James H. Williams, Jr.
School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Excellence
Charles F. Hopewell Faculty Fellow
Professor of Writing and Humanistic Studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Perspiring Palms
- Who Are Black Americans & How Did We Get Here?
- American Slavery
- Jim Crow
- Higher Education and the Continuing Aftermath of Slavery & Jim Crow
- Detour Through Africa
- Growing up Black in Jim Crow America
- My Epiphany
- No More Perspiring Palms
The flight attendant nudges me across the veneer that separates her reality from my daydreams: " ... in preparation for landing into Dulles International Airport, please fasten your seat belts ..." . As I glance out my window, I see a luxurious golf course and a white Victorian mansion that no doubt serves as its clubhouse, gracing the gently rolling, plush Virginia landscape below. Yes, this is Northern Virginia, not the southeastern region of the state where I spent a fantastic youth of fun, rollicking, and harmless mayhem; a region to which I have vowed never to return. Since my mother's death, I cannot return to Newport News, too painful. All the colors in my life have since been muted, and the light in some of its corners has been extinguished. I was Margaret Holt Williams's mama's boy.
But my focus is on the golf course --- tree-lined fairways, not links; Scottish pot and hourglass fairway bunkers, seven on one hole; elegant, bentgrass greens I can almost read from 3,000 feet in this crisp glancing morning light; and lots of water too, beautiful ponds and streams in which to lose lots of balls. As always, I enjoy this golf course assessment exercise. Golf is a magical pas de deux between the mind and the body, a sport of enormous elegance and technical sensitivity, a pastime with numerous lifestyle metaphors (forget the previous shot, focus on the present shot; don't attempt what you cannot do;...), exceedingly more cerebral than the casual fan might think. It is a game without defense. And, it is the most subtle, near fickle, blend of power and finesse --- physical and mental --- of any sport yet invented. But these days something is different; I mean really different: the palms of my hands are not perspiring!
It was 1972, during a similar flight approach, that I became aware of my perspiring palm syndrome. With blacks only recently being allowed to play the public --- even municipal --- courses in my hometown, I interpreted those moist palms to be evidence of my burgeoning love for the game. During that period, typically after viewing a golf course from the air, I would rotate my face forward, close my eyes, tilt my head back onto the seat's headrest, and imagine a serene fairway, a five iron in hand, an ideal drawing shot into a slightly depressed green, and the enjoyment of every inch of a 170-yard perfect flight of the ball. Sheer pleasure; but always accompanied by perspiring palms.
Then, during the period 1975-78, when I did not play a single round of golf, when I was hardly a casual spectator of the professional tour, my palms --- whenever I flew over a golf course --- continued to exhibit this strange perspiring response. Furthermore, I was beginning to detect a bit of psychological anxiety accompanying my moist palms, angst. What was wrong with me? Was I exhibiting some kind of peculiar stress syndrome? With so little interest in the game, why were my palms still perspiring?
Too frequently, removing a painful barrier does not produce an immediate or anticipated healing. Was there a residual effect from those years of being denied access to all golf courses in my youth? Or was my problem deeper still? Such questions concerned, even annoyed, me more than I thought they should. They led me to a probing self-examination; to think seriously about my past, both recent and ancestral. My answer was to be years in coming, and rooted in a past that was far more distant than I had imagined.
WHO ARE BLACK AMERICANS & HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Like the omnipresence of gravity, the slavery of black Americans and the century of Jim Crow that followed it are so ingrained in our national experience and spirit that, without great effort of search, Americans cannot readily detect some of their residual effects. But like it or not and admit it or not, slavery and Jim Crow are the reference points by which all whites see blacks. That is the basis for the external harm of it. But more critical, and far more enduringly damaging, they are also the reference points by which all black Americans see ourselves. That is the basis for the internal harm of it.
Like so many projects within my engineering world, the exploration of this external-internal duality took its place alongside my teaching and research at the frontiers of applied science. But unlike engineering, in this endeavor I had no guiding principles such as conservation of energy or conservation of momentum by which to frame my exploration. Although realizing that race is the major subtext of nearly all sociopolitical dialogue in America, I was not grounded by any laws of nature or, at least, not any I understood.
I am in every way --- physically, emotionally and psychically --- not very far from slavery. My mother's paternal grandmother, at whose feet I sat as a child, had been a slave. Born on the Edwin M. Holt Plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina, Margaret Holt Shoffner (1854-1954) was "scheduled for the fields" during the spring of 1865 and would have so gone had Lee not surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th of that year. Since my mother's death, when I take off my socks, I often see her feet; feet that no doubt resemble my great grandmother's, feet that no doubt resemble those of former slaves.
