books were, to me, more like paintings or sculptures than like scholarly reports. That was why I had never shown what I had written to others before publishing it, and why I cared very little whether my readers agreed with me, but a great deal whether they had seen the beauty I had found in the text or in the idea. A great weight fell from my shoulders. It did not matter that I had no followers, no students who looked to me as their Teacher. I had no idea whether I would have had such a retinue, had I wanted it. Perhaps not. But since it was not something I wanted, it made no difference.

And so I settled into my office on the third floor of New Africa House, and went about the usual business of being a professor, something I had done every year since 1958. Rummaging about in the drawers of the heavy old desk that I had inherited, I found several name plates, the remnants of former inhabitants. I was delighted to see that one of them read “James Baldwin.” Another read “John Wideman.” I was following in the footsteps of giants.

Almost immediately after changing departments, I confronted a tiny personal dilemma that, in my eyes, took on an unusual significance. Once more, some background is called for. When I joined the Afro-American Studies department, I was in my thirty-fifth year of full-time university teaching. For all of that time, I had gone through the world introducing myself, when asked, as a philosopher, or perhaps as a Professor of Philosophy. Now, philosophy has a very special cachet in our culture. It is quite possibly the most prestigious of all the Humanistic academic fields in the eyes of the general educated public. [Though not in the eyes of everyone, to be sure. In the army, my doctorate so impressed my basic training sergeant that he rewarded me by making me chief of the latrine cleaning squad – head head man, as it were.] Whenever I identified myself as a philosopher, I could feel, ever so slightly, a frisson of respect, of deference, even on occasion of awe. Oh! A philosopher – I could see it in their eyes, on their faces, hear it in the half-voiced acknowledgment that I was something special – not merely a professor, but a Professor of Philosophy. By 1992, I had long since become accustomed to these fleeting recognitions as somehow my due. I realize now – though not at the time – that I was indulging myself in a bit of ego-massaging each time I was called on to identify myself in a new setting. Inasmuch as there are roughly nine thousand Professors of Philosophy in the United States, there is a certain measure of misleading advertising in the announcement. Not all of us, presumably, can genuinely claim descent from Socrates. Nevertheless, I had come to view those moments as one of the perks of my job.

But now I was a Professor of Afro-American Studies, though I had retained my membership in the Philosophy department in order to continue directing several doctoral dissertations. How ought I to introduce myself from this point on? The very first time the question arose – I cannot now recall the circumstances – the entire array of possibilities flashed before my mind, and I recognized that I had to make a choice that was for me [though not, I think, for my new colleagues] profoundly significant. There were four possibilities: I could continue to identify myself as a Professor of Philosophy, which was at least technically true; I could identify myself as a Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy, or perhaps, of Philosophy and Afro-American Studies; I could describe myself as a Professor of Afro-American Studies, but add some explanation, to the effect that I used to be a Professor of Philosophy; or, I could simply reply, without explanations or elaborations, “I am a Professor of Afro-American Studies.”

I was not merely passing through the Afro-American Studies department. I had been invited to join the department, and to my rather conventional and old-fashioned way of thinking, that invitation was the greatest honor the faculty of a department could bestow upon me. To conceal or fudge my new identity would, I felt very keenly, be an act of betrayal to colleagues who had welcomed me into their world. At the same time, of course, I was fully aware that I could at any moment, if it suited my amour propre, revert to being a Professor of Philosophy and exact that small moment of respectful recognition to which I had become accustomed. Odd as it sounds coming from someone thoroughly secular, I experienced this permanent possibility as what Catholics call an occasion of sin. It was a temptation that it was important for me to put behind me.

