When I wrote about this long path to Boy @ The Window last month, I figured that it would take three posts in all to discuss the path. But the road’s shown itself to be longer — and more convoluted — than I anticipated.
So I never did write my book about being on welfare, dehumanization and welfare policy. I found a much more interesting subject to take up the following year, in the summer of ’90. I decided to take the late Barbara Sizemore’s research methods course in Black Studies that fall, to move beyond my history courses, as I’d already taken enough of them to have fulfilled my major.
I wanted to look at the re-segregation of desegregated schools through tracking or ability grouping, specifically in Mount Vernon’s public schools. The book that brought me to this topic was Jeannie Oakes’ masterpiece Keeping Track: How School Structure Inequality (1985). It had begun to turn my mind away from slavery as a long-term history project (perhaps one I would’ve pursued in doing my master’s papers or doctoral research) and toward history of education and racial inequality.
Oakes’ main argument was that school desegregation was a mixed bag of success and failure precisely because of the fact that with tracking by academic “ability,”disadvantaged Black students and advantaged White students would seldom meet in the same classrooms. That made me think of my still recent experiences with the Humanities Program in middle school and high school. After all, a school district that was three-quarters Black, Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic had a magnet program that was about sixty percent White during my six years in Humanities.
I spent that summer — when I wasn’t working — at Mount Vernon Public Library, NYU’s Bobst Library, and New York Public Library giving myself a stronger background on this topic. I met with the former MVHS Humanities coordinator Joyce Flanagan (who had become Harrington by then) about getting more specific demographic data about the program by class year and school (Pennington-Grimes ES, A.B. Davis Middle School and MVHS). Much of the data had already been destroyed, Harrington confided. The data she did give me, while informative, wasn’t enough to do even a watered down version of what Oakes did for Keeping Track (she interviewed 14,000 students and teachers in all).
I ended up doing my research project on Pittsburgh Public Schools and their International Baccalaureate programs at Schenley and Allderdice HS. It was a solid paper, an easy A compared to my comparative slavery paper for Drescher’s graduate course the semester before. But it wasn’t enough for me.
In the course of building up my knowledge on segregation, suburban schools, urban school districts, and community control, I stumbled onto books about multicultural education. I wanted to learn more, so I took a sociology course my final undergraduate semester on the sociology of race and ethnicity (there weren’t any education courses that focused on either race or multiculturalism at Pitt in ’91).
The turning point came with my friend Elaine, who knew of my interest in the topic. She was the one who had informed me of a growing controversy with New York State’s newly proposed history curriculum, one in which the ideas of multicultural education had played a key role. That work the summer before grad school, that work to understand why there was any controversy at all, led me to finding out more about cultural pluralism and its history. This then led to the role of Black intellectuals and educators in applying cultural pluralism, the differences between multiculturalism, multicultural education and Afrocentricity.
I had my dissertation topic in broad strokes before I’d taken any courses as a master’s student (not counting the comparative slavery class). But in the process of moving from re-segregation and Jeannie Oakes to multiculturalism, I’d moved from a wide-eyed student of everything that related to my life at age twenty to an aspiring academician, a historian of educational and cultural ideas.
I’d taken the first steps to bury myself in academic writing and thinking, without fully understanding why I cared about multiculturalism in the first place. It took me a decade to figure out that the lack of understanding of diversity in Humanities was part of what made it a bittersweet experience for me, an experience that drove me toward multiculturalism as a research topic. It took ten years before I realized that my pursuit of multiculturalism in Black Washington, DC was my way of dealing with my own past without any emotion. Multiculturalism took me further away from the writer (and historian) I wanted to be, even as I earned my doctorate on the topic.