In Denigration of the Black and Accomplished

January 20, 2014

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

I plan half of my blog posts in advance. At the beginning of every year, I make up a list of topics that I intend to cover, listed by month, and then go through that list. For the other half, I take advantage of relevant news stories or sudden life experiences that also seem relevant. Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.25.25 AM

Today’s post is a combination of planning and the impromptu. I’d already planned to write about the tightrope of being Black and accomplished — actually, more like the noose of it. But thanks to @profragsdale’s tweet, aka, Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris (Houston, Texas) and a PhD candidate at Rice University, I started on this topic a day early. Her tweet was the kick-off to eight hours of tweets about the cold and often cold-shoulder reception women — and Black male and LGBT — faculty and grad students receive when bringing up, discussing or even promoting themselves and their accomplishments.

Only to see more of these tweets and thoughts confirmed in another arena. The response of the racist, George-Zimmerman-set to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews on FOX within a couple of moments after he made the play to seal the game for his Seattle Seahawks to go play in Super Bowl XLVIII. You, Black man, can’t have a flash of anger and moment of passion on TV after playing in the NFC Championship Game, for then your accomplishments will be used against you. (Sarcasm aside, Sherman’s taunting will likely result in a fine, but that’s the NFL).

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

My post is much, much closer to home. I had the blessing and the curse of having two Black males as my official advisors while in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, Larry Glasco for two years at Pitt, and Joe Trotter for four years at CMU. My gripes and complaints about their neglect, selective attentions to my development, and, in Trotter’s case, harassment and psychological torture I’ve already documented well here. What I haven’t discussed is that they were part of a cycle of academic abuse that they passed down to my generation of grad students, and likely some of my colleagues are passing on to their grad students as I write today.

My best example of how denigration in academia works was a conversation I had with Dick Oestreicher, a Pitt professor for my grad seminar in American Working-Class History in Fall ’92. I was in Trotter’s African American History seminar at CMU at the same time. Oestreicher asked me what else I was taking that semester, I guess because I’d proven resistant to the idea that social class had primacy over all forms of inequality, even in the US (a neo-Marxist to the core, I guessed).

When I told him I was in Trotter’s seminar, Oestreicher said, “Oh, I’ve heard of him,” with the disdain a fashion designer usually reserved for suits off Sears’ rack. You’ve “heard of him?” Really? Trotter, an award-winner scholar and author with a groundbreaking book on Black migration, urbanization and class formation in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985; 2007), and you’ve heard of him? A colleague only three blocks and one bridge away, and you’ve heard of him? Even now, the only word I have to that is, “Wow!”

If Oestreicher was the only one to do that, and only to Trotter, then my observations here would be suspect. But I witnessed this same kind of thing from other White history professors at Pitt and CMU toward Trotter and Glasco during my grad school years. Heck, one of the reasons I left for CMU in the first place was because I knew several of the most powerful professors in the Pitt history department didn’t respect Glasco’s work, and by extension, my own progress and work.

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Maybe that was part of the reason why Trotter would constantly “run interference” on my behalf, to protect my “interests” during my four years there. Because, despite all the long hours, the sweat, tears and blood, there were folks at CMU who just saw him as a mere Black man, not a colleague or scholar every bit their equal. Given the books, the articles, the grants and so many other accomplishments, Trotter was easily the most productive professor in the department.

None of this justified how Trotter treated me when I was his student. I was semi-aware of the racial politics of accomplishment denial that folks around us practiced. I often chalked it up to jealousy or stress, thinking that the quality of my work or — to use Trotter’s terminology — my scholarship would show the academic world my worth. What White disdain toward Glasco and Trotter — and Trotter’s harassment of me — taught me, though, is that I’d have to be White in order for my accomplishments to seriously matter in academia, and I wasn’t planning on being White in my lifetime. And, that intellectual Whiteness can be nurtured and grown into Black professors.

In the years since finishing my own PhD, I’ve faced my own dilemmas around my achievements. I’ve at times attempted to fit in by downplaying my publications, by not bringing up my degrees, by not talking about my fellowship awards. What have I learned? To deny myself of my own accomplishments is like making a fine wine but not even daring to take a sip. White accomplishment deniers be damned.

Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race

February 1, 2011

Dairy Queen Sign, Near Frankstown Road, Penn Hills (outside of Pittsburgh, PA), June 14, 2005. Shawn Wall. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright law because there is no attempt to distribute or alter, and this photo is only being used for illustrative purposes.

Black History Month is upon us once again. But instead of the same tired discussion of Carter G. Woodson, MLK or the meaning (or lack thereof) of this month, I’m telling a story that will (hopefully) dredge up issues for many of you.

It was the last Tuesday in October ’92. I was a student in Dick Oestreicher’s US General Field 2 graduate seminar in the history department at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic for our discussion this day

Otis Redding Album Cover, January 31, 2011. Unknown. This photo qualified as fair use under US copyright laws because of its low quality.

was, “Why has black economic mobility, political assimilation, and cultural identity differed from other ethnic groups.” On the surface, it sounded like a good academic discussion to have. But after having to write a fifteen-page analysis on the topic, where I was restricted to William Julius Wilson’s Declining Significance of Race (1978), Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America (1971), and Kenneth Kusmer’s analysis of race in the context of Black migration to Cleveland (1976), I wasn’t so sure. I made the mistake of being provocative, naming my paper “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — after the Otis Redding version, and not the Michael Bolton one.

It was a long two-and-a-half hour class. Especially since I was the lone African American in the room talking about race and standing up to the classroom consensus that class was more important than race in the case of the thirty-million-plus people who looked like or had been classified the same as me. I was on the hot seat, arguing that both Sowell and Wilson’s bias was politically conservative in nature, which influenced their analysis of the question of Black progress and lack of such. I also decided that — like so many issues in history — the question of race versus class was an and-both and not an either-or one. That race and class were so intertwined in American culture and history that to separate them would do severe damage to our ability as historians to understand the nature of racism and poverty in American society.

One of my classmates, an over-50 White male, decided at this point to cut off my final point. “You should be grateful, to be able to go to an esteemed institution like the University of Pittsburgh, to be able to sit in that chair and get to earn a Ph.D. If it were thirty years ago, we couldn’t stand in the same Dairy Queen line, right here in Pittsburgh,” the older man said as slowly and as deliberately as someone giving an Oscar acceptance speech. I was amazed, angry, ready to put the man in his place academically. I wanted to verbally take a Dairy Queen triple-scooper and smash it in his stubby nose.

Then my mentally absent professor Dick Oestreicher immediately interrupted, literally positioning himself in the middle of the room to keep me from giving my response. Oestreicher ended class right then and there, dismissing us without even summarizing our discussion or criticizing our allegedly weak academic

Dick Oestreicher, circa 2009

analysis, which he had done in all of the previous weeks.

I was incensed, actually more pissed with Oestreicher than with the bigoted older man. I made sure to stop by Oestreicher’s office the next afternoon after my other grad seminar to find out why he interfered. “You’re going to have to deal with this anyway,” he said while shrugging his shoulders. The following week, I received an A- on my paper, with “Sowell’s well read” as the only comment on my critique of the authors and the undeniably conservative, pro-class and anti-race analysis that the authors provided.

Of my five and a half years in graduate school — and in my two years of grad school at Pitt — it was one of my most unbelievable moments. I wanted to pick Oestreicher up by his mangy hair and show him how some people deal with moments of racism and the people who allow it to continue on their watch. I wanted to tell him that he should stay out of the classroom if he’s too scared to actually teach students.

In the end, I was more patient at twenty-two than I’d probably be about something like this now. I remained academically defiant the rest of the semester, opposed every argument he made whenever he made it. Meanwhile, the bigoted old man had withdrawn from the course in the last month of the semester.

I learned, more than anything else, that many so-called liberal professors were only academic liberals, not actual liberals. Oestreicher in my mind was worse than my hard-ass principal Richard Capozzola at Mount Vernon High School. At least with Capozzola, you knew that he didn’t like anyone who looked like me — meaning young, Black, male, unpopular and poor. With Oestreicher and so many in academia, their liberalism and expressions in support of racial equality were mere scholarly arguments. In reality, people like him would never expect someone like me to have a chance in hell or heaven to become one of their academic peers.

But you know what was the funniest thing of all? I’d never been to a Dairy Queen before.


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