Remarks for Panel on Black Studies

By Scott Sanders, Archivist

A powerful libretto of Black Power follows. The soloist, Professor Emerita of Social Work Jewel Graham, gave the remarks reprinted below at a meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association in 1970. At that time Antioch College was grappling with the implementation and implications of its most ambitious and comprehensive effort to increase, using the parlance of the time, its “cultural pluralism.” Known as the Rockefeller Program, the Antioch Program for Interracial Education, and New Directions, its impact and merits have been debated since its termination in 1974. To many who remember it, it is one of the great undertakings in the College’s history, and to others it was an ultimately destructive exercise in risk taking that Antioch was ill-equipped to handle. As usual with history, there is truth to be found in both the aforementioned perspectives, though understanding lies somewhere between them. There can be no doubt that it brought students to Antioch College that went on to do very great things they may not have been able to do otherwise. As undergraduates these Antiochians represented the program’s “unseen harvest,” a term used by the first president of the College, Horace Mann, who sensed that he would never see the fruits of his labors in Ohio firsthand, and that the lives his students went on to lead would provide the evidence long after he was dead.

Remarks for Panel on Black Studies, Annual Meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, San Francisco, Calif. March 23-26, 1970:

Jewel Graham
Jewel Graham (portrait taken circa late 1970s).

Development of Black Studies Program at Antioch – Significance for Self-identity formation and for potential reduction in racism

Those of you who know Antioch will know that it is a small liberal arts college in Southwest Ohio. It chief claim to distinction is its commitment to experiential education, embodied in the ascription of educational value to participation in the community, and to work. Antioch adopted an alternating pattern of work and study 50 years ago.

The program sold so well that Antioch found itself among the ranks of the elitist institutions, drawing its students from those elements of the population that could equip its children to attain high SAT scores and could pay the exorbitant tuition. In the face of this development there were some people in the College community who felt that it needed to diversify its population socio-economically, racially, and educationally if it was going to provide an education with viability for contemporary society. Six years ago the College with the assistance of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation initiated a set of events that has produced the kind of ferment that keeps us raising questions (and seeking creative responses to these questions) about the nature of the educational process itself.

A committee of faculty and students decided that the grant should be used to make Antioch possible for young people who were intelligent, who possessed ego strength and the ability to cope; who were willing to risk themselves in a new environment, but who might not conform to the academic trappings we had come to view as ends rather than means. We chose a few towns and cities , asked people there we knew and whose judgment we trusted to recommend some young people known to them or known to people they knew.

In 1965 11 students matriculated under this new arrangement. Nine of them were black. Nine of them were male. Although we did not then, and have not since proscribed race or sex, those recommended have been overwhelmingly black, and the majority of them have been male. Half of Antioch’s black undergraduates (about 6% of the student body) have been admitted through the Special Program.

The first arrivals (including 1 white 1 chicano) found one another and lent support to one another in the alien middle class liberal intellectual culture. Their first tendency was to see college as a path to economic security and upward mobility, and so to strive to be like those in the dominant majority culture. When they were reinforced with more students the following year they began to ask the same kinds of questions that were being asked by young black people everywhere: questions about what it really meant to be black in a white society, black in a white college, a white college that, for all its emphasis on political social and intellectual liberalism was clearly a product of, and a bastion of the Judeo Christian Greco Roman tradition. The Black Student Forum was born, and its first efforts were devoted to examining questions of role and function of black students at Antioch, in community and curriculum, in motive and goals.

Black power, black consciousness, black unity, which had been almost academic to that point, became compelling reality when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Black students coalesced into an angry unity determined to exact from the white institution that sheltered them deeds that were commensurate with words they had uttered about the value of diversity, the viability of different lifestyles, the need for education to achieve new relevance for the present and future.

In the summer of 1968 the black students presented their demands to the Administration, and began to implement them in the Fall of that same year. They asked that the Special program be continued—with a black director. They got themselves assigned to a contiguous series of residence halls which they named Nyambi Umoja—Unity House. They started the Afro-American Studies Institute—administratively a series of student-initiated courses—objective courses, they said, for anyone wishing to share in learning the factual content about the black experience, subjective ones for consciousness building and developing distinctively black approaches to problem solving.

Nyambi Umoja sign
A shot of the sign for Unity House taken in 1968, which was located in a dormitory that no longer stands called Presidents.

AASI and Unity House had not been in existence 6 months before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began to raise questions about possible violations of the Civil Rights Act. White students neither lived in Unity House nor enrolled in AASI courses. The College Administration tried to provide support (financial and political) for the students with what was frankly perceived as one more aspect of educational experimentalism at Antioch.

