Friday, December 27, 2013

On being a white scholar writing about the African American experience

As I end my month as a guest blogger specifically asked to address the experience of writing Defining the Struggle, there is an issue, hard to discuss, that I think worth raising: that of being a white scholar writing about the African American experience. Of course a great deal of ink has been spilt on this topic before, and I don’t intend to revisit all of those debates; instead I thought I would write about the experience on a personal level.  

It can be awkward. At some archives I sensed unease with me. I understand the feeling that this is African American history to be discovered and told by African Americans, and I share that view to a large extent. I would not think, for example, that I should be vying to express the leading viewpoint on the hottest race-related topics of the day. At the same time, there is a lot of historical recovery work to do and not that many people doing it, and it seems to me okay for all those interested in such projects to pitch in.  

There is always the problem of using another group’s history for personal aggrandizement. Of course I do want to promote my work; I spent a dozen years on Defining the Struggle (mixed in with other projects), and who among us would not seek to get the word out about a big, newly completed project. At the same time I deeply feel that the point of Defining the Struggle is the story, the history, not the author. One publicist laughed at me when I said this and predicted I would change my tune soon enough. And she was right in a way. I certainly felt more determined to promote my work as I confronted the vicious competition of book publishing today. I soon discovered that publicists are incredibly expensive, and resolved to proceed without one, but I found it difficult to get the book attention. I was lucky to convince the wonderful Busboys and Poets bookstore in Washington, D.C., to host a book presentation about Defining the Struggle at its 14th & V St. location, which will be held on Thurs., Jan. 30 at 6:30 pm, please consider coming by if you are in town (note my inability to refrain from shameless book promotion at this point).         

Through the efforts of a terrific radio publicist who works primarily with public radio stations, I ended up having several dozen radio interviews. Given my topic, many of my interviewers were African American. They were all very enthusiastic about my work, which I hugely appreciated. I had insisted on putting my picture on the dust jacket of my book specifically so no one would be confused about my racial identity, and one leading host who chose not to interview me communicated indirectly his view that the story in Defining the Struggle did not have “a close enough connection” to me personally. I feel I do have a certain personal connection to the story, however, in that my first formative professional experiences were as a community organizer, leaving me deeply interested in questions about the relationship between activism, law, and social change. I think what this interviewer was saying, in code, was that my racial identity was wrong. But I feel that I do have something to say and insights and motivation to think very hard and deeply about questions related to civil rights activism and law, so I think this interviewer may have been wrong in his judgment. At the same time I do feel there are topics that are not really “mine” to discuss. One of these involves questions of “colorism” in African American communities. This is a question the terrific legal historian and race scholar Sheryll Cashin pushed me to say more about when I presented my book in progress at Georgetown University Law Center. There is a great deal to say on this topic, and many certainly have written about it, but I felt uncomfortable “going there.” It is too far removed from my experience.  

In sum, I think white scholars writing about the African American experience have some role limits. I do not think we should be seeking to define the scholarly agenda or lead the movement. At the same time, for me personally, there is a moral imperative to standing in a supportive role in the struggle for racial justice. The more educated I become, the more pressing I find issues of racial inequity, especially as intertwined with class injustice. I feel drawn to share publicly what I think I have come to understand through two decades of scholarship following earlier experiences as an activist and then as a lawyer practicing civil rights and labor law. I am sure I sometimes get things wrong; I sometimes identify with a central figure in my book, Mary White Ovington, a well-meaning white social worker who helped found and devoted her life to the NAACP (in which sense I can by no means compare her very important contribution to my very modest one). One can certainly find some very naïve statements in her papers, but at least she stepped in to lend a hand. 

Signing off, with great thanks to Dan Ernst for giving me this opportunity. Thank you to those who have been in touch with feedback on my posts.