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On Black Students and Black Studies

By Caldwell Titcomb

BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS AND HIGHER EDUCATION. Published by the church Society for College Work, 2 Brewer St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. 75 cents a copy.

A GREAT DEAL is being published these days about the higher education of black Americans. Much of this is numbingly repetitious, and much is little more than noisy rhetoric. Thus it is especially heartening to come upon such a substantial contribution as the recently published booklet Black Consciousness and Higher Education.

The bulk of the contents consists of a transcript of a four-way discussion that took place in Atlanta last year. Two of the participants were black, Lawrence C. Howard and Vincent Harding; and two were white, Myron B. Bloy, Jr., and an education reporter whose identity is withheld owing to his publisher's policy.

Howard received a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard in 1956, was for some years a professor in the Politics Department at Brandeis University, later served as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps in the Philippines and as Director of the Institute of Human Relations at the University of Wisconsin, and is now Vice President of the Danforth foundation. The 38 year-old Dr. Harding is chairman of the History and Sociology Department at Spelman College; and the Rec. Bloy is Executive Director of the Church Society for College Work.

It is not often that one can eavesdrop on a totally fascinating four way conversation -- the ultimate in briliance being, I suppose, Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" --but this is one of the rare examples. Although all four discussants get in their licks, there is no denying that Howard and Harding provide the most sparks. It is a joy to observe these two acute minds engaging and bouncing off each other, now clashing and now agreeing. Many people today speak at each other and call it "dialogue." Here one sees Howard and Harding really listening to each other and thinking and reacting. The result more than once brings the reader to the edge of his seat, and forces him to become involved in the flow of thought.

Harding feels that "The black student's insistence on change is an intimation to American as a whole of what it can expect.... Students are now testing the mind of the university." Howard summarizes the demands of black students on white campuses and concludes, "These are demands for very little.... The black community, in its efforts to get into the white mainstream, has never asked for enough." Harding responds, "On black campuses the questions are more fundamental.... The demand is to change the university in every way, in every area. The demands of black students on southern campuses are closer to those made by white radicals on northern campuses." The SDS's relationship to black students is dealt with, as well as that of the hippie contingent.

Howard raises a few eyebrows by saying that "blacks, from a black context, can look back and see slavery as quite a magnificent institution. That institution brought out the internal stamina of a people corporately. Any group that could go through slavery demonstrates a tremendous survival power, a tremendous willingness to live, and a capacity to struggle..." Harding replies that "it takes a very special perspective to re-read and re-think and in many ways recreate the historical experience of slavery in order to rejoice in it. It's a little too easy in order to rejoice in it. It's a little too easy to celebrate a past that others went through at such a cost.... While we realize that slavery gave some people a love of freedom, it also gave many others a fear of white power. Slavery destroyed the spirit of many black people. You know, it was very ambiguous to have on Martin Luther King's tombstone the words 'Free at Last.' Is that what you have to go through as a black person to be free at last?"

There is considerable discussion of what should be a university's functions in relation to the inner cities and its problems--matters touched on at Harvard of late by the Wilson Report and by many of the students. Harding cites--in a fine phrase--the need on campus for "a rhythm of realism and romanticism." He believes that "if we are to remain in a world of college credits, students should be getting credits for going out and learning how people live. But this means we're talking about a new kind of education, for the insights of the ADC [Aid to Dependent Children] mother will blow the mind' of many of the little ladies we have teaching education now.

On this topic Howard lets forth quite a blast: "It is the university, as it is now constituted, that is the enemy of the people... because its preoccupation--talk--effectively maintains the status quo... because specialization in the university prevents the large--and radical--ideal from being explored ... [and] because it excludes all who cannot verbalize in narrowing abstraction." The anonymous Reporter concurs: "The university in our society is probably the most conservative of all our major institutions. It doesn't change and hasn't changed for centuries."

The discussants seem agreed in questioning whether "faculty people are up to the changes that are required." Howard asserts, "The tradition that professors preserve and transmit is likely to be an obstacle to understanding those who are victims of that tradition." Harding adds a remark that will warm the hearts of many of the most militant black students: "Some of the best teachers are people who have had other than just formal education experiences."

ATTENTION is given to the undesirable effect of integration in education, and to the steadily declining percentage of Negroes who are going on the college (although the percentage of black high-school graduates has increased faster than that of whites). In the long view, integration is seen as a good thing, when defined by Howard as "two elements that are different coming together, each making a contribution to a new whole that neither can individually achieve."

Bloy senses "a growing understanding that the way we train faculty needs to be changed." Harding adds, "I would hope we would attack the whole pattern of accreditation.... The task is to figure out a new par, to make black institutions the major innovators." The talk proceeds to a discussion of a new kind of experimental black university. Its program, as Howard outlines it, would be "a largely off-campus experience organically rooted in black culture," would have "a comparative perspective," and place special emphasis on Latin America, Africa, and Asia. "The experiences of the outsider, of the exploited and the marginal groups would be compared with the experiences of those who had and exercised power." Such an institution "would be heavily engaged in service."

(The reader may wish to compare this proposal with that for a new all-black college in California detailed by W. H. Ferry of the Center for Democratic Institutions. Ferry's rationale is printed in the recent March issue of The Center Magazine, followed by comments on the proposal from Robert M. Hutchins, Neil Jacoby, Stringfellow Barr, Harrop A. Freeman, and a black graduate student, John C. Barnes.)

An intriguing exchange follows Howard's statement that "it is possible for a white man to be a Negro," that there is "a basic need for whites to want to be blacks, to desire a black consciousness." Harding finds this "irrelevant" for blacks and probably not "a useful expenditure of energy" for whites.

"What about Negroes wanting to be white?" the Reporter interjects. "At this stage in history," Howard replies, "the direction for crossing the barrier must be from white to black in order to make possible free movement from black to white.... One of the reasons I'm interested in the establishment of strong black college is that I'm certain they will be irresistible to whites."

The talk moves to the problem of black students who refuse to be taught by white professors. Harding feels that "some black militants who are needed in the field of higher education just will not fit well into a mixed setting." But he concludes, "Ultimately we will have a far more healthy society if people are free to decide what they want to do about integration."

In addition to a not-too-optimistic Introduction provided by Howard, the booklet includes comments on the discussion by theology professor William J. Wolf; graduate student E. John Gwynn; and M.I.T. chaplain James S. Sessions, who surmises, "Perhaps the education that is required will not be allowed to take place within the formal structures of the University."

Furthermore, the booklet reprints, from last year's February Negro Digest, Hardin's article entiled "The Uses of the Afro-American Past." This essay, whose title pays homage to Herbert J. Muller's magnificent book, The Uses of the Past, is one of the finest Negro Digest has published.

Black students and others seriously concerned about them should read this booklet--and read it more than once. I cannot stop without recommending, too, Harding's "Open Letter to Black Students in the North," the lead piece in the second special university issue of Negro Digest (March 1969). This is an important communique, and one that Harding knows will infuriate many of the black militants who scream for new Afro-American studies departments to spring up fully-armed on northern campuses overnight like Athena from the head of Zeus. The issues Harding raises here will not be popular, but they are ones that must be realistically faced and dealt with by all involved. At any rate, for the next few years the American campus is going to be a most exciting field of battle--whether this will be more literal than figurative only time will tell

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