One-time, one-quarter-and-a-half-in-a-Thanksgiving-Day-game, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Clint Longley led the dreaded team to a victory against the Washington Redskins in ’74. He threw a game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds left in the game in leading a comeback for the so-called America’s team. It was the only game Longley played in his all too short three-year NFL career. But the game he played was memorable, and not just for Cowboys and Redskins fans.
I’ve had numerous moments of brilliance in my adult life, sometimes surprising myself with how good I am at certain things. Graduate school was one period of my life where my academic abilities were both consistently on display and occasionally spiked beyond normal excellence. Today marks seventeen years exactly since I passed my master’s oral examination in the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, finishing in just under two semesters what should’ve taken me three to four. My committee had also recommended me into the PhD program. I was barely three months removed from getting my driver’s license, all of twenty-two, and finding myself in a doctoral program less than a year after finishing my bachelor’s.
That was April 14, ’92, but the story that made this triumph possible started a year earlier. I had gotten into New York University, University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school. I had also applied to Berkeley and the University of Virginia — both rejected me — as well as Howard. They lost my grad school application. Meanwhile, NYU had accepted me, but I was required to commit myself to them before they would disclose their financial package for me. I didn’t want to move back to New York only to starve to death in my first semester of grad school.
The University of Maryland was worse. They didn’t lose my application like Howard did. They misplaced it. Long enough for the deadline for forwarding my application to difference on-campus fellowship program to have passed. They accepted me as a provisional student, not because of my grades, but because they didn’t have any teaching assistant or fellowship slots to hand out by the time they found my application. Provisional wasn’t so bad, although I’d have to maintain a B+ average my first year to be eligible to get a fellowship or teaching assistant position during my second year. What was I supposed to do? Live off of student loans for a whole year? I still don’t understand how I got the short end of the stick for something a grad assistant or professor screwed up.
With the history department at Pitt, the main issue was that professors like Reid Andrews and William Chase didn’t think that I was grad school material. This despite my 3.82 GPA as a history major, my 3.4 GPA overall, my GRE scores, and my having taken a history grad course my junior year, earning an A in the process. I was accepted, put on a waiting list for funding, where I’d linger at the sixth spot for over a month while folks leapfrogged me on the list. This list was allegedly based on the relative qualifications of those who were accepted into the program, in that the closer a student was to No. 1, the more qualified they were for one of the department’s teaching assistantship stipends.
I knew that my having majored in history at Pitt was a factor, because the history department wanted the best possible candidates across the country and from other parts of the world. That I wasn’t a neo-Marxist only interested in working-class history might’ve hurt me also. Intuitively, I knew that race was also involved. No so much that the professors in the department didn’t want Blacks in the program, or representatives from any other group of color for that matter. More so this unspoken notion that someone Black couldn’t handle the rigors of a graduate program as intense as the one at Pitt, which occasionally came out in my conversations with veteran graduate students and with younger professors in the department during my two years there.
I had a decision to make. Did I want to stay in Pittsburgh, at Pitt, and earn a master’s degree? What would I do then? Teach as a social studies teacher in high school? Go get my doctorate? Go back to New York and get a job with a degree that isn’t of much use outside of the education field? I turned to my mother, who told me that I should come back to New York, to help her with my younger siblings. I had made that promise to her, back when I was seventeen, had no life outside of 616 and Mount Vernon High School, and expected to major in computer science. Now she expected me to live up to my promise like it was some kind of contract. So I decided to stick it out in Pittsburgh through the end of May before possibly packing up and moving back to the New York area.
For nearly two weeks in May, I heard a voice in the back of my head that said I should go and meet with Jack Daniel (I know, and I’m sure he’s known for years), the Associate Provost at Pitt and the administrator over my Challenge Scholarship for undergrad. I’d only met him once, in the middle of my freshman year. I didn’t exactly know why I needed to meet with him. I just felt that if I did, I might be able to get money for books for the fall or sometime.
After a couple of weeks, I finally went up to the eighteenth or twenty-first floor of the Cathedral of Learning and scheduled a brief appointment with one of the highest ranking Black administrators at Pitt. A few days later, I used my lunch break from my Western Psychiatric gopher job to meet with Dr. Daniel. I told him my story about Pitt and the waiting list and so on. He got this really pissed look on his face, then he picked up the phone, called up the history department chair, and proceeded to chew him out for about five minutes.
It turned out that the Provost’s Office had created a graduate fellowship in the arts and sciences to attract more female students and students of color to Pitt. It was a one-year fellowship, one that required departments in the arts and sciences to commit additional years of funding to these students once their one-year fellowship ended. Apparently the history department chair knew about this fellowship, but never disclosed the details to me or any of the other qualified students who looked like me. After he got off the phone, Dr. Daniel looked at me and said, “It’s all taken care of. You should have your fellowship packet in a few days.” By the second half of May ’91, I had a one-year grad student assistantship with a $7,000 stipend, health insurance and full-tuition coverage. This one I chalk up to Dr. Daniel and to the grace of God.
