White Harvard Students Tutor At A Southern Negro College
WHILE Negroes were rioting in Newark last summer, much subtler racial tensions were disturbing the campus of Shaw University, a private Negro college in North Carolina.
The first sign that something was out of order came when Shaw students, returning to Raleigh for the six-week summer term, noticed a number of white faces on campus. Most of them assumed that the whites were enrolled for the summer--but discovered later, at an opening-day assembly, that the strangers were Harvard and Radcliffe students who would be tutoring them and living in the dormitories. The students were more startled than pleased.
You came down here from Harvard to look at us Negroes so you can go back and tell them how we eat and what we think of Stokely Carmichael. I'm not your guinea pig. What's Shaw paying you for? You should be paying us.
As tutors on a Negro campus, we had three roles: we were tutors; we were fellow college students; and we were whites. Initially, these roles appeared separable to us, but Shaw students constructed what they thought was an obvious connection: because we were white, we assumed we could be tutors at Shaw although at Harvard we were only students.
In the classroom, we were anxious to compensate for the fifteen years of dreary teaching most of the Shaw students had gotten. But we were well aware that simple drill was not going to achieve miracles; we toyed with shock techniques designed to persuade students that classroom thinking could be related to their experience. One of the first essays assigned asked students to answer the question, 'If God had not approved of drinking, why did he make alcohol?" The response varied from enthusiastic to sullen. Some tutees never showed up after the first meeting.
At one time of the game my mind was three years behind my body. I must have been a gas of a kid without a mind. Can you imagine the things I was trying to put together. A boys doll with a girls body. Writing poetry on the walls, wondering why black is look on as fear. Even in grade school. I was taught that black was the sign of badness. The little jokes the teacher use to tell us. About white and black objects. These things couldn't register in my mind, because I didn't have one.
In July we organized a series of what we hoped would be provocative events: a discussion of Black Power, a talk on the Negro family, a film documentary on the KKK, a movie on block-busting, and a mock trial of Cassius Clay. One of the tutors questioned whether the heavy emphasis on race was a good idea. The rest of us were convinced that, on an apathetic campus--and Shaw was apathetic -- any response was better than none.
Are you trying to tell us something? Are you trying to tell us we're black? Don't you think we ever get tired of hearing about the color of our skin?
The Shaw students didn't say much, but they watched us closely. According to the myth, the white man can't understand the Negro, but the Negro, through long observation, knows every wrinkle of the white man's mind. No one at Shaw last summer--students or tutors--completely understood the tensions that were building, but it was the Shaw students who first gave them expression.
They seized the opportunity at a discussion on Vietnam organized by the Harvard tutors. When the discussion opened, one of the campus leaders challenged our authority to organize the meeting. Other students picked up from there. In a matter of minutes the session turned into a grilling of the tutors.
You good white Harvard people come down to help us poor Southern Negroes--you come down here and take over--and you expect us to love you. We don't owe you anything--we didn't ask you to come. We don't want your help.
You're white. I'm black. I know I can't be white. Oh, baby, I've tried [laughter among Shaw students]. But I don't need you Harvard students to remind me what color I am.
WHAT were educational possibilities were psychological impossibilities. At bull-sessions among ourselves we had invariably discussed the chronic problem of Negro students--problems which we were trying to deal with in the classroom, but which were minor compared to the ones we were creating outside.
Our efforts to help students academically led us to assume a "we-know-what's-best-for-you" attitude -- an attitude implicit in the teacher's role. As college students, this was a presumptuous role to assume. Even more important was the fact that Shaw Negroes instinctively linked this attitude to the white man's role. Shaw students are used to being told what is best for them, but not, need-less to say, from white students their own age.
By the end of the grilling the picture was drawn dramatically: we saw the absurdity of cooperating with Shaw students to solve problems for which they held us indirectly responsible. We had no choice but to let the program become, if not entirely, at least partly a racial tug of war. As long as we were "cooperating" to help them, we were being paternalistic; only if we accepted the racial struggle could we come to terms.
But learning the lesson--being told that we had unwittingly adopted the habits of authority and paternalism--only complicated our relations with Shaw students. We found ourselves caught in a maze of psychological dilemmas created simply by our being there, by our having to interact with the students. Eager to drop our roles as White Liberals, we found it difficult not to be liberal and impossible not to be White.
How could we not participate in a racial contest? One of my tutees engaged me daily in a battle of wits. First she got me to acknowledge my guilt, as a white, for the American Negro's condition. When she had me where she wanted me, she accused me of showing pity for the Negro. She systematically blocked my efforts to assuage my guilt by refusing to let me be nice to her.