The students moved from the study of black arts and letters to the study of social structure and personality development—and then to ways of restructuring.

In the face of mounting HEW pressure about the alleged exclusionary policies of Unity House, at the beginning of the Winter Quarter in 1970 it was dissolved by the black students with a symbolic burning of a giant red and black sign that had stood outside various buildings that has housed it. They reduced the number of student initiated courses and made it known that they were not restricted.

The Board of Trustees passed a motion endorsing the general direction of increasing the representation of poor and minority group students and continued program experimentation to attempt to create meaningful educational experiences for them as well as other students. At the moment a large committee representing various elements in the College is at work trying to implement a more extensive commitment of the College in these directions. Priority for available financial aid will be given to these students. Students and faculty in departments are getting together to design and to institutionalize disciplinary and interdisciplinary offerings that will engage them in learning. In filling vacant positions serious attention is being given to selecting faculty who can further these areas. Some faculty and students are working together to initiate a set of offerings that will be known as the Institute for the Solution of Social Problems.

It may well be that, at this point at any rate, when anyone talks about black studies, he is talking, like the blind man describing the elephant, about that part of it that he has his hands on. Let it be understood then that even though I am talking about the ear maybe, or the trunk, while these gentlemen may be in touch with the head or the broad side, we are talking about the same animal—one who is growing and changing even as we describe it.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the dynamic and changing nature of black studies, there are many truths about our society and our educational system that come clear as we pay close attention to what is happening. There is one truth at black colleges. There is another at large universities. There is still another at small white liberal arts colleges.

For the black students at Antioch the truth was that they had to find a way to be a part of the black struggle despite the fact that they had joined a white middle class liberal intellectual community. And that struggle was (and is) about survival, not about integration. It is about brotherhood, not about upward mobility.

Erik Erickson in Childhood and Society, in describing psychosocial development, talks about the stages a human being goes through as he makes his way through a normal lifespan, and about how success in each stage is built on the successful completion of the previous one. He describes the struggle of the infant to develop trust over mistrust, the toddler autonomy over shame; and later initiative over guilt; the school child industry over incompetence; and the adolescent identity over identity diffusion; the young adult intimacy over isolation; the adult generativity over stagnation and the older person integrity over despair. In another place he talks about what happens when societal structures restrict and distort this development, making, for example, trust dysfunctional, autonomy impossible; initiative punishable; identity confused, intimacy paranoid, generativity unrewarding, and despair inevitable.

What I see in the black studies movement is the struggle of young people to deal with society’s structural distortions relative to their own development, and to deal with themselves and their world in a non-parochial fashion. This is a common theme, regardless of what specific courses are offered, and this, I think, is the curriculum that really matters—the attempt to deal with mistrust, shame and guilt and identity diffusion, so that the capacity for industry can be freed and there can emerge a person who knows who he is and what he wants to become, how to attach his life to purposes larger than himself and to become what he wants to be.

The ritual of beginning a black studies program is a pageant of rebirth of personality reconstruction. There is a new self definition to begin with, it is Black, not Negro. There are demands, not proposals. No more passivity—no guilt. The program is to deal with the damage inflicted by a racist society—not the “negro” problem—no more shame. To achieve it we work together as brothers and sisters, not there at least. We are all obligated to work for the common cause—to learn the needed skills. There is a desperation to learn.

As for identity, no more pretending to be what one is not: but rather natural hair, speech, and behavior. No invisibility; colorful creative dress styles that trumpet the intent to break out of the mold that has been proscribed and a slogan for it—“black is beautiful.”

I am sure that the students at Antioch have learned much they did not know about the black experience in America, its historical roots, its cultural forms, its desperation and its determination; but the most important thing they have learned is that “black is, baby.” They have learned that what they are has validity and they do not need to be anyone else. They have learned that far from needing to feel shame at their slave past, they speak from an unassailable moral position. They have learned to confront white power and to demand change in its institutions. They know now that learning is an assertive mode and they have become aggressively demanding about acquiring education.

They will never be the same. They may well end up being bourgeois, but many will be BLACK bourgeois, and the contributions they make to the humanizing of our social order will be forged out their experience as blacks, not as imitation whites.

On their ability to do this may very well depend the future of mankind. You may think this an extravagant claim (it is often made) but if one considers the economic and technological power of the United States together with the status it ascribes to non-whites; if one considers this against the backdrop of the growing proportion of non-whites have—note in the world, then it is no exaggeration to say that those who are marginal in this society, who have not quite the same stake in preserving its myths, can force some honest consideration of the deep malaise, the cancer that will destroy us all. That cancer is the notion of western man that he is created in the image of God and can with impunity gobble up and control the Earth and its resources—including its non-white peoples (who aren’t really human). He has moreover developed the tools to make his grandiose dream a hideous reality.

