It was right after Memorial Day ’92 that I first set out to write a doctoral thesis on multiculturalism. Who knew that my first plans for finishing my doctorate would lead me straight to a memoir about navigating different worlds, different spheres in my life during the Reagan years? I realized some six weeks after finishing my master’s that it was going to take a monumental effort to do my coursework, fulfill my quantitative methods requirement, take my PhD comprehensive exams (written and oral), research my topic, put together an acceptable dissertation proposal, and then go out into the world to conduct my research and write up a several-hundred-page-study. Oh yeah, I’d also have to teach, should at least think about publishing a few academic pieces and presenting papers at a few conferences. I knew by the time Memorial Day ’92 rolled around that the plans I made to finish my masters in two semesters wouldn’t work for getting my dissertation done.
Of course it wouldn’t work! That plan was designed for me to work at warp speed, to take advantage of my previous four years as a Pitt student, to exploit every loophole in the University of Pittsburgh’s rulebook for their undergrad and grad students in Arts & Sciences. If I worked at the same exact pace for another year, well, there wouldn’t be any more years. I knew that burnout was inevitable. I saw it nearly every day during my Pitt grad school days. Students who’d been “All But Dissertation” — ABD to the uninformed — since the OPEC oil crisis and folks whose kids were now as old as I was and no longer had the energy to finish their thesis. People who under a different set of circumstances might’ve shot up our department or killed their dissertation chair or committee. I knew I didn’t want to become any of those people.
But I also knew that working at a leisurely pace would keep me in grad school at least for another eight or even ten years. The average graduation rate for a PhD in the History Department at Pitt was at least a decade (I’d learn later it was fourteen years). I needed to strike a balance between working with a sense of urgency, but not at a killer pace. I also needed to figure out if I really wanted to stay at Pitt to finish this degree — I already had two degrees from the same department.
So I did what I’ve always done, or at least, had been doing since the summer of ’82, the summer of my abuse. I came up with a plan. I wrote down all of the different requirements I needed to fulfill to become ABD and came up with a rough outline of how I would want to approach the topic of multiculturalism as a historical construct among African Americans. Off and on throughout the summer of ’92, starting with the last days of May, I worked on my two-year gameplan to get to the dissertation stage. I even included a contingency plan for the real prospect of me transferring to another school to finish my advanced terminal degree.
As for the dissertation topic itself, that took a bit longer to define. I spent the twelve months that followed thinking through the topic of multiculturalism and what bothered me about the idiotic, so-called Culture Wars commentary and insufficient research on the subject. One thing that influenced my thinking on the topic that I was only semi-conscious of was my time in Humanities, around all of those students from different racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even though Humanities was a poor experiment at multiculturalism — because it was seldom acknowledged, and because our “creme de la creme” nerdiness was our common currency — it gave me some idea of how to think about multiculturalism and its relationship to African Americans.
I knew to approach the topic with the assumption that most African Americans wouldn’t know that they were practicing multiculturalism when they discarded certain notions of inferiority, but adopted and adapted notions of the American Dream and made White notions of equality and freedom their own. That socioeconomic distinctions between elite and ordinary Blacks, that interactions and even intermarriage with other groups of color, and even the issue of passing for White or not made some Black communities practitioners of multiculturalism. Or cultural pluralism as it was called until the ’80s. Yet I also knew that I needed some additional backup. I needed to confirm that African American intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke and Carter G. Woodson and Anna Julia Cooper were all thinking along these lines. I needed to find a place where such ideas and interactions did take place in the public and private sphere.
And at that point, I realized that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be the locale I would study. I suspected as much as I walked home the day after Memorial Day in ’92 from the nearby Sears on North Highland Avenue in East Liberty. Pittsburgh’s Black elite, even in its heyday during the ’30s and ’40, wasn’t as big as Mount Vernon, New York’s Black elite. In the early ’90s, to be Black with a degree and an income over $30,000 was about as middle class as most folks got in the ‘Burgh. Forget about teachers, doctors, lawyers, postal workers, barbers and other members typical of an African American elite. There really hadn’t been much of an intellectual culture in Black Pittsburgh before the ’50 and ’60s. The schools weren’t legally segregated, and with so few African Americans teaching in them prior to the ’60s, there wasn’t a whole lot to look at in terms of multicultural influences on Black education. Forget about the racial demographics. Pittsburgh was White — with some differences as indicated by the area’s Southern and Eastern European immigrants and their progeny — and Black throughout the twentieth century.
Based on my first visit to DC in March ’92, I kind of figured that this would be the place to do my research. Its Black community was much more vibrant, with an HBCU in Howard, a segregated school system with African American administrators and teachers, a rich intellectual heritage, and a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse city overall. It took a summer and a Spring Break ’93 trip to DC to confirm my sense about the city. By then, I realized that my Humanities years and my struggles to leave Mount Vernon and 616 behind did have some benefits. It was those experiences — and the need to make plans to overcome and accept them — that enabled me to come up with a dissertation topic based on “the power of another E” (see April postings) and a four-block walk home from buying a $15 fan from Sears.
Seventeen years and numerous writings later, I still am working my dreams into gameplans and picking out lessons learned from the worst years of my past. If there’s anything I hope comes out of Boy At The Window for others who read it, it’s that sense of converting imagination into plans and plans into action that provides motivation to those whom most need it.