"I think you're a sensitive girl. You're too sensitive. I don't want you to feel sorry for me." I object weakly. She is patronizing me and I, because I want to please, allow her to: She has reversed the color roles and now I am the one who smiles and submits. She continues, oblivious: "You really don't know what it's like to be black. You. couldn't stand it. You couldn't stand it for a week." Now she has something I can't have because I'm the wrong color--the strength that comes from being Negro in America, the strength that means she doesn't need my sympathy. The game goes on, every afternoon during our German lessons, always concluded with her friendly but inscrutable smile "Don't you see that I'm manipulating you?"
No one was sure who was manipulating whom. "Every Negro American," writes James Baldwin, "risks having the gates of paranoia close on him." They closed on everyone at Shaw. Shaw Negroes felt agonizing doubts as to whether the affronts they were attributing to us were real or imaginary. I began to feel the same doubts.
If I assigned The Fire Next Time to a student, would he feel that I regarded him only as part of the Negro Problem? If, on the other hand, I avoided books dealing with race, would he feel that I was treating him like a psychological invalid, trying not to upset him? Or was the problem mine--was I being over-sensitive?
Still another level of complication was added to our relations with students by their own contradictory behavior. Our being there produced a psychic split in many of them: as Negroes, they hated us; as people, they wanted to like us.
One student who particularly sought out our company was a militant who told us he wanted to see Raleigh burn. "I feel hate," he told us, "I could kill a white man." A penetrating look, then a broad grin: "Not you, man!" He let us know he wasn't just being friendly to please us. His decision to be friendly (and it was his decision, not ours) was an act of generosity.
Why's everybody talking about hate? I don't hate anyone, I don't care if he's purple or green or what. We just have to understand each other. If white people just got to know black people, just sat down and talked with them, that's all you need.
Although we recognized that we were accomplishing little aside from producing dilemmas by our presence, there was no feasible way out. Several students suggested that we "pack our bags." That would have been too easily interpreted as a show of hostility and for most of us it would have been an impossible admission of failure.
We were, of course, doing a little in providing drill. Tedious afternoons working out chemistry problems, dictating passages in German, and diagramming sentences meant that a few tutees passed final exams who might have failed.
The word Christianity screams through the foggy room over the music phrases. What about it. Why Christianity It's nothing to it. I don't want to talk about Christianity. I'm sitting in my room with my red light on. There's heavy smokum in the air. A smell you only get on Saturday. Music by Mingus, Roach, Blakey, Morgan, Shorten, there notes dancing on the clouds of smokum that's riding through the air.
THERE was a reason for our being at Shaw that we didn't know at the time, a reason that had nothing to do with tutoring. If we had understood it earlier we might have understood Shaw.
Last January an article on Negro colleges by David Riesman and Christopher Jencks appeared in the Har-
"I feel hate," he told us. "I could KILL a white man." A penetrating look, then a broad grin. "Not you, man!"
"The program here is to produce white back Americans to live in a white society." vard Educational Review. The article condemned Negro colleges across the board as being "purveyors of super-American, ultra-bourgeois prejudices and aspirations," "academic disaster areas," and "fourth-rate institutions at the tail end of the academic procession."
Every Negro college in the country was stunned when the article came out--undoubtedly by a shock of recognition. For there is almost nothing in the article that does not ring true, however glibly stated. People at Shaw read it and saw drawn for them an excruciatingly accurate and humiliating picture of themselves.
Anxious about their authority, remembering how hard they worked for their degrees, and worried by how much they have forgotten or not kept up with (faculty members), require their students to memorize scraps of wisdom in much the same fashion as a bad high school, an old-fashioned Catholic college, or a provincial teachers' college does. (Riesman and Jencks)
Whether or not the Riesman article was the precipitating factor in our being invited to Shaw is unimportant. It does seem clear, however, that we were hired to prove that Shaw is doing something; that Shaw is not just another Negro college. Perhaps, too, it was hoped that the tutors would be favorably impressed with Shaw and that Shaw would thus be vindicated by a second set of Harvard eyes.
We were also hired, of course, to teach. But at the inception of the program, when the Harvard people were in Cambridge and the Shaw people were in Raleigh, the tutors were regarded only in their objective function. Only when we arrived on campus did we become racial threats. Only then came the nagging realization that there was something in it for us. Why had we wanted to come? Shaw people could conceive of only two reasons: either we were brought by neurotic missionary impulses or, worse, we came out of cold sociological curiosity.
Above all, the administration did not expect the tutors to be critical of what they have done and are doing. On paper, the Shaw record is impressive. Since James Cheek took over as President in 1964, big changes have been made. Only six months after he was installed, the new President had pulled Shaw out of the red. In three years he has raised faculty salaries 150 per cent. Last year things looked so good that Cheek launched a $14.5 million building program. By almost any standard, the figures are encouraging.
