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Martin Kilson

Faculty Profile

By Grant M. Ujifusa.

Marty Kilson is a scholar who tries to swing softly, "to resonate, man." The gentle, yet persuasive, rhythm of Gov. 122b, his course covering African modernization, shows that he has succeeded. Naturally, as a "New Negro," Kilson is impassioned, knowing that answers to questions asked by his ancestors are now "blowing on the wind." But he sees passion as only part of his job; as a member of the academy, he must formulate the right questions and pin down specific answers. "The old horns of commitment and detachment set up no imposing dilemmas to the way I live or think. Being a Negro in the academic Establishment is sometimes difficult, but always invigorating."

Kilson grew up in a little factory town outside Philadelphia. "Ambler, P.A.," he recounts proudly, "was, in those days, the world's second largest producer of asbestos textiles. And since there weren't too many Negroes around, the town was pretty good to us." Kilson's father was a Methodist pastor who ministered to the Ambler Negro community, most of whom were "low-down folk." But the Rev. Mr. Kilson didn't mind. "He wasn't the kind who preached at 'em; instead, his church swung with 'em. And there's a difference, you know."

In 1949, young Kilson left Ambler for Lincoln University, a Negro school in southeast Pennsylvania. The mystique of "Negritude" provided the campus with a distinctive flavor, making middle class students face up to something which they had previously wanted to cut out of their lives-the Negro's history. "Of course, Negritude is a romantic notion," Kilson admits, "but from it you can learn that Negroes share a culture. This means that individual Negroes should care about each other."

But Kilson did not find all of Lincoln engaging. Writing for the college newspaper, he continually harassed the college fraternities. "They were trying to replicate the invidious distinctions made by white society; membership in the best frats meant being a 'light-skinned' Negro." After graduating in 1953, Kilson came to Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in government, and has been teaching here since.

Last winter, Kilson agreed to become one of the faculty sponsors of the Association of African and Afro-American Students. As its sponsor he opposed the adoption of the exclusive constitutional clause because he felt that only bickering and misunderstanding would come of it. University recognition was far more important for the purposes of the organization. "We never were racist in spirit, though there were some who wanted to go down fighting over retention of the clause. These people took it too seriously."

The real purposes of the AAAAS are twofold, according to Kilson. The new period of self-assertion is a radically new experience for most young Negroes; To give it meaning and order requires some form of initiation or ritualization. "I suppose we're looking for a new Negro identity, a psychological process, which has its roots in a broader Negro community. The Muslims ritualize, but nothing stands behind the ritual. It's a dead end."

Second, Kilson hopes "Negro particularism" will foster political, artistic, and literary expression within the Negro subculture. "The Negroes, like the Jews, want to say something and contribute to the American main-stream."

Ten year ago, Kilson says, organizations like the AAAAS were not possible. (There are similar clubs now at Chicago and U.C.L.A. Bright young Negroes then were preoccupied with mobility--individual mobility. Today, a greater feeling of fraternity exists. This does not preclude Negro individualism as some have argued and feared. "Community does not mean tribalism or complete absorption."

The "New Negro" also accounts for the attitude toward the "white liberal." "Naturally, the Negro wants to lay down the conditions and call the shots, something done for him by the white liberal in an earlier day. His friendship is not spurned but merely held in abeyance, giving us both time to think over what is going on inside and outside of us. We need a more adequate formulation of the problems we both face."

Kilson thinks that the "white liberal" is most obtrusive when he approaches the "Negro problem" with a prescribed political ideology, an ideology which emphasizes the rugged individual of liberal doctrine. "It's true that Negroes, like anyone else, prize individuality. But the thing the compulsive liberal can't understand is that we also like to swing together. You know, like we did in my good father's church back home."

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