REALIZING THE DREAM OF A BLACK UNIVERSITY (1969)
If news reports are anything to go by, and if the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University is anything to go by, and if the many books that have come in the wake of campus disturbances are anything to go by—then at least 90% of the several hundred rebellions that have taken place on American college campuses and in the American high schools in the past six years were propelled by and revealed a gross dissatisfaction with the curriculum (its premises, its omissions, its presentations, its designers). And one grievance in particular that manages to get focus in these disturbances is the casual absence or deliberate overlooking of the role the African and Afro-American tradition plays in our history, our art, our culture in general. It should be noted, too, that the demand for African and Asian and Hispanic studies in the high school and college curriculum comes from all kinds of students and faculty, not simply from Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, or Oriental students.
If the rumblings at the College are anything to go by, if the seriously posed questions our students and white students are raising in classes are anything to go by, if the demands for curriculum change stated by the Onyx Society, by the DuBois Club, by SDS, and a number of other organizations are anything to go by, if the responses from the current SEEK poll are anything to go by—then we might be reasonable in saying that there is a great deal of discontent on this campus. And judging by the inability of the administration to set up the machinery to expedite Chancellor Albert Bowker’s new admission policy, judging by the somewhat anemic proposals offered by department curriculum committees, judging by the fact that there are less than fifteen Black professors on this campus, we can safely assume that an explosion is imminent.
There are a number of signs that indicate that the college administration just might be awake to the possibility of impending blow-up and may be, at this very moment, attempting to initiate cooling off or even reformist projects. I suggest that the origins of any remedies, head-offs, panaceas are not without significance. If they come from the top, they are suspect. And when the explosion is over, if the enormous task of reconciliation and reconstruction is handled only by the top, the remedies will not be effective. I cannot anticipate, in fact refuse to anticipate, what will happen at CCNY; I only know that the gauges on the boilers indicate heat.
What is at the root of the dissatisfaction? Probably the variety of purposes teachers, students, administrators feel a university has. Rather than run through a host of definitions for the Idea of the American University from the patently utilitarian (get your working papers, train automatons for industry, process robots for professions) to the elitist intellectual (what a cultivated young person must know, knowledge for its own sake, the delight in the life of the mind and to hell with real life), let’s just agree from the jump that whatever its motives, ideals, dreams, purposes, what the college does at best is to critically re-appraise and renew the cultural heritage, and what the college does at its worst is to merely study and perpetuate the idea of our cultural heritage—the idea, not what it is necessarily, but what we have traditionally believed it to be.
Two problems right there: number one, the culture examined is always and only the mainstream culture; number two, there is a huge gap between the idea of that culture and the actual culture. The mainstream American culture is riddled with too much duplicity (land of the free and home of the brave on the one hand— discrimination, injustice, lynchings on the other), too much illusion (the multiracial melting pot myth of the one hand—conflicting and often antagonistic racial, national, ethnic clusters on the other), too much political evasiveness to be merely studied. It is no longer possible for an instructor to merely ask the student to study names, dates, events, theories, laws without addressing himself to the contradictions, distortions, inconsistencies, and lies for any number of reasons which should be evident to anyone who’s been awake since World War II, the main one being—people just ain’t gonna go for it no more. The students at this college have already indicated that they are weary of being lied to, tired of playing games, damned if they’ll be indoctrinated, programmed, ripped off any longer.
It doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence or a host of analytical skills or any brand of expertise to see what is wrong with the City College curriculum. What is wrong with it is exactly what is wrong with other college curricula and what many student unions across the nation are attempting to cope with by setting up Experimental Colleges, Black Studies Centers or some other counter school that will offer the students a competitive ideology.
