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?’"