If the powers that were in the history department were ready to ensure my failure as a grad student, they didn’t show that side to me immediately. It wasn’t until a week before the start of the fall semester that I heard from my advisor Larry Glasco, the only African American professor in the department, who, by the way, didn’t look particularly Black. He told me in so many words that this program would challenge me intellectually in ways that he wasn’t sure I was prepared for. Glasco also expected me to fulfill my language proficiency requirement in Spanish, a language he had picked up in order to do comparative research between race relations in Cuba and those in the US. I told him, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll do my proficiency exam in Swahili instead.” He laughed for a good twenty seconds after I said that.
You see, I had a plan, one that I’d been working on since the beginning of my junior year at Pitt. Although I didn’t know all that I was doing at the time, I did know that the College of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (the grad school version of CAS) had obscure provisions that allowed an undergraduate student the opportunity to take grad course that could then be applied as credits in a grad program. That was part of the reason I took Sy Drescher’s Comparative Slavery course in the spring ’90 semester. I knew about the language proficiency requirement long before my conversation with Glasco, which was part of the reason why I had taken both Spanish and Swahili my senior year. I also knew that I would need a research topic that would help guide my master’s work, which was part of the reason why I took up E’s offer (see my post “The Power of Another E”) to work on an article comparing multicultural education with Afrocentric education.
I still didn’t know all that I was doing, though, so I spent the first few weeks of grad school feeling out my classes, going out to parties, reading 500 and 600-page scholarly snorefests cover-to-cover and word-for-word. Sometime around the middle of September, between seeing my Swahili professor at the hole-in-a-wall bar Constantine’s with a woman under each arm and reading my third boring book in a week, I became a monk outside of Pitt’s campus. I realized that my grad student assistantship — which was advising history majors and assisting the departmental advisors with that task — would only take up about twenty hours a semester. Other than the occasional weekend get-together with folks like Marc and Michele (or Marc or Michele or Regis or a couple others), I went after my studies in a way that made what I did my last semesters of undergrad look like I hadn’t been trying at all.
I was taking an American history (to 1865) readings seminar, History of Black Pittsburgh, an independent study with my advisor to write my research paper on the intercultural education movement and comparing it to multicultural education, and my third semester of Swahili. Plus, I had turned my summer research project into an article for publication, used it to get a spot for a conference presentation in ’92 at Lincoln University, started working on my first book review for an obscure journal, and gotten the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to apply my grad course from my junior year to my master’s work. I was busy from one day to the next, as I learned how to skim 1,500 pages of readings per week, learned the nuances of present perfect in Swahili, and did oral interviews for my paper on the Civil Rights Movement in Pittsburgh. But by the end of that first semester, not only did I have straight A’s (not a terribly difficult feat — it’s grad school, after all). I fulfilled my language requirement, was only a semester away from graduating, and had proven, at least to myself, that I belonged on this academic stage.
I’d also run myself into the ground with exhaustion, which showed a bit my second semester, as I limped toward my master’s with an A, two A-‘s and a B+ in my four courses. I had failed in pacing myself, but I had gotten so far out in front through most of that year that my second semester exhaustion was of little consequence.
The larger issue for me was the politics around finishing a degree adorned with so many requirements so quickly and with such relative ease. I knew I was working harder than I had before. To my classmates and professors, though, it looked like I was hardly working at all. In the political world of academia, there are few things that are worse than being perceived as lazy or as someone resting on their laurels. That, and my obvious preference for race issues over class and neo-Marxist ones made me a gifted grad student without a strong political ally. Glasco was hardly it. After passing my master’s orals and giving me the news that I would be a doctoral student next semester, Glasco said, “we’re going to have to slow you down next year.”
I probably was moving too fast. There weren’t exactly tons of twenty-two-year-olds walking around with master’s degrees or beginning doctoral work. Certainly no one from my life and background was doing what I was doing, and at the pace I was going too. I just wanted to get my life going, to move as far away from the Donald I’d been prior to the fall of ’88. I was both old and young, thinking that life was too short to take a stroll and study the swirling academic forces around me. I’d come to understand this all too well by the time Joe Trotter became my advisor at Carnegie Mellon.
Former Cowboys offensive tackle Blaine Nye described Longley’s twenty-one minute performance that Thanksgiving Day in ’74 as the “triumph of an uncluttered mind.” For a few months in ’91 and ’92, my mind was uncluttered, and it needed to be, as it made the road to my academic future that much easier to travel, at least for a while.