In the late ‘60s, I was filling out my major in English Secondary Education, and during Presentation Day, where professors showcase their courses, Professor Williams asked if I was considering taking his course. His class was African-American Literature.
Those were rather tumultuous times with the Vietnam War, race riots in major cities, the women’s liberation movement, and the drinking age was still 18. Remember, I said tumultuous, not necessarily bad. I still recall, thanks to the liberation, the lovely no-bra look and thanks to 10 cents-a-glass draft beer, a young man’s drunken stupor every weekend. Ah, the ‘60s!
Professor Williams was a black man and thought to be a bit of a radical. Race relations were certainly strained at the time, and our campus had its share of protests and brawls, but he seemed like a professional fellow who wanted some diversity in his class, so I figured I’d give it a try.
Sure enough, he had diversity. Me! First time in my life I felt like a minority, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Toward the end of the first day in class, Professor Williams asked us to name a nationwide commercially known black person. We gave him answers like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Sammy Davis Jr. “No.” he exclaimed, “Commercially known black business icon like Betty Crocker, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Walt Disney.”
As we sat their scratching our heads, he said, “There aren’t any, except Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.” Now, I’m really confused, and I’m beginning to wonder what this has to do with African-American Literature, but Professor Williams goes on.
He says, “Do you notice the affectionate term that white America uses for us? Aunt and uncle? Who doesn’t love their aunt and uncle? Yes, affectionate and loving, but cooking and serving meals. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.”
The next day starts with Professor Williams asking the class for a list of derogatory terms that white folks call black people. Someone says, “Negro.” and he writes it on the blackboard. It is followed by “colored” and literally a dozen more of what today would be called “major racial slurs.” Each one written on the blackboard.
I’m really beginning to wonder what this has to do with African-American Literature and I’m thinking that a little Frederick Douglass would be a good thing about now.
To say the atmosphere was thick would be an understatement. This is not going well. Professor Williams, sensing the tension, says, “OK, guys. Everybody relax. Be cool. These are just words, other names that white folks call us. Work with me.”
I’m thinking that this would be a good time NOT to participate. I looked at Gwen, a girl I knew from another class, and she rolled her eyes as if to say, “This might be a good time to get out of Dodge, white boy.” I winked at her in a false display of bravado.
This goes on forever and the list was quite comprehensive. Finally, a big guy named Samuel, who in the ‘60s would be dubbed a militant, could stand no more, and I don’t know as I blamed him! He stands up, looks at me, and says, “Do we have to listen to this s+*t with Casper sitting here?”
I said, “What the hell did you call me?” Samuel was waving his arms and stomping his feet and he replied, “Casper! You know, Casper the ghost. You look like a ghost sitting here among all these black faces!”
Well, it was quite a hoot. Gwen laughed, as did all the girls. Professor Williams started roaring, and the guys in the class laughed, as did I. Even poor Samuel fell victim and couldn’t control himself, either. Isn’t there an old cliché that “laughter is the best medicine”? It sure was that day!
However, what’s wrong with this picture? I’m not sure I realized it then, but as the years passed and I saw more and more black leaders like Revs. Sharpton and Jackson preach their victimology and race-baiting, I realized that Professor Williams was doing the same.
Wouldn’t he have done his students a better service by reading Frederick Douglass and other black authors? Shouldn’t he have spoken of the opportunity that lay ahead? Words of encouragement, like “The future is yours. What better country to be in than America? You’re young, attending college, and your only limit is your dreams!
“Congratulations! You will be teachers, you will earn a good living and be respected, and just as importantly, you will be positioned to encourage and educate other black youth. Let me teach you and prepare you for that journey.”
CHUCK PINKEY is a retired area businessman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board, but the author thinks they ought to.