Simply abolishing slavery does not set an enslaved peoples free. Like a theoretical solution of using a hundred-foot plank to traverse a hundred-foot chasm; it may look and sound good but, as a practical matter, won't carry any weight. My perspiring palms would be all the evidence of this fact that I would need. There are economic, cultural, and psychological issues; all of which must be addressed to secure true freedom. Slavery affected both blacks and whites, and it continues to affect all Americans to this day. Black Americans need to engage in serious introspection to comprehend the psychological and emotional effects that slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath continue to impose upon us and within us.
Even if slavery had ended ideally --- that is, with no residual prejudice from whites and with monetary reparations, in addition to the "forty acres and a mule" --- it would have taken many generations for blacks to recover to wholeness. Much of what blacks have had to confront has resided continuously within us because when we have buried our parents, we may have buried their scarred bodies but we certainly did not, could not, bury all of their scarred psyches. Their personal psychic mutilations persist, as no child reared by deeply psychically damaged parents is ever completely free from that psychic harm.
Throughout the 246 years of American slavery, slaves were frequently not allowed to build families --- children were sold separately from parents, wives and mothers from husbands and fathers, and sisters from brothers. Even when slave masters tolerated such family bonds, they generally perverted those kinships into chains: ties to maintain submissiveness as well as to discourage flight. Under threat of whipping, slaves were prohibited from learning to read, and attempts to escape could and often did mean loss of life. Even upon death, slaves could not bequeath their modest belongings to their families or friends. Generation after generation after generation after...; a womb-to-tomb physical and psychological servitude was imposed.
The horrors and pain of slavery were, and continue to be, so devastating to the black body, mind, and soul that a writer as skilled as Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, as the movie illustrates so well, could only express blacks' postbellum psychological hell in a spatially distorted mysticism of whiplashed scarred bodies, rampant insanity, fear-laden voyeurism, dancing inanimate objects and mangled time in which the past, present and future were incoherent and indistinguishable. The movie's muted, sepia, and black-and-white images contain so much sexual abuse, psychic pain, infanticide, witchcraft, promise and hope, loathing and love, horror and heroism, mutilation and murder, and voodoo (not to mention the uncontrolled spitting and vomiting), that one is reminded of the worst of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. Indeed, it may well be that black Americans need an exorcism.
Clearly one of the mechanisms of blacks for self-preservation during slavery was emotional detachment and thus simply not caring, about things external and things internal, another facet of the external-internal duality. In great part, for many blacks one of the continuing struggles of the past century has been not so much about re-establishing African languages and cultures that are, in fact, lost forever, but in simply caring about anything, external or internal.
A century of legalized racial hostility followed slavery. At the pinnacle of this sovereign white subjugation of blacks was the Supreme Court "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) that formed the foundation for all institutionalized segregation statutes, commonly called Jim Crow: separate schools, separate hotels, separate drinking water, separate toilets, separate Bibles for taking oaths as witnesses, separate telephone booths, separate stairways and entrances, separate elevators... . Hence, in limited major public and private facilities --- such as state colleges and universities or municipal libraries, hospitals, and golf courses --- Jim Crow imposed not only separation, but often exclusion. Furthermore, these legal codes were fused with racial prejudice to fortify a broad cultural sanction for whites to ostracize every aspect of black life, public and private; and to do so by any means they chose, especially via pseudo-science and in the media.
Several famous nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists --- Agassiz, Cuvier, Darwin, Lyell and Morton, to name a few --- argued fervently that blacks resided in the evolutionary chain between monkeys and Caucasians. These pseudo-scientific impressionistic opinions entered both the public and scientific mainstreams, in part, because of the stature of their authors, but more importantly and conveniently because they served the social and political ends of purveyors of anti-black sentiments.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, in the powerful images of the movies and television, blacks were depicted almost exclusively as irresponsible, ignorant, and innately irredeemable. Along with Coca-Cola and the Golden Arches, these images --- with their accompanying racial epithets --- were, and continue to be, distributed around the world, creating anti-black prejudices in individuals who have had little or no contact with black Americans. Blacks are "niggers" in places we have never been!
Thus, with little or no money, formal education, shelter, or social infrastructure, millions of blacks were set "free" into an America that did not want us, into an America that was "scientifically proving" our inferiority, and into an America that was constructing the legal barriers to confirm and confine us as lazy, criminal, and evolutionary miscreants. America was clearly mean-spirited toward its former slaves.
