The Emotional, The Personal and Black History

February 1, 2013

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (

After all of these years — and thirty-seven years’ worth of Black History Months — I sometimes forget how emotionally charged Black history can be. After all, I’m an academically trained historian, one whose emotional range varies from sarcastic to ironic with most things US, World and African American history. But ever so often, I’m reminded by my students about the sadness and pain involved in learning history. I surprise myself sometimes at how passionate or angry I can become in revisiting a piece of history that I otherwise would show no emotion for on most days.

Black history, though, can bring out both the water works and the daggered eyes. My African American history students at Carnegie Mellon University surprised me one day in October ’96 during a discussion I tried to have about lynching and the KKK. It was based on the Indiana PBS documentary, A Lynching in Marion, Indiana, about the lynching of two Black men and the almost lynching of a young Black male for allegedly killing and robbing a White male and raping a young White female in 1930.

The forty-five minute documentary showed clips of defaced and emasculated Black men hung from trees, beaten beyond recognition and even burned postmortem. It also showed films of KKK rallies in the 1920s and early 1930s Indianapolis and other towns in the state, as well as pictures from the Marion lynching itself. The young Black man in Marion, one James Cameron, was only saved from lynching because a member of White mob actually protected him. It turned out, per usual, that the alleged murder and rape was a false accusation, but Cameron still had to spend four years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

My students could barely speak to me or each other after the film, much less be part of a dispassionate discussion of the film. My Black students were tearful and angry, and my White students were pale and scared. I let them express their emotions for about ten minutes, but waited until the next class to draw out a more comprehensive discussion. As this was the first standalone class I’d taught as an adjunct professor, I was a bit unprepared for the how emotional my students became, how personally they took the film and its content.

But I should’ve been better prepared, especially given my own emotions about Black and other histories over the years. I remember the first time I watched Roots, along with millions of other Americans, in February ’77. I cried or was stunned that whole week. Twelve years later, in my undergraduate readings seminar for History majors at Pitt, I found myself angry with my classmates. My eventual first graduate advisor Larry Glasco was leading a discussion on slavery and the Middle Passage. I didn’t know why, but I was angry that whole class. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk anger. It was a low-heat rage, beyond anything my idiotic classmates were saying about slavery in the eventual US not being as brutal as slavery in the Caribbean or Brazil.

The following semester, I took my first graduate course as a Pitt junior, Comparative Slavery with Sy Drescher. We got into a discussion of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), a study in which the authors tried to show scientifically that slavery wasn’t as bad for Africans in the US as it was for Africans in the Caribbean and Brazil. Using records from one plantation, Fogel and Engerman tried to show that since few slaves were whipped, that therefore slavery wasn’t brutal for my African ancestors. I was pissed when some of the grad students in my class defended Time on the Cross  idea that 1,800 calories a day was sufficient for the average slave. It pissed me off so much that I had to leave the seminar room for five minutes to make sure I didn’t punch someone.

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

I see some of this in my UMUC students sometimes. Students who turn every issue in US history into a referendum on race. “Immigrants exploited? Well, not compared to African Americans as sharecroppers!” Or “Jim Crow was really a second slavery,” some of my students have said emphatically, as if Blacks did nothing during Reconstruction or Jim Crow to make their lives better. They feel, and rightfully so for the most part, that Blacks have gotten a raw deal throughout American history, and that it is my job to expose the hypocrisy of racism in every lecture and discussion.

It’s emotional and it’s personal. But it’s also historical, which means not so much putting emotions or personal investment aside as much as it does putting these emotions and personal investments in perspective. I’ve never been dispassionate about history – I’ve just learned how to use my New York-style sarcasm to hide my passion pretty well.

Letter of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation)

September 23, 2010

George Reid Andrews, University of Pittsburgh

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a string of not-so-wonderful professors I had at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon who were less than fine with me pursuing anything beyond a bachelor’s degrees, much less with me becoming Dr. Collins. I talked about how some of them went so far as to tell me that I wasn’t “graduate material,” as if I were made from parts found at a junk yard instead of in the shop of an Italian tailor.

I’m more than aware of the fact that I didn’t let those doubters stop me from becoming who I am today. Some were undoubtedly ones whose skepticism bordered on racist because of their assumptions about my intelligence and writing ability. Still, it should be noted that there are pitfalls to be avoided, if at all possible, when you’re applying for a job or applying to a college or graduate and professional school.

One, even if a professor or teacher has assigned an A for your performance in one of their courses, that doesn’t mean that think that you’re a great student. I learned that the hard way with George Reid Andrews, my professor for Latin American Revolutions my junior year at Pitt. Twenty years ago this week, I asked him for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Andrews agreed, but only to tell me seven months later what he really thought of my work. My research writing samples were “problematic,” my GRE scores were “barely adequate,” and I should’ve considered myself “lucky” just to get into the master’s program in the history department. That terse conversation told me that Andrews’ letter was lukewarm at best, or had found me seriously deficient at worst.

Two, and related to my interactions with Andrews, the process of providing a letter of recommendation or a reference ought to be transparent, so that the student or employee can be confident that they’re not being back-stabbed by the same people in which they’re placing significant trust. It was never a question I dared asked — to see my letter of recommendation — before I’d reached the final stages of grad school.

It would’ve helped with Andrews, and it would’ve helped with two of my three dissertation committee members, Joe Trotter and Dan Resnick. I found out through my Spencer Fellowship that Trotter had written me a lukewarm letter, while Resnick had rambled on and on about my “close relationship” with my “mentor Sy Drescher,” who had played “an instrumental role” in making me a scholar. Drescher, while one of my best professors at Pitt, played much less of a role in me pursuing grad school than so many other professors and students, including his former student Paul Riggs. It was a Leslie Stahl, “let’s give the poor Black boy a hand” kind of letter.

Later, when I asked to see my letters of recommendation from Resnick before sending them out for jobs, he went on for ten minutes about the “sanctity” of the recommendation process, about how privacy and “anonymity” were critical to provide protection for all parties involved. Needless to say, if someone blusters about privacy when politely asked about a letter of recommendation they’re writing for you, do not use that letter!

Bruce Anthony Jones, University of South Florida

Three, it’s important to get to know a person, to gain some sense of trust from them, before asking for a letter or a reference. You don’t have to become friends with them or meet their family — although that does help. They just have to know that their recommendation or reference will be put to good use by you and that what they say about you matters to both of you, in the most positive light possible. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing a letter or spending fifteen minutes on the phone talking about your qualities as a student or worker, right? This can go a bit too far, of course, as I wrote one of my own recommendations for Bruce Anthony Jones, another dissertation committee member, for him to merely put his signature to. Once he changed jobs for the University of Missouri-Columbia, his, um, my letter became worthless, if it had been worth anything at all to begin with.

I’ve written about two dozen letters of recommendation for high school, college and graduate students, for jobs, school applications and fellowship programs. Not to mention about an equal number of recommendations and references for professional colleagues and friends in academia and the nonprofit world. I’ve always written my own letters, insisted on them being seen by the people I’ve recommended and required that they explain their own rationale for their acceptance in the process. Most importantly, I’ve made sure to say “No” if I didn’t feel I could recommend them well or provide a great reference.


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