Teaching Innovations

White Professors, Black History: Forays into the Multicultural Classroom

Vince Nobile, September 1993

Editor's Note: This month's Teaching Innovations column addresses an issue of wide significance for teachers in the history profession: teaching across the lines of ethnicity. Vince Nobile, a white professor who has taught African American history, writes about his experience in one model case. In the hope of stimulating further discussion, we offer five responses to Dr. Nobile's essay. Respondents include William Chester Jordan (Princeton Univ.), Leon F. Litwack (Univ. of California, Berkeley), Brenda Stevenson (UCLA), Cynthia Griggs Fleming (Univ. of Tennessee-Knoxville), and Molefi Kete Asante (Temple Univ.).

Are whites able to teach African American history? I know of no rational argument that proves that they are not. In fact, to make such an argument guts a vital part of our discipline: vicarious knowledge of the past. If whites are unable to teach African American history, they should not be able to teach the history of Latinos or Asian Americans, among others; then it would follow that a non-veteran is unable to teach war, an African American is unable to teach African history, a gentile is unable to teach the Holocaust, and so on. To be sure, individuals of a particular race, class, gender, or experiential background might offer special insights—the perspective of the oppressed, perhaps—or have an intuitive feel for the material, but there is very little else that is theoretically beyond the reach of the committed scholar. No, the notion that we must have some certified or symbolic membership card for the fields we teach is itself anti-history and need not detain us.

There is, however, a more delicate question: in this age of multiculturalism, should whites teach African American history? Is doing so "politically correct"? (Not only is there no consensus on this matter, I am not sure it has yet to be raised in a public forum.) As a white who has taught the subject at both the two- and four-year college level over the last ten years, I would answer, yes; however, doing so is also becoming difficult, frustrating, and, depending on the institution, ill-advised. In my personal case, I am taking an indeterminate hiatus, but not before having acquired an appreciation for the demands and dilemmas associated with the subject. This paper is an effort to give voice to these concerns, knowing full well they might apply only to myself, though I doubt it. The intention here, then, is to illuminate problem areas, not produce fast truths.

African American history seems a logical teaching field for me. My area of specialization was post-World War II U.S. history, the Vietnam war, and the Sixties. Among the dominant themes of the period were African American liberation via the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. The latter was no back-of-the-bus American history as I had learned it. Names like Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, and Watts tolled through my studies with as much authority as Vicksburg, Antietam, and Appomattox. Knowledge of all these momentous events required sojourns back to their antecedents in the African slave trade. When I began teaching in the early 1980s, African American history was in my area and I taught it gladly.

The early years, not surprisingly (especially in retrospect), were different from the last few. From 1982 to 1986 multiculturalism was not yet a household word. Political correctness, though not yet minted was the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure from the right to teach more "patriotic" U.S. history.

The ensemble of problems associated with teaching African American history in such a climate was unique to that period. First, enrollments were small and students tended to be conservative. More importantly, students had no discernible world view to be validated or challenged. Instead, they had fragmented ideologies: intuitively critical of racism in U.S. society, but intellectually conformist and assimilationist.

I conceptualized my role as follows: African Americans taking the class would be taught the history deprived them through the generations. Whites taking the class (about thirty percent then) would be taught a history they too had often been deprived: the history of American freedom, bought by American, as Edmund Morgan so aptly described. I sought to create a balanced view of U.S. history, not necessarily to present one, since it was obvious these students had scant exposure to the role slavery played in the development of the country. As a result the classroom environment was subdued, with minimal race tension and a healthy student distrust of my scholar/activist approach. In other words, communication was possible through expanding student horizons was problematic.

Assigned texts during these year's ranged from John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans to Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, Edmund Morgan's American Slaver, American Freedom, and Vincent Harding's There Is A River. Never were any of the readings challenged for being authored by whites. Never were African American authors like Franklin or Harding criticized as "oreos".