Racism is only a part of the malaise, but it is a central part. White people will never understand racism until they can acknowledge the black man’s humanity and understand his experience in this country in light of that humanity. In black studies he can learn the facts—if he wants to know them. If he cares, he can also learn, in the struggle of young black people to achieve black studies, something of the reality of their existence and the validity of their claims. They can learn that many cultures have gone into creating the United States, not just Greco Roman and Judeo Christian.

As for our own situation at Antioch; in the beginning the white students were, in general, outraged, not at the creation of Unity House and the Afro American Studies Institute, but at their alleged exclusionary policies. Many wanted to be part of it, to share in the vitality of the struggle that was so personal and real and lent so much zest to living and learning. They were repulsed with hostility.

There is a story that was going around in my youth about a white man who sat next to a black one on a bus and, noticing a little crawling beastie on his coat collar, picked it off and flicked it into the air. “Put it back” snapped the black, “You white folks don’t want us to have nothing.”

No offense meant, says the black, we must be concerned with our own survival, that is all we can do. You must be concerned about the reformation of society. You only can change our racist institutions. Our fathers have begged and entreated integration and were met with dogs and clubs, fire and water, law and order. They could not achieve it. We cannot. We must try to maintain our ties with the black community so that they will believe that our coming to college was not desertion, so that we can go back with whatever of value we can learn here. The white students came to understand this. Many became able to acknowledge their own resentment and negative feelings about the blacks, while at the same time admitting that they could, as never before, understand the position of the blacks and the power and justice of their response to that position.

One hundred and twenty years ago a great man said: “those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” That statement was written by Frederick Douglass in 1849. It is just as true now as it was then.

The hope that black studies program offers for the ultimate defeat of racism is the willingness of white people to listen carefully, and to heed the message—that the society is racist, that it is so pervasive as to be taken for granted like the polluted air we breathe, and that it must be recognized and rooted out—by them.

There is some hope that this can happen. When the hostilities are no longer masked—honesty can become the mode. Candor on both sides can allow for the recognition of personal apathies as well as friendship, can banish the need for attitudes that are on the one hand condescending, and on the other placating.

Racism can disappear, if it does, when people’s natural differences are not arranged on hierarchical structures—when white people refuse to put themselves at the top, and more importantly, when black and brown people refuse to be put at the bottom. That, I think, is what black studies is about.

Kenneth Clark, eminent and respected psychologist, resigned from Antioch’s Board of Trustees when the College persisted in its support of the black students’ request for separate housing. Dr. Clark’s forthright position is representative of the apprehensions many people, black and white, feel relative to the development of black studies. The fear is of course that this is one more way of institutionalizing segregation—a way for white colleges to renege on their promise to provide educational opportunities for black young people, and to protect young white people from being contaminated by them.

There is no question that black studies can be an opiate—a way to keep blacks quiet with scant consideration of the realities of today’s world. Some of the most articulate and vocal black people in our area joined the HEW in castigating Antioch College for allowing the establishment of AASI and Unity House. They viewed it as a TRIP where young black people in our area were allowed to do their own thing while the conditions of black people in general were worsening. So that—as Andrew Bremmer said in Sunday’s New York Times—in 1968 non whites made up a greater proportion of the total poor population than they did in 1959. Furthermore, he points out, as we all know, that the economic progress made by some in the absence of general improvement, has contributed to a deepening schism in the black community.

Here is where the nature of the black studies program at Antioch could be significant. It is student initiated and controlled, that made it responsive to the changing developmental needs of the young people it seeks to serve. In its search for relevance, it has run the gamut of—academic survival, cultural nationalism, black nationhood, Marxist Leninist analysis, and academic excellence (in the traditional sense, but blackened).

It allows maximum space for a student to find out who he is and where he needs to put his energies. It seeks to enable students to search for identity in the socioeconomic struggles of today as well as in the recognition of past trials and glories.

Black people have always had to pay close attention to reality. Their continued existence in the face of intolerable conditions is eloquent testimony to the utility of their survival tools. The world is changing so fast that if education is viewed as socialization of the young to enable the continuation of society, it is difficult if not impossible, to determine whether it is being successful. We are placing Black Studies, whatever its form is or comes to be—in the tool kit for tomorrow. It needs to be in the tool kit of black and white alike.

Jewel Graham, ACSW
Social Work Program
Antioch College
Yellow Springs, Ohio