Black Unlike Me

Black Unlike Me

Historians have made much of the ways that the social protest movements of the 1960s unsettled the morals of the dominant culture, but it is often forgotten that activists themselves were sometimes jarred by the new sensibilities as well.


Amid all the hubbub surrounding the defections of Professors Cornel West and K. Anthony Appiah from Harvard to Princeton recently, it went unmentioned that only thirty years ago, African-American studies as we know it today didn’t even exist. Although the Kulturkampf of the 1960s touched many academic disciplines, it was the creation of black studies programs that led to the most rancorous debates on American campuses. British historian Marcus Cunliffe captured the scene well. Following a tour of American universities in the late 1960s, he reported, "Every spokesman was indulgent in spokesmanship, every apologist in apologias, every militant in militance…. Visually, one feels the same strain: white facial muscles ache with nervous smiling, black ones with intimidating scowls." This was a period in which (for once!) academic battles were so fierce because the stakes were so high.

Apropos of which is Mark Naison’s engrossing new memoir, White Boy, which explains how a Jewish kid from Crown Heights, "whose childhood passions were sports and rock and roll," later made interracialism the "organizing principle" of his social life, activism and scholarship. Even by the lofty standards of the 1960s, when picket lines and protest marches were briefly fashionable and young people trumpeted their idealism with something less than total irony, Naison’s commitment to antiracism was profound. In addition to demonstrating for civil rights and volunteering for inner-city organizations, he found community and intimacy in black cultural life, and he began teaching black studies just as an emergent nationalist consciousness among African-Americans challenged his intellectual authority to do so. (Today, he is professor of African-American studies and history and director of urban studies at Fordham University, and author of a seminal work on Communists in Harlem during the Depression.) But White Boy is more than just a political memoir; like most coming-of-age tales, it also reflects the comedy and anguish of life itself.

Naison wasn’t raised with any special regard for the social significance of race relations. Growing up, the biggest problem he faced was the cultural dissonance between his closely knit, working-class neighborhood and the intensely intellectual environment that prevailed in his home. In the former, kids his age typically proved their mettle through their physical prowess, and it was in the handball, stickball and basketball games that took place in his local schoolyard that his lifelong love of sports found its earliest expression. But back home, academic achievement was what mattered, and so his parents deluged him with egghead toys like chemistry sets, along with books and music lessons. As a child, Naison was so defensive about his precocity that anyone hapless enough to make "a good-natured comment about [his] piano lessons or science-fair projects might draw a barrage of punches."

Naison’s childhood exposure to black athletes and performers may have laid the groundwork for his progressive outlook on race relations, and the infectious optimism that animated the black freedom struggle had its effect on him as well. But more disturbing were the "racial fears and prejudices" that began creeping into Naison’s own neighborhood and family. While his parents may not have been openly racist in these years, they were deeply protective of their hard-won social status, uncomprehending of African-American folkways and troubled when black immigrants began to change the social composition of their Crown Heights neighborhood. When Naison first expressed an interest in opposing racial discrimination during his senior year in high school, his mother asked "Why are you trying to help the schvartzes?" To Naison, this was a plangent moment; to his mother, a sincere question. "My parents’ entire response to civil rights," Naison writes, "could be summed up by the phrase, ‘Is it good for the Jews?’"

Naison began attending Columbia University in 1962, grateful to escape his parents’ watchful eyes yet horrified upon his arrival to discover that he had seriously "underestimated the university’s traditionalism and exaggerated its avant-garde spirit." Nevertheless, he parroted the fashions of the Beat generation right down to his goatee, and he moved deftly among Columbia’s jock subculture and nearby coffee shops, jazz clubs and CORE meetings. Although he volunteered as a tutor and tenant organizer in East Harlem, his social life thus far was "almost entirely devoid of sustained contact with black people"–a situation that changed dramatically during his senior year, when he met and then fell deeply in love with an African-American woman called "Ruthie."

