This post might be a bit much for many of us. It may well be too much for me. For it’s about some of why I became ambivalent about the academic enterprise. It also describes some of my cynicism — that’s right, cynicism — toward ’60s-style liberals in America, including those whom, as liberal as they may be, aren’t really progressive in any cultural or sociological sense.
You see, I took a class my first semester as a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University called Comparative Working-Class History. It was mostly a study of the beaten-down, pre-industrial and Industrial Revolution-era workers who lost their control over the tools of production, and their Marxist-like struggles to regain some control over such tools. Either directly, or through the state (socialism), or through over, violent means. Not that I didn’t sympathize, but I always thought this story too simplistic, not concerned enough with the psychology of human nature or the social constructs under which people are willing to live, even at the expense of their own improvement.
Anyway, the course was taught by a professor whose research looked at the role of Russian women in the economic transition between Czarist Russia and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Although I had no real personal stake in this course initially (I was too busy plotting ways to make all of my courses about multiculturalism, my dissertation topic), I eventually did because of an incident on the first day of class. The Saturday before, August 28, 1993, the great British Marxist E.P. Thompson had passed away. The writer of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) had lived to the age of 69, but apparently had been sick for nearly three years before his death. It was a sad time, for a generation of historians had been influenced by Thompson’s work. His 1963 publication was a cornerstone manual for addressing what most historians now call social history. Unlike so-called socialized medicine, it’s not when the government rewrites history. It’s about people writ large, about how groups of folks have responded to large-scale change, to oppression and exploitation, to difficult if not impossible circumstances.
Certainly Thompson wasn’t the only historian of his time to write in this manner — and hardly the first (anyone ever heard of W.E.B. Du Bois or Franz Fanon?). But for those historians whom had embraced neo-Marxism, if not scholars of color who wrote like neo-Marxists, Thompson was their Edward R. Murrow or Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was also the case of our professor, whom, in discussing E.P. Thompson’s death, her memories of him (more on that later), and his significance to the field, started sobbing in front of the twelve of us. I couldn’t believe it! I wanted to say, “There’s no crying in a graduate seminar!” She was crying as if this were a dear mentor or a close friend. This wasn’t about gender for me, it was about professionalism — she was a tenure-track professor, after all. I knew that there would be some long days in this class after her crying episode.
And they were. All semester, there was a three-way tug-of-war between me (and occasionally, my former Pitt grad school colleague who decided to hop the bridge to Carnegie Mellon to take this course), ten brown-nosing students who’d agree with her despite the evidence, and her. I didn’t expect my now fellow Carnegie Mellon grad students to take my side. But I did expect them to read Thompson and Wilentz and other folks for themselves and not just to get an A out of our professor. There may have been one or two other classes I dreaded more in three years of grad school. Yet I saw no one more unaware of their biases than our professor in this course.
It all came to a head when it was time to discuss David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991) and, indirectly, Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984). Both authors looked at the formation of the White American (and male) working-class in the first half of the nineteenth century. Our professor, as usual, took the stance that the only ideology of significance was one that proclaimed class inequalities the predominant issue explaining the radicalization of the American working-class. Finding this a bit laughable (a mistake on my part), I pressed my argument that at least in the case of US history, race and class distinctions have been and remain intertwined. So much so that a typical neo-Marxist analysis of the American working-class couldn’t apply.
The next two hours were me and my Pitt colleague against ten brown-nosers and our professor. Luckily in my case, I could not only quote Roediger and Wilentz, but Herbert Gutmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, and a host of other scholars to press home my counterargument. At the end, our professor said to me, in utter exasperation, “I guess we should just go back to original sin.” It meant that I was being a racial determinist, which I suppose was suppose to be an insult as well as her version of “No mas, no mas!”
I learned a lesson beyond my grades or my head-long march toward my doctorate that day. That most so-called liberals in America, whether an assistant professor or an avowed ’60s radical, are really not leftists at all, at least on issues involving race. They may not believe in promoting inequality or racism. But they don’t necessarily see groups of color as actors, activists, or as capable of taking actions independent of their ways of thinking about the world. They explain issues of inequality in ways that actually degrade the achievements of Americans of color who’ve managed to overcome such inequities. In my professor’s case, even as the wife of a prominent soon-to-be Pitt history professor, whose work has helped us as historians better understand the relationship between trade, ideas and economics on four sides of the Atlantic.
Still, the worst thing I learned is that it took Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness to confirm ideas that Du Bois had begun writing about nearly a century before. That, for me, made me apprehensive about wanting to work with scholars who may well see me and my work as well-intentioned, but inferior to theirs. I guess I could’ve cried in despair about this, but I didn’t.