I did not know it then, but I later learned that in enacting this private drama, I was re-enacting a very important and public choice that had faced all of my colleagues a quarter of a century earlier when the department had been established. In the early days of Black Studies, the question arose again and again what the status would be of the men and women invited to teach the new discipline. The Academy lives and dies by tenure, and tenure is granted within departments. At many universities, such as Yale and Harvard, the admini¬strators who were responding to pressure from Black students and the Black community wanted to get the protestors off their backs, but they did not really want to make a permanent commitment to something that they were unprepared to acknowledge as a genuine academic enterprise. So they hedged their bets, appointing Black historians, sociologists, and writers to visiting lectureships, short-term contracts, non-tenure track contracts, and – where these dodges were denied them – to tenure track professorships jointly with some already established department. When the heat died down, the temporary, non-tenure track folk could be quietly terminated. Those in real tenure-track joint appointments would have to clear the tenure review process not only in the Black Studies department, but in their other departmental home as well, where, administrators could permit themselves to hope, the candidates would face insurmountable obstacles to approval. Finally, if all else failed, and the Black Studies faculty actually were awarded tenure, it would still be possible to close down the Black Studies department as a separate unit and farm its tenured faculty out to their second departments, where they could be absorbed and ignored.
In the late sixties, precisely these choices and options faced my colleagues, who were then young, untenured, and quite unsure how long their experiment at UMass would last. It is a testament to their wisdom and courage that, led by Mike Thelwell, without hesitation they insisted on regular non-joint tenure track appointments solely in Afro-American Studies. Indeed, there were several scholars to whom they refused the option of joint appointments, believing that it would weaken the department’s position in the university. One scholar of Black literature asked for an appointment jointly with English and was told, gently, that he had to choose. He taught for many years in the UMass English department before accepting a position elsewhere. Thirty years later, it is clear to me that my colleagues made the right choice, a choice that undergirds our young and very successful doctoral program.

Having made the decision to express solidarity with my new colleagues by identifying myself solely as a Professor of Afro-American Studies, I now confronted the sharply different reception of my new self-description. A while later, Susie and I were at an elegant little luncheon given by an Amherst couple – she had been my older son’s kindergarten teacher twenty years earlier. I was seated next to the host, who oversaw with considerable pretension the pouring of the three different wines that accompanied the meal. After a bit, just to make conversation, he asked me what I did. “I am a Professor of Afro-American Studies,” I replied. He did a double-take worthy of Buster Keaton, stared at me intently for a long moment, and finally blurted out, “You’re not Black, are you?”

I got a somewhat less amusing reaction while on a visit to Atlanta with Susie to have Thanksgiving dinner with her older son, Lawrence, and his wife. Susie and I are accustomed to a glass of wine each evening before dinner [well, she has a glass -- I usually have two], but her son and his wife do not drink, so we walked down the street to a local neighborhood establishment. I think it was the first time in my life that I have ever been in what could genuinely be called redneck territory. They didn’t have wine, of course, so we settled for beer and bellied up to the bar. There were maybe ten people in the bar in all, including the bartender. Seated next to Susie was a middle-aged man, wearing a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes in a rolled up sleeve that revealed a tattoo. Susie and I were not talking loudly, but we were obviously out of place, and everyone in the little bar could hear us. After a bit, the man leaned over and said, “Are you Yankees?” I allowed as how I was [it was the first time I had ever been called that], and we got into a desultory conversation about the weather up north as compared with the local weather. After a pause, he asked, “What do you do?” Not really thinking, I said, “I am a Professor of Afro-American Studies.”

The bar fell silent and the temperature dropped abruptly about twenty degrees. “I suppose you think they have been treated pretty badly, should be given jobs and all,” he said. I didn’t have to ask who “they” were. “Well,” I pointed out quietly, “they built your homes, nursed your children, grew your food, and then cooked it and baked it, so I guess they have pretty well proved their abilities.” He muttered something I couldn’t pick up, and then said grudgingly, “Well, I suppose they work all right under direction.” This from a man who didn’t look to have held a steady job in some years. Susie and I finished our beer and left. When I told this story to Esther and Ernie the next Monday, they both said, with genuine concern, “Bob, don’t do that again.”


Rvincent63 said...

"When I told this story to Esther and Ernie the next Monday, they both said, with genuine concern, “Bob, don’t do that again.”

Bob, now that you live in "the South" I hope you are still carefully following Esther's instructions! She is wise and knows what she is talking about.

Anonymous said...

Practice makes perfect.............................................................

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I always follow Esther's advice. She is, as they say in the spy trade, my rabbi. But here in Chapel Hill, it is very hard to remember that it is the south, save for the weather.

NotHobbes said...

Ignoramus bigots can rear their hideous faeces..ahem, sorry I meant faces, anywhere though can`t they?

David Pilavin said...

“You’re not Black, are you?”


That's a good one :-)