Bertolt Brecht once waxed sentimental about radical youths as those who "pursued love carelessly." But interracial couples in the 1960s could scarcely afford such luxury, and this relationship was not without complications. Luckily, Ruthie’s warm, extended family, Naison’s progressive friends and the quasi-bohemian spirit of the civil rights movement all helped to sustain a connection that might otherwise have been short-circuited. Naison’s mother, however, was another story: She responded to news of their relationship by threatening to commit suicide.

When Naison entered Columbia’s graduate program in history in 1966, he was fortunate to find himself in a milieu of intrepid graduate students with a keen sense of political mission. "Convinced that a more democratic approach to historical writing would be a foundation for a more democratic society," Naison writes, "we discussed ways of putting our own research at the service of the movement." For Naison and his comrades, this meant understanding black history as a defining element in the American experience–a position that has since been eloquently expressed by our finest historians and is now widely shared by everyone to the left of Lynne Cheney.

Nevertheless, there was always a certain schizophrenic quality to Naison’s simultaneous immersion in politics and scholarship, which was underscored rather emphatically when he took his oral exams in February 1969. It’s a story that still circulates in Columbia’s history department: Just as Naison was being interrogated in Fayerweather Hall by a distinguished line-up of professors (including Richard Hofstadter and a young Eric Foner), a cabal of student radicals stormed the building! "As they started to ask me questions," Naison recalls, "I heard people running through the halls, slamming doors, and smashing furniture. The commotion came from above and below us and from the hallway outside, but [owing to a prearrangement between Naison and his friends] nobody so much as knocked on our door. I answered the questions my mentors asked me with as much aplomb as I could muster, but I was getting some very strange looks." When the exam was over, Naison graciously escorted his professors out of the building through a window, saluted his friends with a clenched fist and then went home to shed his suit and tie before returning to join the occupation.

For a time, Naison successfully balanced his scholarship with his activism, but as the decade approached its crescendo and flowery fantasies, blaring pronunciamentos and mud-pie theories became all too commonplace, he was carried away by a measure of radical posturing that he now abjures, and that the American left has yet to live down. A member of Students for a Democratic Society, Naison was nearly expelled from Columbia when a CBS cameraman caught him punching down a conservative student after being shoved and maced himself. On another occasion he found himself marching across the Queensborough Bridge with a group of Black Panthers whom he initially thought were chanting "Power to the People, Arthur Pig," but were in fact chanting "Off the Pig." (He joined them "without hesitation.") For a time, Naison was even affiliated with a New York collective of Weatherman, the SDS splinter group whose rhetoric was taking on increasingly ominous hues as it prepared for the infamous Days of Rage demonstration in Chicago. One afternoon the group tangled with two police officers in a Park Slope diner. The radicals got the better of the cops, but only until reinforcements arrived, at which point Naison was promptly handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment and felonious assault–charges that were reduced in a plea bargain when several police officers were observed beating one of Naison’s co-defendants in a subsequent demonstration.

Historians have made much of the ways that the social protest movements of the 1960s unsettled the morals of the dominant culture, but it is often forgotten that activists themselves were sometimes jarred by the new sensibilities as well. For Naison, this first occurred when a seeping black nationalism strained his relationship with Ruthie and mocked his vision of an interracial community. It happened again when some of Naison’s close friends joined the women’s movement and proceeded to give his macho personal style a (much-needed) dressing down. In response to mounting instability in the Movement and in his personal life, Naison resumed his academic career full throttle, and in 1970, when an opportunity arrived for him to teach African-American history at Fordham, he entered a new phase of his life, the beginning of a "thirty year effort to build interracial organizations and communities."

Considering the hue and cry that surrounded the creation of black studies programs wherever they appeared, Naison seems relatively unruffled by his early years as an instructor at Fordham’s Institute of Afro-American Studies, a time when black/white relations were severely strained by a matter of social epistemology that Robert Merton called the "Insider Doctrine," wherein several centuries of white chauvinism and bigotry paved the way for "counter-ethnocentrism"–a rather common phenomenon whenever a largely powerless collective "acquires a socially validated sense of growing power." In the case of black intellectuals, this led to the proposition that "only black historians can understand black history, only black ethnologists can understand black culture, only black sociologists can understand the social life of blacks, and so on."

