Tomorrow marks the beginning of another teaching gig for me, this one at Howard University in their Department of Afro-American Studies. I’m teaching a summer session course in research methods for Black Studies for undergraduate majors. This will be the sixth university in which I have taught since 1992, but this will be my first time teaching at an historically Black college and my first time teaching this course.
I wrapped the course around the theme of African American identity and the various ways to approach this broad and fundamentally important topic to anyone of African descent living in the US (White South Africans included – ). I hope that my student can appreciate the levels of complexity and subtlety involved in identity construction and perception that we all live with as individuals and as members of a particular group or society, especially in this society.
I’m of two minds as I approach my class for the first time tomorrow. One, I recognize that I have spent the past quarter-century or so attempting to make sense of who I am and where I fit or don’t fit in this world. I know that because of my voice and education that many Blacks assume that I’m “acting White” from the moment I open my mouth to say “Hi” or “Yo”. I’ve had numerous experiences with Whites who assume because I’m 6’3″ and still in decent shape that they can start a conversation with “Yo, what’s up man” and launch into a basketball discussion before I’ve learned their name. Those from other ethnicities might make their own assumptions, but my experience has been that they tend to keep them to themselves. So I plan to approach the topic with some patience and with kid gloves on, at least initially. My biggest issue is the fact that I’m not an academic true-believer, in that I don’t believe that scholarly research is the best or only way to address questions in Black Studies, including the topic of African American identity.
Mind number two is the one that reminds me that I’ve been doing research around my own identity and on the issue of racial, ethnic, and societal identity for almost half my life, since I was the age of the students I’m about to teach. I can question the validity of research now more than ever because of my experiences and because of the knowledge that good scholarship often isn’t enough to touch the minds and hearts of others, much less their will to act on the knowledge that they’ve received.
Research certainly has it place. It was integral to Boy At The Window. The local newspaper records (Mount Vernon Daily Argus dating back to 1976), a copy of my high school yearbook, some Board of Education docs I managed to obtain long before I started this book, New York State Department of Education school district report cards and my interviews benefitted my writing of Boy At The Window a great deal. But ultimately all research and the methods you use to collect it is a journey, to find the truth, a truth and/or your truth. It’s not an end in itself. Sometimes I think folks in the academic world forget that. I hope that my students, at least, get that if nothing else.