Teaching Innovations

Race beyond Reason

Cynthia Fleming, September 1993

At the very beginning of his discussion Professor Nobile poses the question: "Are whites able to teach African American history?" He logically concludes that "I know of no rational argument that proves that they are not" [emphasis added]. Herein lies the very basis of the dilemma confronting Professor Nobile. It goes far beyond pedagogical considerations and curriculum questions: it rests squarely on the single issue of race. And, regardless of the circumstances, race has never been rational in American society.

In the late 1960s scores of young African Americans attending predominantly white colleges and universities all over the nation began demanding courses that were "relevant" to their experience. In response to tenacious black agitation, white college and university administrators added various courses on the African American experience. One of the most popular of those courses on the African American experience. One of the most popular of those courses among the small numbers of black students attending white schools was African American (black in those days) history. The administrators who approved the addition of this "new" history to their curriculum knew little about these black students on their campuses, and even less about their history. After all, this black student presence on campus was a new experience for many of these schools. The perspectives and experiences of the black students were so different; and they seemed to be so angry all the time. Many white members of the university community found this presence puzzling, and sometimes troubling. So, when these black newcomers had the temerity to demand courses that were relevant to their lives, many white administrators acquiesced with alacrity.

Clearly, white approval of African American history and other related courses was part of the search for ways to cope with this new and troubling black presence on campus. Many hoped black students would see the university's willingness to provide courses in their history as proof of white sincerity and sensitivity. In short, they hoped the inclusion of black history in the curriculum would make black students feel at home. Sadly, such an expectation for African American history took it out of the realm of the scholarly. Many white members of the university community would always see this kind of history as a service for black students rather than as a legitimate field of study. As white students, faculty, and administrators discussed and debated the wisdom of including African American history in their school's curriculum, black students were formulating their own ideas. They saw the addition of their history to the curriculum as a significant victory. After all, many reasoned, it was their agitation that had forced administrators to make this change. Consequently, many believed that African American history was their course. They had a hand in its creation, and it was all about the history of their people. This was one of the few parts of their campus experience that did not make these black students feel isolated and unwanted.

This thicket of black and white expectations and emotions surrounding African American history generated an atmosphere that set it apart from other courses. Now, more than twenty years have passed since these early battles over the inclusion of African American history in the curriculum. Yet, in some ways, little has changed in the intervening years. Many campuses are still plagued by racial unrest; and African American history remains mired in political considerations. In such an atmosphere black student insistence on black professors for African American history courses in understandable. Many of these students still see an African American history class as one of the few places on campus where they feel welcome and included. Consequently, many would see a white professor in such a setting as an unwanted intrusion and a painful reminder of the hostile white campus that surrounds them. At the same time, some white faculty and administrators persist in judging African American history as a course that is valuable because of its political importance—not its intellectual impact. Such an attitude creates the kind of atmosphere that reinforces the growing black student certainty that their history is indeed a separate black enterprise.

Such views of African American history are quite frustrating for those of us who see it as a field worthy of legitimate scholarly inquiry. Along with black historians, there are others who have now begun to recognize the importance of this "other" kind of history to the formation of a comprehensive view that more accurately reflects the American experience. Scholars like Professor Nobile are drawn from the ranks of these people who are attempting to look beyond the ghettoization of African American history. But, regardless of their views, such white scholars are directly affected by the well-established tradition of separate treatment accorded to African American history. Such treatment has sometimes resulted in attempts to ignore of even subvert its scholarly legitimacy. The cumulative effect of such attempts has been the creation of a vision of African American history as a separate and substandard shadow of the real thing. The persistence of this vision of separatism, whether it is in the minds of black students or white administrators, is now coming back to haunt Professor Nobile, and ultimately to haunt us all.

—Cynthia Fleming is an associate professor of African American studies at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.