A brief glance at the bulletin will reveal that the English Department is still dipping out of the old Anglo-Saxon bag, the snobbism and racism which has its roots in the Jamestown Settlement and was nourished from generation to generation by Anglophiles like T. S. Eliot, for example, who were committed to the belief that the Anglo-Saxon tradition was superior to all and that its purity and sanctity needed to be protected by the most sturdy of America’s cultural-protectoral institutions—its universities. The infusion of one or two Black literature courses in their curricula does nothing at all to the deeply entrenched notion that Anglo-Saxon literature is The Literature—especially if those courses are taught by people like Ted Gross who handles the Negro Poetry courses on occasion and who will always be remembered for this remark he made in answer to a question on why Richard Wright wasn’t included in his great American authors course: “Well it’s not as if Wright were a major writer.” (You might take a look at the 1934 speeches Eliot gave at the University of Virginia to put this remark in proper perspective.)
Any student who has taken Art I, can tell you what is wrong with that “appreciation” course pretends to offer a survey of traditions that influenced Western culture. What are you being asked to appreciate and, based on emissions, what are you being told obliquely is not worth appreciating? A student in Music 5 (an alternative to Music I) asked his instructor why the African and Afro-American traditions were not taught since they obviously influenced American music and so much of modern music throughout the world? He was told, “We only consider serious music in this course.” I sometimes wonder, though we needn’t wonder too much, why music instructors never relax their stranglehold on the Baroque and Romantic and Classic periods long enough to take a look at American music. Obviously, it is too tainted.
You will note too if you examine American literature anthologies that there is a drafty gap in the chronicle occurring around the Civil War period, Reconstruction, Abolition. We know why. Any student who has taken the History I course, or at least had a gander at the text knows that the title World History has got to be changed to White Western History and that another course which will offer an ideology other than the White Western one be offered.
Where do we go from here? What happens to the student who is not satisfied with a surface discussion of democracy, socialism, et al, in a Political Science course but wants to examine the theories in vivo as it were—to the student who is all too aware that the “laws” learned in an Economics course do not operate in practice for they do not take into account greed, exploitation, racism, politicking, monolithic corporations, powerful families, or individual industrial thugs—to the student who wonders if the “free market” and “free enterprise” are not some easy rationale for actual inequalities in the real world—to the student who spends three weeks learning about the electoral college in some “objective” way and finally learns in 1968 that the quickest way to teach it would be to start with the observation that the electoral college is a machine to keep the power out of the hands of the people?
In short, what happens to the student who cannot or will not operate in the schizophrenic way a “good” student has been trained to, with real life on one hand and academic life on the other? Some leave. And in fact, a great many of our students have thrown up their hands. Some become sleepwalkers. Shorting out is one thing we have been traditionally conditioned to do. Some can juggle that schizy business and retain some semblance of honesty and sanity, but at great costs. Some blow up and others hope for and work for a viable alternative to the madness within these walls. It is to these latter groups that I address myself and am optimistic about doing so, for they are in large numbers, and beginning to get organized, and are currently infecting others with their health.
The drift toward mass education was just that—a drifting. It grew out of some sloppily defined egoistic devotion to the myth of democracy. It was not a planned experiment, nothing programmatic about it at all; consequently, the move toward mass education was accompanied by many unexpected and unprecedented problems. No one knew when, how, why, or in what way the universities would have to shift their focus to accommodate a mass studentry, how the traditional approaches and traditional material would prove invalid once the new students came in, or how the traditional premises might be challenged when the doors opened and in flocked people who were not part of the aristocratic classes and could not afford to regard the classics, logarithms, the minuet as a time education.