Higher Education and the Continuing Aftermath of Slavery & Jim Crow
A malignant seed has been buried deep inside each black American, and it has been buried alive! Living entities need sustenance.
Following two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, this seed was nurtured for an additional century by Jim Crow. Today it is fed by the social, political, and media air we breathe; but, it is also cultivated by black failure and a shortage of commitment to excellence. The assertion of black Americans' inferiority as "fact" is buttressed daily by black deficient academic and standardized test performances, crime data, and poverty statistics, in addition to white stereotypes and condescension.
At MIT, for example, many black undergraduates enroll without a sense of its rich history, intense culture and ardent work ethic, thus underestimating the required effort for success. Although many of them now enter from comfortable middle-class families, black students are disproportionately oblivious to their handicap of having come from environments that do not understand, and in a few instances do not respect, the intensity of the challenges they confront. At MIT they are allowed, indeed encouraged, to cluster into predominantly black environments that have similar histories of disassociation from elite academic habits. Out of this ignorance and with neo-liberal adult encouragement, a culture of performing toward a least common denominator is developed and reinforced by lowered expectations from faculty, administrators, and especially themselves.
Their deficits in those qualities that are fundamental to the love of learning --- inquisitiveness and intensity --- have not only led to under-performance by black students, but have also eroded their numbers at MIT and at other elite academic institutions that currently use a questionable and an increasingly encompassing definition of the "African American" category in order to puff their diversity statistics. (In what is effectively a declining enrollment of black Americans, we are witnessing the progress of the "transience" of black students that I foreboded in The MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. X, No. 4, January/February, 1998.) Black students' disproportionate academic difficulties, coupled with an unfortunate lack of manners exhibited by a small though significant fraction of them, feed a tension and a disconnect between them and many faculty, which I have struggled to assist in overcoming. So, although black students and I share the bonds of discrimination, ham hocks and collard greens, as a black professor who has consistently demanded both decorum and high academic standards, I have frequently felt like a bat in the war between the mammals and the birds.
I believe that whites' diminished expectations and evaluations of black Americans are too frequently interpreted by blacks as overt racism, when in fact it is probably something less insidious: a combination of ignorance, insensitivity, and thoughtless succumbing to political correctness. "Racism" is such a strong and strident word that it should be reserved for the true hate mongers, and not casually slung as a rapier of convenience at any white person who, though certainly conditioned to think less of blacks, may commit an ill-considered act against a black. But blacks cannot afford the work of exploring the psyches of whites, especially since the power of American whiteness is so omnipresent (consciously or not) to do harm and create hurt (intentional or not).
Our American racial drama is replete with ironies and paradoxes as well as tragedies and woe.
Although the drawbacks of affirmative action cannot be denied, the cessation of all policies relating to race is currently inadvisable. I am not a Pollyanna in believing that all has been set right in American society. I have not yet been duped into the bootstrap foolishness of neo-conservatives and the Right. Blacks who want to burn bridges of opportunity across which they have walked and whites who use words such as "quotas" both suffer an integrity deficiency. There are major social ills --- though with a patina of blackness, affecting both blacks and whites --- that continue to warrant our diligent public attention. Homelessness, hunger, and pitiful urban public education, all of which affect our children, rank near the top of any comprehensive list. Furthermore, although there has been immense progress during the past few decades, there continue to be subtle issues affecting black access: to jobs, promotions, and public procurement contracts, to name a few. Yet, none of these imperatives releases any individual from personal responsibility. After all, no assistance program can lift an individual to a level to which he does not believe he belongs or toward which he is not willing to work diligently.
Black Americans must also be exceedingly wary of paternalistic liberals, both white and black --- whites who want to return to the "plantation" and blacks who never left --- who persist in providing for blacks in ways that perpetuate black addiction to victimization. In academia, neo-liberals are unprepared to encourage and embolden black students to develop into strong independent men and women. In doing so, these neo-liberals, perhaps unconsciously, but frequently and theatrically intrepid in their ignorance, display a lack of respect for young people who should be tempered into leadership rather than indulged into dependency. The bulk of this white politically correct self-indulgence is rank patronization of all blacks, and it is especially stunting to young blacks at elite academic institutions.
Thus, black Americans must now come to realize that there is an intrinsic core of our circumstances that only we can change; primarily by assuming responsibility for ourselves and our children, by expanding our commitment to excellence (especially in academic pursuits where lifelong habits are inculcated and anchored), and by better focusing our dedication to goals. What blacks now need most, whites do not own to give.
