Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, associate dean of the Harvard Medical School, has resigned from the black advisory board of Who's Who in America because the publication scrapped plans to issue a separate volume on black Americans.
Without consulting the 22 advisory board members, Israel Sweet, president of Who's Who, told them in a letter that he was discontinuing the project because he feared it "would constitute a dramatic contribution to polarization in our society."
"To be on the advisory board and then not to have your advice asked for is a demeaning thing for us on the board," Poussaint said yesterday in a telephone interview. "That's what made me especially furious."
Calling Sweet's explanation for the decision "nonsense," Poussaint said, "You see again he is speaking from his very narrow white perspective. Why would a "Black Who's Who" increase polarization in society? Is black studies increasing polarization in society?"
"All the people on the board thought [the book] was a good idea, and everyone originally asked to be on the board agreed to serve on it," Poussaint continued. "I don't know any black person who thought it was a bad idea."
Other members of the board include Sen. Edward Brooke (D-Mass.), Julian Bond and Nancy Wilson.
In his letter, Sweet invited the advisors to stay on to help compile sketches on blacks for the main publication.
Rejecting the offer, Poussaint said, "If he didn't care about what we were thinking, I didn't want to be associated with his publication at all."
Poussaint agreed to join the board when it was created over a year ago. "We have no quick resource information for locating prominent blacks in different fields," he said. "If we had a specific book especially concerned with involvement of blacks and who's doing what, it would be an important source book for blacks and whites as well."
"If you're looking for a black person, there's no way to find one in the present Who's Who because the entries do not mention race," he said.
While the main publication uses newspaper references and similar indicators of public interest to determine an individual's prominence, Poussaint suggested that other criteria would be needed to compile a Black Who's Who.
Several thousand questionnaires had already been mailed to black Americans when Sweet announced his decision. The remaining members of the board, Sweet said, would examine these information sheets to find possible entries for the main publication.
About 2500 of the 66,000 names in the current edition of Who's Who in America are of blacks.
Still eager to see a black biographical dictionary, Poussaint said several people have approached him with plans to publish such a volume. Nothing has yet been decided, he said.