The immigrants, the workers, the CI’s came in with a wide range of skills, needs, ambitions, demands. And, judging by the state of health of the existing curriculum, they played havoc with the traditional education, but not enough for our purposes. Some cloistered academician in the past could very nicely teach Latin; tradition would carry him. But later, with the influx of non-upper- class, non-Anglo stock students, that professor would probably spend the majority of his energies convincing one student that Latin would be useful to his scientific pursuits; another that Latin would aid in the study of Romance languages; another that Latin could be useful in English vocabulary; and still others that the study of Latin, the study of anything, was valued to the enjoyment of the life of the mind. In short, he would have to package and market his project. With the influx of post-World War II people, students who had been in the habit of reading newspapers, of being in touch with the world through TV, who had had fathers in the labor movement, the civil liberties and civil rights struggles, who themselves had participated in historic events, further breaks in the tradition occurred. Enter the hippie, the yippie, the radical, the militant, the underclassed, the overlooked, and further fissures in the surface appear. And I should think at this late date that it should be clear to all of us here, as it is certainly clear to our brothers and sisters at San Francisco State, at UCLA, and elsewhere, that fissures or breaks are not enough. To obtain a relevant, real education, we shall have to either topple the university or set up our own.
A Center for Black and Hispanic Studies
Offering each other a good education is a gargantuan task. There are not enough good texts available. Much of our tradition has lain dormant because our books of the past are out of print (keep in mind that unless the colleges use a text, that text rapidly goes out of print). We have never had a network of communication that would enable us to keep track of or even be enough aware of our own specialists. Funds are not easily gotten for projects such as the one we have been proposing these last few months. We are not even sufficiently in touch with those centers which our brothers and sisters on other campuses have established to be able to avoid their pitfalls. We will be slowed down by charges of “segregationists” and by the usual red tape nightmares that are peculiar to large bureaus. Few of us have been willing to do our homework, really map out the areas that need to be covered and consider priorities, which course to offer first.
What remains is work from you, students. It will do none of us any good if the Center is run by faculty, if curriculum is designed wholly by faculty, if staff is hired merely by faculty. Students need to begin immediately to rethink all that they have been saying these past few years about a Black University.
If we all agree that the Center will be an organic part of the college, and that its courses will be accredited and funded by the College, but that the Center will be controlled by Black and Latin students and faculty who will have the power to hire using their own standards, and to design courses considering their own needs—then we will be ready to ask the Chancellor of the City University to shift monies to our Center and that an all-day conference be set up to which department heads and curriculum people come to hear what we, students and faculty, have decided. In order of importance, the Center would be a course-offering agency, a research agency, a buttress, a skills bank, a conference center.
Many of our students say that they cannot always voice their objections to a given course but simply feel that something is not quite right. Many of our students have postponed History I, for example, until they have filled in the gaps in their knowledge of their own history. The Center could provide the student at various stages of his college career with courses, workshops, seminars, or one-to-one relationships to help him anticipate the omissions or biases in any given course so that the student can with confidence move into these courses and get something valuable out of them. He would then be able to articulate those suggestions from the gut that something very bad is going down, could offer counter theories, and suggest additions to the book-lists.
I’ve been told that the reason our students do not do well in many courses is that they have deficient skills or flabby motivation. I find that analysis too simplistic. The designers of the SEEK program were too simplistic too, focusing on the weaknesses as problematic, but never realizing that our students’ strengths are problems too—honesty being a strength, the desire for a real education being a strength, the knowledge that there are gauges other than the mainstream ones by which to measure one’s sense of worth being a strength, the awareness that you are being taken off in those courses being a strength—they are problems because they interfere with the smooth transition from Pre-Bac status to matriculated status.
It would be necessary then, that older students and teachers know a great deal about texts, the instructors, and the syllabi of the required courses and be ready to teach the younger student. So that a student should be able to, for example, get something worthwhile out of History I, either a third year student would design a course for him, or the Center would simply provide an alternative course.
I think, too, that a knowledge of and an appreciation of one’s roots, frees the student to then appreciate whatever else is available. Are there not huge numbers of students who reject Shakespeare, Joyce, James, outright—in fact, get quite nasty in class—simply because they can’t afford to like Shakespeare, Joyce, James; cannot afford to respect, appreciate anything white or western; feel threatened, absorbed, gobbled up? We get turned around like that sometimes. “Root Appreciation” courses, it seems to me are the answer. Is it not true that the state when the African nations began to borrow, adopt, adapt European politics, economics, etc.—that stage was precluded by a period of intense cultural revival, a re-embracing of Africanness?