Perhaps I was naive, but the years did not record perplexities that I attributed to my being white. I would confront the race issue during the first meeting. "You are all probably wondering what a white guy is doing teaching African American history?" Then I would pass out John Donne's poem about how "every man is a peece [sic] of the Continent, a part of the maine," and how "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde." With this as an introduction, we would discuss the students' reactions, along with their motivations, as well as mine, for being involved in the class. It was my impression that, once confronted, the issue of my race faded and we got on with learning African American history from the African slave trade to the present (a two-course sequence). The student carry-over from course to course was not negligible.

The major frustrations of the early-to-middle 1980s involved occasional course cancellations due to poor enrollment. The surrounding community from which area campuses drew their students (south-western San Bernardino County, California) was predominantly white. These demographics were reflected on the campuses and account for the low-interest level in ethnic studies and the less-than-confrontational mood of the students. Although the African American sequence usually drew sufficient numbers, these were anemic years for electives overall. Classes attracted anywhere from seventeen (minimum) to thirty. Students' commitment to the material was minimal and drop rates were above average.

Student/teacher differences that did surface revolved around my own left-leaning perceptions and the relative conservatism of those enrolled. Still in the throes of the Reagan zeitgeist, black students seemed to want to emphasize gains made, as opposed to conditions still in need of attention. While there was an appreciation for the Nat Turners, David Walkers, and Malcolm Xs as necessary predecessors, my students seemed most interested in taking advantage of the economic opportunities (real and imagined) made possible by previous political action. In a related way, students seemed most interested in individuals who achieved in the face of adversity, and less in collective resistance or rebellion. Activist history, while a curiosity, was secondary to achievement for the majority of my students. As an activist myself, I was frustrated by my students, and they—with a touch of irony that I doubt they appreciated—found me "out of touch."

By the mid-1980s ethnic studies in general began to wane. Class offerings were administratively discouraged for not drawing the magic numbers, so teaching loads shifted to the bread-and-butter survey courses with only occasional electives. I was told, in so many words, the market demand was down; so why offer African American history? As a result, the interim period saw little institutional commitment to minority student needs. Then, in 1990, prompted by the influx of more minority students into the area, the related rise in sensitivity to multiculturalism and a revival of interest in ethnic studies, I was asked to offer African American history again. My approach was essentially the same; this time, however, the administration committed itself to support the offerings regardless of class size. Moreover, much of the helium had seeped from the party balloons of Reaganomics.

Student enrollments exceeded all expectations, but my reception was wintry, to say the least. The race and ethnic mix was approximately eighty-five percent African American, five percent Hispanic and ten percent white—much different than in previous years. The door had not closed on the first day of class when a bright, vocal, African American challenged my race credentials: "Why would this college have a white teaching African American history?" The explanatory sword of John Donne's word words was knocked quickly from my hand. I tried the Joan Rivers approach: "Can we talk?" The answer was, not easily.

Another student then criticized one of my texts, American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan. Other students wanted to know how the book fulfilled their desire to learn about their African roots? How appropriate was the book since it discussed slavery, not from the slaves' point of view, but from that of an evolving Euro-American society? I took all these queries to mean: was Morgan, or I for that matter, "politically correct"?

I defended my choice of American Slavery, American Freedom by suggesting that it answered fundamental questions about the origins of slavery in America: why slavery was as much a class consideration as it was racial, and why slavery in America was racial. More importantly, I argued, Morgan showed how the development of American slavery did not just coincide with the development of American freedom, but was, ironically, an integral part of the process. Finally, since the Morgan reading was accompanied by Vincent Harding's There Is A River, students could observe how the class decisions of certain white American colonists intimately affected the lives of Africans. My defense rested and the students turned to other matters, but I could tell their skepticism remained.

