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.

Recommended Articles