A Research Agency
It’s pretty clear that the elementary, secondary, and senior schools that have begun to include Black culture into the regular curriculum are at a loss for guidelines on the use of whatever material they have on hand. In addition to continuing the much neglected work of compiling comprehensive bibliographies, the Center must also begin to get some of our books back into print by recommending that colleges include them on their booklists, and the Center must take on the responsibility of designing material for the teachers in the grammar schools, high schools and colleges. And too, the Center should provide guidelines as to how the material can be best handled. The Center, once it has staffed itself with specialists, and has undertaken a thorough going appraisal of courses offered by the college or proposed by curriculum committees, would recommend texts, tapes, movies, students, instructors, other specialists that could guarantee that the course would not perpetuate the madness we are now objecting to and attempting to extricate ourselves from.
Assuming we all agree that the credentials mania on the part of the universities and the elitist disease in our own society have killed off or at least excluded many of our experts, the Center could perhaps move us away from the sterile tradition of hiring in terms of paper feats. The Center would tap the resources in our community and use as instructors those grandmothers, those on the corner hardheads, those students, those instructors, whoever happens to have the knowledge and expertise we desire, regardless of the number of or absence of degrees, publications, titles, honors.
We have already in our student body and on our staff at the College and in SEEK people, who know how to teach instruments, dance, lay out magazines, operate radio stations or restaurants, dismantle cars, take over TV stations, read newspapers for slant, handle landlords and cops, organize committees, set up conferences. The Center could begin then, to set up a network of communications so that one person desiring to set up a course in Caribbean cookery, let’s say, could be put in touch with chefs, caterers, linguists, anthropologists, etc.
Course Offering Agency
It is as a course-offering agency that the Center would lead ultimately to the Black University. Let me say from the get-to that the courses that appear on this page are not courses that necessarily will be or should be offered. They are, simply, what I am thinking of at the moment. The job of setting up a curriculum, of establishing priorities, of putting into operation what is necessary for our students in general or for the student who wishes in particular to major in a black area—that job has got to be done cooperatively, with the major work on your shoulders, the thrust and demand coming from you. All that any of us who are in the process of thinking, writing, designing, can offer is what we see at the moment to be important. I only wish that we all realize that the most important and immediate business at hand on this campus is the establishment of the Center for Black and Hispanic Studies.
Work To Be Done Immediately
In addition to those tasks mentioned above, those of you who are convinced that the Center is important, that we move toward it in an organized, cold-blooded, clear headed, uncompromising fashion, should now begin to plot out the following:
- What is wrong specifically with the required courses? with the texts used? How could that course be corrected? What would a counter course look like?
- How many students on campus with a desire for this Center are still not in touch with the Onyx Society’s Education Committee, the DuBois Club’s Education Committee, the SEEK faculty and staff and student group that have been meeting occasionally to discuss this center? Organize them and get to work.
- A CCNY Black Student and Latin Student Union must be formed and must merge with the citywide Black Student Union.
- To prevent thorough dissipation of energies from spreading yourself too thin—turn whatever club, organization, committee, workshop, extra-curricular activity you belong to into a Black and Latin Studies Center group. Start where you are, with whomever you’re with at present.
Some Possible Courses...
American Justice and the Afro-American
A cold hard look at how the American judicial system has aided in the enslavement of our people. Survey course should definitely move at least to the current relationship between the courts and Black Liberation groups. Instructors should include Earl Anthony, whose text on the Panthers should appear next Fall; Conrad Lynn, a lawyer who has been active in the Movement; Len Holt, also; perhaps lawyers form the Vera Foundation and form the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; some militants who have been at the receiving end of American ‘justice.’ Texts might include Herbert Aptheker and C. L. R. James and Huey Newton papers.