True, Naison records the looks and comments he received from students who were dubious about his credentials, and he doesn’t flinch from calling out student radicals who "turned blackness into a mark of status much as [his] parents had done with whiteness." In one particularly harrowing episode, Naison recalls being so rattled by two menacing students that he briefly took to carrying a butcher knife in his briefcase while traveling across campus. ("I ended this foolishness," Naison writes, "when I realized they had no intention of physically harming me, but their hostility reminded me that some black students opposed what I did on principle and could not be won over.")

But balanced against these episodes are effusive descriptions of the "camaraderie and sense of mission" that Naison shared with his colleagues and students, and the hospitality and generosity with which he was often greeted. Writes Naison, "Handshakes and hugs, the sharing of music and food, loud laughter, and passionate discussion bound me to my colleagues in a community of feeling that incorporated powerful African-American traditions yet transcended racial boundaries." As a result, there remains something slightly discrepant about his account of his early years at Fordham. For instance, Naison reprints part of a letter he wrote to Paul Buhle, dated March 31, 1971, that said, "Things are going really well now…. I have made surprising headway in forming working relationships with black students and staff. There is very little suspicion of me now (always SOME) primarily because people are convinced I am so crazy that I just can’t fit in any stereotype of a white liberal or radical."

But other letters from this period (which are deposited in the Wisconsin Historical Society and have elsewhere been quoted by historians of the era) paint a slightly different picture.


November 26, 1970: My life now is exciting and productive, but I get tired of having to "prove" myself over and over again to every black person I meet for the first time.



January 22, 1971: And what after all do I symbolize to blacks[?], a strange white man who has amassed an enormous amount of facts and a feel for the details of life, but who is alien to them and aware of it.



March 24, 1971: …teaching black history (as a white) [is] so painful and nothing you can do can get rid of all the pain. Cause the simple fact is you could die six times and kill forty pigs and to some black kids you’d still be a "honky" and a fool and someone to be hustled…. This really upsets me a lot, because I want their approval and respect for my efforts on behalf of the black liberation struggle, to conquer my own racism, etc…. but it doesn’t come. And then the anger and resentment, who the fuck do they think they are?–I’m a human being. You find yourself responding to their racism with hate of your own…. And the question is how do you deal with it?


How do you deal with it, indeed? Although it’s true that the black studies movement opened its doors to a few white scholars, let’s not forget that Naison’s ability to survive owed much to his unique ardor, earnestness, radicalism and bullish temperament. As soon as he began teaching he "threw out every model of professorial distance [he] had been exposed to in college" and befriended his students in cafes, bars and on basketball courts. And although his machismo had been capably thrashed by an emergent feminism, he wasn’t above resorting to his old Crown Heights swagger if ever in a pinch. "In the politically charged–and highly masculinist–atmosphere of early black studies programs," he writes, "it seemed to be a useful affectation."

Naison suggests that his saga should help complicate the widely held belief that with the advent of Black Power, "racial separatism became the dominant ideology within the black community," leading to de facto campus segregation and an "inward-looking and defensive political discourse." However, he is also well aware of just how exceptional his story is, and this isn’t an argument he defends with any great gusto.

White Boy is an extraordinary, valuable and often funny memoir in which Naison relates his personal odyssey against the social ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s. Because he reveals himself to be an intense person who has invested a great deal of emotional capital in the interracial ideal of the civil rights movement, one might expect a note of ambivalence about his career in African-American studies. After all, race relations have never really conformed to the "revolutionary formulas of love and respect and fraternal feelings" that Naison touted in the early 1970s, and although one finds politically engaged scholars in most African-American studies programs, no longer is this a field connected to a rising social movement. But for Naison, the satisfaction and sense of selfhood that he has earned in return for his efforts are more than adequate compensation. "I had made some questionable decisions in my life," he concludes, "but the one I never regretted was teaching Afro-American studies…. Without fanfare or outside support, we created an environment where fighting racism, and exploring the inner meaning of racial differences, became a moral imperative and the center of a vibrant intellectual community."

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