The next class meeting saw an escalations of tensions. I insisted on airing feelings before encountering any material, urging students to mount their best arguments against whites teaching the course. Some fired away: "You're white, you assign white authors who, by definition, can offer only the white point of view" (I'm paraphrasing). When asked about the Harding book, the response, as I recall, was that he was an integrationist, an "oreo." In addition, I discerned a world view informing student criticisms. It was Afrocentricity, of the variety that claims everyone from Jesus and the Madonna to Beethoven was black. Egypt was the center of all civilizations, according to this ideology; it not only had science and mathematics, but had originated them. Jews, according to this perspective, were the masterminds behind the slave trade.

I granted, for the sake of class discussion, all the Afrocentrists' claims, and then asked, "Why is this information theoretically unknowable or unteachable for whites?" Most students saw the implications of the questions (i.e., there is nothing theoretically unknowable or unteachable about Afrocentricity for whites), but few seemed willing to engage in that level of discourse. Instead, students hinted that whites would inherently try to cover for their race. The discussion reached a chilly impasse, and at that moment I was not sure I understood what lay at the root of these students' acrimonious attitudes.

Certainly these pamphlet-Afrocentrists were, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said in another context, "nibbling at the edges of stale ideas." They reminded me of my undergraduate years when I came to class armed with pamphlet-Marxism, gleaned from booklets purchased in radical bookstores for a quarter. The intellectual exchanges of those days helped refine my level of theoretical awareness, so I remained optimistic I could perform the same service for my students. After all, here were undergraduate students who had read an entire assigned text before the first class meeting and had critically assessed it. Here were students who had a world view (albeit in some disarray, by my reckoning) they wished validated or at least tested. Tensions were high but so was energy. True, there were only about five percent who displayed such confrontational behavior; but five percent could carry a class and energize more complacent students. I rolled up my sleeves and hoped a good start had been made.

Unfortunately, there I remained stuck for the next two years, unable to establish the links of communication necessary for effective teaching. Class periods would go by with relative calm, awaiting an incident that would spark another prairie fire. What follows is a typical representation: during a section of U.S. slavery (a subject the black students were none too pleased with, anyway), I examined Eugene Genovese's hypothesis that the master/slave relationship in the U.S. was characterized by coercion, dependency and affection. The class read a number of slave narratives and were asked to write a short paper to substantiate or invalidate Genovese's view. During the next class period the assignment was severely criticized for even insinuating that slaves had affection for masters. Those narratives that spoke of affection (e.g., on by Mary Reynolds) were called fabrications by some of the students, and I was accused of being manipulative. One of the brightest students I've had in the last ten years of teaching was so angered by the assignment he packed his books and walked out, never to be seen again.

The above scenario repeated itself on numerous occasions during that class and other African American history classed I've taught up to the time of this writing. The incendiary devices might have been different, but the results were the same. I was never even able to convince these students that slavery was a valid subject of inquiry, never able to convince them that there was collective heroism in preserving one's humanity in the face of an inhuman institution.

Not coincidentally, classroom break-downs affected not only the African American students and me, but the whites and Hispanics as well. Non-blacks complained that the class was too much confrontation over race and too little history. Some threatened to drop the class. If not for the help of my colleagues who encouraged them to stay, they too would have dropped. To my embarrassment, some class encounters would find me simultaneously attacked by Afrocentrists, defended by whites—with the rest looking on in bewilderment. Other black students would leave notes in my box, informing me that my views were rejected primarily because of my race. So, my teaching remained an awkward and unfulfilling foray into classroom multiculturalism.

I did make one attempt to overcome the objections to my race. A black colleague in the English department generously offered to teach her English composition course in conjunction with my African American history class. Students enrolled simultaneously in both classes. Writing assignments were coordinated and graded by my colleague for composition. I graded the historical content. This teaching across the curriculum was the one promising experience over the last two years. My colleague's willingness to teach English in conjunction with African American history seemed to give me more credibility. Her experience was, likewise, a pleasant one. At least some of the acrimony in my class subsided. Unfortunately, schedule coordination made the approach untenable on a continuous basis. (If I found myself teaching these courses again, I would try hard to replicate the black/white team approach.) By the next quarter, however, I was on my own and back in the trenches.