An examination of the philosophy, the architects (Senghor, Diop, Cesaire) the disseminators (Satre, Toure), Afro-Americans (Hughes, etc.), critics (Baldwin), other practitioners (Caribbean, South America), the movement and its current impact on the current renaissance all over the world where Black people reside. Instructors should include Addison Gayle and Dr. Wilfred Cartey.
An historical account of how the African staples introduced in slave areas (U.S., South America, Caribbean, etc.), helped stabilize the economy and the diet of those areas. An examination of soul food of Black and Latin people from a nutritional, geographical, historical cultural point of view. A look at the Zen regime. Fieldwork in restaurants around the city and in other areas. Instructors should definitely include Verta Smart Grosvenor (author of “Cooking by Vibrations or the Travels of a Geechee Girl”), some cooks from soul restaurants, some grandmothers, some dieticians from southern and urban hospitals.
Trends in Western Thought
A three-pronged investigation of existentialism which focuses on man’s reliance on his self, naturalism, which stress man’s dependency on the forces within his environment, and rationalism which decreed that man needs no other equipment than a firm resolution and faith in the rational faculties. The tradition of Western arrogance which needs a thorough examination, I should think, could best be understood I think by handling the three together and tracing the roots of the Great Conceit from Aristotle’s “Ethics” up through Descartes, Pascal, Comte, Bacon, etc., for the development of reliance on scientific knowledge, which depends on a vision of the world from which accident, chance, magic, God, evil, error, love, weakness, dependency, was excluded. Man—equipped with the resolution that human reason guaranteed all-proceeded to operate or at least taught others to operate as though they were scientists who can control their world under good lab conditions—isolating, insulating, manipulation— and demonstrate damn near everything by reason. Of course anything outside this ‘lab’ was superstition, magic, barbarism, uncivilized. This trend in Western philosophy seems to be symptomatic of the mentality that produced great rationales for racialist convictions and imperialist adventures.
Psychology and Blacks
How much paranoia is health and sanity for Black people might be a way to start. Texts might include the recent “Black Rage” and the classic “Mark of Oppression.” Course should examine the traditional classifications and check their (ir)relevance to us. Instructors should include Betty Rawls.
Eastern Ethics Through Literature
An examination of early Jewish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese writing in an attempt to other pre-Western traditions that receive not nearly enough focus. Texts might include “Arabian Nights” and the early Persian collection from which many of the tales came, Book of Kings; Old Testament including the “Apocrypha” which presents the legends, laws, history, customs, prophesies which are explained in the Talmud—one of the Black rabbis from the New York area would be excellent here; the Koran, the doctrine of Mohammedanism; Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia” about the life and teachings of Buddha; the Sanskrit “Rig Veda” and Lafacadio Hearn’s “Japanese Lyrics.”
Probably a three semester course or a core for a B.R.A. degree. A comparative study of revolutions and colonial revolutions in historical texts and other literature. Texts might include works of the guerilla historians—Bernard Fall, Che Guevara, Regis DeBray; literary texts might include the empire novels of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Kipling, Cray, Paton, Gide, Celine; works of Achebe, Abrams, etc., Vietnamese Journal (poems and love letters).
A painless, effective, thoroughgoing way to move into our roots and hook up with Blacks in areas other than North America is through a root course which would be part workshop or studio dance, part lecture, part lecture-demonstration. For example—take one gesture that is often seen in Nigerian Haitian, Brazilian dance—the locked leg and the body pivoting around it; in workshop, the dance instructor would discuss the historical significance of the gestures being learned; the lecture course would provide the background missing in the lecture demonstration course. This course would examine the religious cults and sects of old and new Africa, the Caribbean, the south U.S., South America, etc. Instructors should include: Francee Covington, Sharon Dunn, (students); Sylvia Fort, Geoffrey Holder, Talley Beatty (dancers with anthro training); Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Instructors form the 125th Street Cultural Center, and Gus Dinizulu.