I went away to a Southern college in what would become the year of the L.A. Riots and got an education I wasn't expecting.
The African-American student caucus wanted a free-standing cultural center of its own, but the administration was more inclined to fund a multicultural center. Some of the more radical members of the caucus said that was a racist action. The president of the caucus, a small but formidable woman, began walking through the campus wielding a large cane, often followed at a short distance by a group of large, male athletes.
Several huge rallies on campus featured the same men wearing paramilitary uniforms and standing with their arms behind their backs in a readiness stance, sizing up the crowd as speakers took the podium.
An alternative campus paper run by another African-American student group ran articles that called for black women to "support their men" by returning to traditional values in this time of crisis. Sometimes, those articles were written by women. Other pieces proclaimed the truth of Elijah Muhammed's doctrine that white people were the demonic creation of an evil scientist, while yet others explained that black people could not be racist because only the oppressor could be racist in any effective way.
Meanwhile, campus conservative publications--which tended to attract a fair number of the folks who liked to hang Rebel flags out their dorm room windows until they were confiscated--started openly campaigning for the formation of a kind of "Caucasian Caucus" whose offices should be housed in the new center.
Things heated up in the pages of the more mainstream student paper, too. Conservative white students wrote op-ed pieces expressing dismay that the administration would even consider devoting "already scarce resources" to such a "luxury" as a multicultural center. Black students wrote in to protest courses including aspects of African-American literature, history, or culture being taught by non-black instructors, arguing that those people could never understand the culture and should not be allowed to teach it. Some of these students boycotted any class meetings in which an instructor who was not black presented such material.
I hadn't known I could simultaneously feel such deep shame because I looked like--and probably benefitted from the efforts of-- people who actively promoted social injustice and
such profound distress because I disagreed so strongly with methods and ideologies employed by a group of black people seeking cultural redress. I don't think I'd encountered a political situation nearly that complicated before.
My first college roommate was a black woman. We had very little in common and had some difficulty living together: she wanted to party; I wanted to study. Both of us were too single-minded in our pursuits.
I was nonplussed when her friends called and left messages on our answering machine that closed with "Death to the white man. Peace out." But I got the shock of my life when I went home over the winter break and a beloved relative of mine--a gentle, kind woman--said she wasn't surprised that I wasn't getting along with my roommate, adding,"they're not very clean, are they?"
I had never seriously considered the possibility that a person I knew to be a decent, loving human being could say something that awful and mean
I hadn't known it was possible to be a good person and a racist at the same time.
Meanwhile, having been fascinated by Richard Wright's Black Boy
and Native Son,
Toni Morrison's Beloved
, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
, Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
, Frederick Douglass's Narrative
, Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion
, Charles Joyner's Down by the Riverside
, and recordings of Rev. C. L. Franklin's sermons
, I started seriously considering a concentration in African-American literature.
By then, I'd also read Beowulf
, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl
, and taken a Chaucer class, so I was starting to feel the pull of the medieval, too.
I decided to enroll in the only Af-Am literature course on campus--an upper-division class which combined advanced undergraduates and graduate students--in order to help me make a decision.
On the first day, our African-American professor gave an intimidating 20-minute speech, explaining that he expected his students to already understand the major movements of literary theory, to be able to tackle complicated postmodern texts, to have very little fun, and to write 25-page papers. Within the first 5 minutes, flocks of people began to leave. By the time the professor finished, only about 10 of us were left in the room.
"All right," he said. "Let's go around the room and do introductions. Tell me what your name is and whether you're a graduate or an undergraduate student."
We did as he asked, and once he'd isolated the three remaining undergraduates, he challenged each of us to explain why we thought we deserved to stay in the class.
The first student said she planned to be a writer and wanted to understand her literary heritage. The professor nodded in approval.
The second student said he'd thought it seemed like a "fun" upper-division course to fulfill a requirement. The professor nodded, slightly less approvingly.
I said that I planned to go to graduate school in literature and was seriously considering a concentration in African-American studies. He glared at me silently, then cleared his throat and said "Uh-huh. Right
I was the only non-black, undergraduate student left in the classroom.
After that class meeting, I thought hard about whether I ought to stay enrolled. I didn't want to let this professor get away with his discrimination. I didn't want to be intimidated away. And I wanted to prove myself to him.
But I reasoned that I already had a difficult term ahead of me, that I couldn't afford the possible harm an irritated professor could do to my GPA if I wanted to go to grad school (I said
I was too single-minded, didn't I?), and that it just wasn't worth it.
Later, I decided that I didn't need the grief of having to defend my choice of study to nearly everybody I encountered and that I might not make the best possible teacher in the field if students might be inclined to resent me, to shut me out, because of the color of my skin.
I have wished, every
time I've thought about it since, that I hadn't dropped that class. And, though I do love medieval literature, I've often wished that I hadn't given up on Af-Am as a concentration.
After all, if I was trying to avoid being on the defensive about what I'd chosen to study and having to push through student resentment, the literature of the Middle Ages wasn't exactly the way to go.
I think I chose medievalism because of some of the same things that drew me to African-American studies: the pull of difference
, of a complex, interesting culture that had deeply influenced my own, but which was still far outside my own range of experience. I never was particularly intrigued by the idea of studying something I thought I already knew relatively well: I wanted (and still want) to spend the rest of my life studying things that constantly surprise me, that push the boundaries of what I understand, that ask me to reconsider who I am, and that challenge me to look at the world from a shifting array of angles.
But when I look around me in medieval courses or at medieval conferences, I see little diversity, and it makes me uncomfortable. Though a few of my fellow trainee medievalists are from minority backgrounds, medievalism is still an overwhelmingly white
field of study. I'm pretty sure I can't hope to see much more diversity among my colleagues during my career. And I'm not sure I can ever seriously hope to cultivate more than maybe one or two students of color as advisees, even if I do win the job lottery and get to stay in academia for the rest of my working life. And, yet, I truly believe that the field needs
diversity; that it needs to be shaken out of a certain complacency.
And so I find myself at the opposite end of the spectrum from my professor-for-a-day: wishing I could help to diversify my discipline, and despairing of ever really having the chance.
I love and thrive on the cultural and temporal frisson that medieval literature offers me. And I don't, by any means, think I'm through being educated by and about race. But I do sometimes wish I'd been willing to embrace that challenge more thoroughly.
This post responds to Chris Clarke's post here
, which rightly points out that "the responsibility for discussing racism has long been relegated to those people most directly affected by it. In other words, people who aren't white. Us white folks have the luxury of not thinking about racism on a daily basis. As a result, most of us don't. I think it would be helpful if we started to do our share of that particular chore."
I don't know how much this post will aid the conversation Chris wants us to have. I know I found it terribly difficult to write, that it forced me to reconsider some things I hadn't thought about for a long time, and that I'm looking forward to learning from other BAR posts and from comments other people make on mine.