Friday, June 09, 2017

June 9, 2017--Freedom Summer

It's graduation season but though it's 2017 some of the official celebrations feel a bit like back to the future.

For example, at Harvard, Harvard, African American graduate students had their first separate ceremony with their own speaker.

Reading about this took me back to the past--my early years as an English instructor at Queens College, a selective unit of the City University University of New York. Thus, because of rampant inequalities and lingering segregation in New York's K-12 system, when I arrived in the early 60s, the student body was overwhelmingly white.

Two years later, I became deputy director of the SEEK Program, which was a pre-open admissions effort to foster the enrollment of minority students. It worked quite well. After a few years we had 500 or so mainly Black and Hispanic students and almost all of them excelled academically when, if needed, after some remedial work, we mainstreamed them into the "regular" course work and programs of the college.

Was everyone happy about this? Far from it. Some on the faculty were upset about what they perceived to be pressure to lower standards. In fact, in too many cases, mean-spirited faculty raised their expectations to help assure that SEEK students would fail. To contribute to a racially-motivated self-fulfilling prophesy. But, for the most part, rising to the occasion, many SEEK students did not feel at home on campus, sensing that they were not fully welcomed there or in the surrounding all-white neighborhood.

So, in the student cafeteria minority students arranged to sit at self-segregated tables. There were Black tables and Hispanic tables. I hated it, but understood.

In addition to understanding, there was an irony--Queens College was where civil rights worker Andrew Goodman was enrolled. With companions James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, a few years earlier, during the 1964 Freedom Summer, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, he and they were brutally murdered and buried in a shallow ditch.

During one English Department faculty meeting a memorial service for Andrew Goodman was underway right outside the building where we were gathered. They were remembering him while we argued about the way in which a new Medieval Literature course was to be described in the college catalog.

So, again, I understood the reasons for those separate tables.

But a separate graduation at Harvard? In 2017? Though I understand this as well it is not quite for the same reasons.

SEEK students at Queens College were not made to feel comfortable. Often quite the opposite. There was widespread resistance to their admission and attendance. Any number of faculty confronted me about how thanks to us the academic currency of the college was being debased. There were all-college faculty meetings at which some professors did not feel reluctant to speak out against the change in complexion of the Queens student body.

That was one reason there was a SEEK Program.

But at Harvard and other elite colleges where various forms of self-separation are being reintroduced, in a campus climate that includes an infusion of Black Lives Matter's agenda, minority students are saying, as one did recently to a New York Times reporter, "We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity, and yet we are here."

Here and yet not fully here. And not during their separate graduation ceremony.

Also not at Emory and Henry College where this spring they held their first "Inclusion and Diversity Year-End Ceremony." The University of Delaware held a "lavender" separate graduation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students; and at my old college, Columbia, where they held a "First-Generation Graduation" for students who were the first in their families to graduate from college.

I wonder if I would have been happy to attend. I suspect not. I was trying to "pass."

Passing no longer needs to be on too many agenda--and that's a good thing. But isn't that the point?

That with colleges and universities for at least four decades getting comfortable, seeing it advantageous to have a diverse student body, what we used to call campus "climate" has changed and there should thus be less not more need for separate tables much less graduations.

Harvard Black-Student Graduation Ceremony

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home