For me, August 28 this week was significant for any number of reasons. It wasn’t just that it was fifty years to the exact day and date that the March on Washington occurred and MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Or that is was fifty-eight years to the date that White supremacists lynched Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at some flat-butt White girl. This past Wednesday was also twenty-two years to the day and date that I began my first day of graduate school as a master’s student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History.
Of course, I didn’t discuss this earlier this week (it would’ve been incredibly arrogant on my part to bring this up three days ago). My big steps for myself were infinitesimal when in measured comparison to the beginning of the two-year height of the official Civil Rights Movement. But even on an afternoon in which I attended my first course and meeting about teaching/advising assignments for the semester, it did feel like a bit of a triumph. Especially when considering what I had to do that spring and summer to get into the program with funding in the first place.
I didn’t learn that much that day. Except the low contempt Joe White and some of the other professors held toward pedagogy and teaching. “You already know more than your students,” White said as advice to us who’d be TAs that semester. I was lucky to not be among them for my first year. I was a GSA assisting in the advising of history majors, some of whom were my fellow undergrads just a few months before. But even then, I thought two minutes’ worth of advice on viewing students as empty vessels was insufficient training for learning how to lecture and facilitate conversations with upwards of 100 students spread out over several discussion sections each week.
I had other things on my mind at that moment, though, including the relief that I’d survived a summer making $5.20 per hour as a full-time employee with a Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic project in which the project investigators were far more psychotic than the patients. Aside from that, I thought about how the previous four months had served as my preparation for the White world of grad school.
I’d done a lot of reading that late spring and summer, spurned on by boredom, disappointment in my weirdly evolving friendship with Elaine, and a sense that I needed to read to fortify myself against the neo-Marxists in my eventual field. So I read. I started off with Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), believe it or not, the first time I’d ever read it. Like so many before me, it made my views of the man less black and white than it had been before. I then picked up W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk (1903), the first time I’d read that book since I wrote a book report on it for Mrs. O’Daniel’s class in fifth grade. Unsurprisingly, I got much more out of it in May ’91 than I did in May ’80.
I didn’t stop there, as my reading took me on three different tracks in June, July and August. One was the “I didn’t get to read this before” track, as I read Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved (didn’t understand it then, and still don’t get the big deal about it now). Along with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), bell hooks and several others on Black Women’s literature. Then, I decided to go back and reread some James Baldwin and Richard Wright that I’d first read for high school, and added Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) to the mix. On the non-literature track, I ended up reading Franz Fanon, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) — at least, I put a significant dent in it — Derrick Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), and other writings on Black history and culture (broadly speaking).
But the third track would end up taking me on a path toward my dissertation topic and my first book, Fear of a “Black” America (2004). It started with articles on multicultural education that took me to James Banks’ theoretic constructions of what multicultural education ought to have been, but wasn’t. I also found myself reading books like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991), Molefi Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea (1987), Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (completely indecipherable in a circular firing squad of a thesis kind of way) and Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro (1933). I was reading anything that could inform my thinking about K-12 and higher education and how it played the role as both equalizer and oppressor for so many Black folks over the years.
It was easily the most reading I’d done on my own since the year before I’d gone into seventh grade, middle school and the Humanities Program. I wanted to read all I wanted to read before spending the next few years drowning my brain in hundreds of books and articles that I’d absolutely need to read as a historian. In the process, I may’ve radicalized myself a bit for the otherwise hum-drum experience of reading mind-numbing accounts of history in which the authors didn’t seem to see their own sense of high-brow White maleness.
And with all of it, I surprised myself. I realized once again that my Black classmates and 616 neighbors were wrong about me not being Black enough. Their “Black” wasn’t my “Black,” of course. But all those books confirmed for me that there were many ways to be Black that folks who didn’t read could barely understand.