For better or worse, most private Negro colleges seem likely to survive. They will continue to recruit most of their students from all-Negro Southern high schools and to send a substantial proportion of their graduates back to teach in those high schools, unable to break out of the cycle of mis-education and deprivation. (Riesman and Jencks)
It would be wrong to conclude that Shaw is ignoring academic problems. Under Dean King Cheek, the President's brother, the old academic program has been scrapped. Cheek has introduced a non-graded system with a heavy emphasis on remedial work. Students now go through Shaw at their won rate, taking as long as six or seven years.
But if Shaw people hoped that the tutors would repudiate the Riesman article, our role was absurdly miscast. We were not impressed with how Shaw has improved -- we were over-whelmed by how damaging it still is.
The climate at Shaw is repressive. The campus policeman, known by students as "Deputy Dawg," is a powerful symbol. Students accuse him of "hunting for trouble." citing his nightly rout of couples from a popular tunnel that runs under a super-highway. A rigidly enforced curfew requires upperclassmen girls to be in the dorm by ten, and they must sign out whenever they leave the campus. A glance at the sign-out book on an ordinary day exposes trips to the laundromat, to the post-office, or to Woolworth's.
The rules are for our own protection. I know what's right for me, but there's a lot of girls at Shaw who don't. The girls who are doing something wrong are the ones who want the rules changed.
Deputy Dawg and the sign-out book are mostly symbolic. The deans of students are for real. Even the printed regulations, thorough as they are, do not reflect the extent of the deans' authority. Their jurisdiction reaches into the private life of every student; they prosecute everything from messy rooms to illicit sexual behavior.
Students are quick to impute vindictive motives to the deans. Frequently, however, discipline at Shaw seems to represent an honest effort to maintain Shaw's reputation in a largely Baptist community. Raleigh is a town where even the graffiti are pious--and Shaw cannot afford to make enemies.
Well, it's Saturday night again, and wild thoughts are flying through the air. The smokum is beginning to make the room look like a small London town on a cold winter night. The red light is on showing the past-future may be yours.
PUPLIC opinion is not the only explanation for the deans' hyperactivity. They want their students to dress modestly and attend church regularly. The dean of men, a Baptist lay preacher, chided Radcliffe tutors for wearing "shorty-short skirts." Unless his eyes were deceiving him, he told us, Shaw girls' hems had risen since we came. If anything, his tone was apologetic: he seemed only to be expanding on Southern Baptist morality in an attempt to outshine the white middle-class variety.
The emphasis on good conduct appears also to be an effort eliminate vestiges of Samboism in students. A students who is lazy, inefficient, untrustworthy, happy-go-lucky is not just a bad student--he is a disgrace, a symbol of Negro failure.
The dean of men took me aside. "We need structure," he said, looking at me hard. "You have got to have structure. You can't get anything done without structure."
My mind went back to a class in semantic analysis earlier that week. "How is an event more complex than a structure?" "An event is more complex than a structure because an event is composed of a structure changing in time. Structures are static and three-dimensional, whereas events are dynamic and four dimensional."
The teaching at Shaw is a peculiar combination of old-fashioned educational philosophy and experimental new methods. Miss Watson, the formidable head of the English department, stubbornly defends her course in transformational grammar (a type of semantic analysis used in computer science). The subject baffles other members of the department, and gives considerable trouble to students who cannot yet distinguish between adjectives and verbs. But no one graduates who has not passed the course. Many students are taking it the second and third time; the failure rate is high even for Shaw.
Yet Miss Watson is by far the most respected faculty member. Shaw students, who are used to her birch-rod style of teaching, admire this woman who, they say, "makes us work."
What is the fundamental principle of symbolic meaning? State this principle. What three symptoms have been given previously for this term? Why did the author use "matrix" instead of "context"? What is the difference between a "complete theoretical matrix" and a "practical matrix"? (from a textbook used at Shaw).
MRS. Yoksimovich, a white Dutch immigrant who teaches French and German, is worried by the number of students she has to fail at Shaw. She is a warm and good-natured woman, a mother out of a Norman Rockwell print. She and her husband, a Russian instructor at Shaw, live in a pleasant Raleigh suburb. "Raleigh is a very nice place to live," she told us as she drove us to her home. "Of course there are some bad sections, but I think it's very nice."
My father came upstair screaming, telling me to get out of the bed, and lets go. Go where I asked. Usual when he starts screaming I was in for a beating. But this time I didn't see a belt, so I was off in that department. I was dress and ready to go before he could say (my name). He had a speech dilemma. I ran downstairs, and asked Mom what's wrong with Pop. She only reply: What is right with him.
As Negroes, the students identified with the administration and indicted the tutors; as students, they identified with us--and complained about the administration. But although they encouraged us (as students) to criticize the administration, they resented us (as whites) when we did.
The administration was offended by the tutors in either role; we did nothing for them but raise the ghost of the Riesman article. We became inescapable reminders that not only was Shaw in most respects no exception among Negro colleges, but nobody on campus--not a dean or a stu-
We saw the absurdity of cooperating with Shaw students to solve-problems for which they held us indirectly responsible.