“The Dying of Black Women’s Children”

March 27, 2013

Infant mortality rates by country (2004), March 27, 2013. (http://www.mchb.hrsa.gov/). In public domain.

Infant mortality rates by country (2004), March 27, 2013. (http://www.mchb.hrsa.gov/). In public domain.

That was the title of a research paper I wrote for an independent study course I did with my former Pitt advisor Larry Glasco. It was a paper I wrote during my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh, undergrad and grad school. It was the last paper I would write for any professor at Pitt. But it was a paper that would address a bunch of common themes about me as a historian and scholar knowingly, and a writer unknowingly.

I began this paper without a course and on my own time in the Fall ’92 semester (see my post “December Doctoral Decisions” from last year). I had to fulfill a quantitative methods requirement in order to take my PhD comprehensive examinations at the end of my coursework, which at my pace would’ve meant taking them in the fall of ’93 at Pitt. Why they never included a qualitative methods requirement, I’ll never know. Of course, this digital humanities movement of quantifying the heretofore unquantifiable was but an embryo in the early ’90s.

With my language requirement taken care of the year before, I had no choice but to build on my existing statistical knowledge. Luckily, I’d inadvertently minored in mathematics and had been a computer science major before switching to history. I’d already decided on the topic of comparing infant/child mortality rates among White and Black Pittsburghers between 1900 and 1920, coinciding with the Great Migration period for Blacks. This meant census data from 1900, 1910 and 1920. This meant public health records from the same twenty-year stretch. It meant looking at neighborhoods like the Lower Hill District and Bloomfield, the occupations of the men and (in the case of Blacks) women living in these communities.

And it meant that I had to learn how to use SPSS, the most powerful number-crunching statistical software package on the planet. At least as far as I was concerned. It took me from September ’92 until the end of January ’93 to get comfortable enough with SPSS to plot and correlate different points of data. By then, I could generate reports and make sense of them. I knew that race, poverty/neighborhood and occupation (in that order) correlated best to the 2.5 to 1 ratio between infant/child mortality (death between child birth and the age of five) rates for Black families versus White families.

I used Lotus 1-2-3 to construct the tables, charts and graphs for my statistical correlations and data. Why Lotus 1-2-3? Their charts and graphs looked like “arts and crafts,” to steal a phrase from David Letterman. SPSS’s visuals were boring. Between the numbers crunching, the translation of correlation data into Lotus, and the actual writing of this paper, I completed my work for this independent study and quantitative methods requirement at the end of February ’93.

By then, I had two issues. One, I didn’t know what to title my paper. Most of my titles were inspired by cultural references from music, sports, TV shows, catch commercial jingles. I’d titled one paper “‘Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay’,” an homage to Otis Redding and in reference to the topic of Black migrants finding permanent economic degradation after leaving the Jim Crow South for places like New York, Chicago and L.A. Another one, which I’d presented at several conferences, was “‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’,” a prelude to my “‘A Substance of Things Hoped For'” dissertation (thanks to Hebrews 11:1 and James Baldwin).

Pitt Honors Convocation program, (March 1, 1994), March 27, 2013. [Ironic, given that I received this honor when I was at CMU]. (Donald Earl Collins).

Pitt Honors Convocation program, (March 1, 1994), March 27, 2013. [Ironic, given that I received this honor when I was at CMU]. (Donald Earl Collins).

I solved this title problem while simultaneously dealing with the second issue, which was that I knew I was about to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to complete the doctorate. Joe Trotter had invited me to attend the job talks of a young professor who had recently earned tenure at the University of Chicago, I believe. I remember her being fairly attractive and found her work interesting, if not fascinating. While we walked up and down the factory floor, um, second-floor corridors of Baker Hall, I walked by a flyer for an upcoming talk on “The Dying of Young Women’s Children.” I decided that this would be the scaffolding for my paper’s title, right then and there. Only, I’d change “Young” to “Black” and give a footnote of credit to the flyer title.

I submitted my paper to Larry for my independent study, which I was now taking purely as pass/fail (or satisfactory/unsatisfactory), and not for a specific grade. After Larry learned of my departure, he never gave me feedback on the paper. As the end of the semester approached — and I became short on cash — I submitted the paper to the Women’s Studies Program’s Student Research (undergraduate and graduate) contest.

Pitt's Women's Studies Program Annual Prize for Student Research on Women and Gender, June 1993, March 27, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Pitt’s Women’s Studies Program Annual Prize for Student Research on Women and Gender, June 1993, March 27, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Two months later, in June ’93, I learned that I’d finished second in the graduate student category, and earned a check for $75, a week’s worth of groceries! My friend Matt, upon learning of my good fortune, said, “You won that prize because of that title,” adding that I “stole it” from a flyer.

Matt was right, of course. But I also learned something important through “The Dying of Black Women’s Children.” That all writers borrow from others’ words and ideas, and then make them their own.

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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