I must add, here, that with all the turmoil and tension, students never once in the last two years sought to have me removed, never organized a boycott of my classes, never pressured the administration other than to informally request that an African American teach the courses, never baited me in the school newspaper like the "thought police" depicted in Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. These were classroom confrontations between students and professor. While the incidents have made me rethink my decision to teach African American history, I do not see myself as a victim of political correctness or the "thought police" and I do not wish to be seen as such.

Were the Afrocentrist students to blame? A tough question. On the one hand, their version of Afrocentrism struck me as stale and self-referential. They defended Leonard Jeffries melanin hypothesis, and they refused to consider that it might be racist. They used the well-worn and highly selective defense that one cannot be racist without the institutional power to impose biases. I found these views objectionable, and momentarily, I blamed students for making my job nearly impossible. Upon further reflection, however, I perceived a more subtle dynamic at play. These were students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, full of energy, seeking answers that might contribute to turning their communities around. Their ideas might be objectionable, but their motivations were genuine. It was my job to educate them, and the others, regardless of the views they carried to class.

Ultimately, however, I could not reach them. But not because their ideology was impenetrable or my grasp of the issues was deficient. I failed largely because I was not trusted, and herein lies the dilemma for whites teaching African American history in this age of multiculturalism: without trust there can be no communication, and without communication there can be no effective teaching.

What created the distrust on my campus? The answer is mere speculation on my part, but I suspect it stems from administrative neglect of ethnic students' needs during the mid-to-late 1980s. When budgetary concerns took priority over these needs, and when such students were a small percentage of the student body, relevant class offerings were the first to be cut. When administrative decisions were made after increased ethnic student enrollments, they were made unilaterally and not through consultation with existing student or faculty organizations (i.e., on my campus we have a rainbow of ethnic student organizations as well as a Faculty of Color organization).

That kind of behavior sends clear messages: the institution's commitment to multicultural education is contingent primarily upon the least important factors. Ethnic students and faculty are not seen as part of the decisionmaking loop, and in the case of African American history, it's still a back-of-the-bus part of the curriculum. Such messages become embedded into the character of the campus and into the expectations of its students. In such an environment white teachers, regardless of sincerity and intent, appear as representative of institutional racism. In short, white faculty teaching any ethnic history face a situation where the content of their courses is overwhelmed by the institutional context in which their courses are taught. White professors committed to racial justice in the United States might better serve that cause by pressuring administrators to create an institutional climate of trust. Perhaps then our forays into the multicultural classroom will begin to be met with a level of tolerance conducive to quality history.

Until then, however, our discipline faces a serious internal dilemma. Black students will continue to demand African American professors for African American history. Administrators, interested only in clearing their desks of problems and avoiding charges of racism, will most likely continue to comply with the demand when possible. African American PhDs will continue to fill what will effectively become segregated slots, leaving other fields deprived of their perspectives and talents. Then, will black historians of African American history no longer be thought of as U.S. historians? (Is John Hope Franklin a U.S. Constitutional historian or a historian of African Americans? Professor Franklin has recently raised just this question.) Will the same fate await Latino, Asian, or women historians? Will not our discipline face another, perhaps more serious dilemma, when we realize there are no reserves of black scholars to teach Asian or European history when the need arises? Are we not courting the possibility of creating a compartmentalized, de facto segregated discipline that pigeon-holes talent into separate race, gender, and ethnic subject matter? Such a prospect will not be beneficial to any of us.

—Vince Nobile received his PhD in history from the University of California, Irvine, in 1987. He is an associate professor at Chaffey College in California where he has taught for the past ten years. His publication area has been focused on the Vietnam generation and on Los Angeles car culture.