Detour Through Africa
The teaching and research of black, white, brown, red, and yellow scholars in "Afro/African American Studies" have broadened the intellectual landscape of colleges and universities worldwide, as well as the common culture. In my textbook on classical dynamics, a discipline whose beginnings are commonly attributed to Galileo or Newton, I constructed a history of the subject that establishes its origins on the African continent, given the written quantitative invention of time, geometry, and mathematics in Ancient Egypt. But the point of the history that I constructed --- and this is important --- is that "African" and "European" are geographic adjectives, not synonyms for black and white, no more so than "American" designates a race. Throughout my historical retrospective I chose to emphasize the internationalism of fundamental contributions, to observe that people worldwide have sought to quantitatively characterize the universe in which humankind finds itself. Debates to the effect that race "X" did more than race "Y" in art, science, athletics, or music constitute a foolish game into which blacks should not be drawn.
Afrocentric arguments in such debates are too frequently not well developed and are ultimately doomed to failure. For example, the accomplishments of black Americans that are cited are often not the seminal achievements within a discipline; and, therefore, to exaggerate their relevance is to mis-educate blacks. Here too, blacks consistently fall for the ruse perpetrated by whites who, for each generation, select "that one contemporary black scientific leader"; generally of marginal scientific accomplishment, always politically compliant, and often displayed for public consumption alongside the classical contributions of others within that scientific discipline.
Counter to the goals of the Afrocentrists, a wall of slavery prevents essentially all direct individual connection of black Americans with Africa. Black Americans don't "feel" African for reasons. No individual's cultural identity can be defined on a tapestry as large and as variegated as the African continent. Notwithstanding a few isolated examples, such as the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands along the southeastern U.S. Atlantic coast and Alex Haley's fictionalized accounts of his family, black Americans, for the most part, do not know from what part of the vast African continent some of their ancestors came. Given that the geographical area of Africa is three times larger than that of Europe, my black golfing partner's ancestral language and customs are probably as historically different from mine as an Irishman's from an Italian's, or more. Furthermore, since both my black golfing partner and I --- as well as most black Americans --- have one or more white ancestors, I may be part Danish Caucasian and he may be part Portugese Caucasian. So, although there is certainly a relationship between black Americans and Africa, its coupling is so secondary that to emphasize it is an act of diversion. The Wall of Slavery will never allow the truth to emerge.
Designating American blacks as "African American" has been counter-productive in our recognition of the Wall of Slavery and its continuing psychological effects; it's a designation with extremely little practical, cultural or emotional significance. We cannot create an identity that ignores an impenetrable wall between us and that identity. This is certainly not to attack the honorable goals and worthy intellectual pursuits of departments variously titled "Afro/African American Studies"; but simply to emphasize that individual self-exploration, with a commitment to addressing our psychological injuries, is far more important for black Americans. The Wall of Slavery is so immense that most black Americans have come to disregard it. Yet this wall and the succeeding Jim Crow have been too destructive for us to ignore their psychic damage, including their manifestations of personal angst and anger.
Some of the Afrocentrists have taken their research pursuits to exaggeration as a means of connecting blacks with Africa, in spite of their laudable goal of (re)building a cultural identity. Black Americans, however, must be cautious in romanticizing a present-day Africa --- where, in several areas, women are sexually mutilated, tribalism is broadly and stridently enforced with deadly consequences, people are sold into bondage, and corruption is openly practiced --- in which we cannot take pride and not find visceral comfort, despite our sincere efforts to respect the cultural practices of others. We must also be intellectually honest in not praising or touting a historical or present-day Africa whose intellectual contributions must be placed alongside the world's greatest scientific, philosophical, and literary contributions. There is no room for a flim-flam here.
So, as a practical matter, what does Africa have to offer most black Americans; and what do most black Americans have to offer Africa, or desire to give an Africa that is riddled with oppressive debt and 25 million people infected with the AIDS virus? Unless we are prepared to seriously consider these questions, are we sincere in our Afrocentricity?
Blacks have failed to realize that in the name "African American" the external-internal duality is again exposed. It is the "African" that relates to our outside; how others see us and our attempt to construct for others (and ironically to a lesser extent ourselves) a history before the Jamestown of 1619. But it is the "American" that relates to our insides; how we genuinely feel in the mornings when we select our breakfast and our daily attire; it is about our aspirations for our children and ourselves, about our preferences for football over soccer and baseball over cricket, and about the Olympians whom we cheer.
Given our American history, black Americans can take enormous pride in our indwelling spirit and resilience, our recovery, and our significant accomplishments. Our American survival, success and continuing struggle toward wholeness are our miracles, not a distant history or a collection of innumerable diffuse cultures overseas. Believe me, if I thought it would make my life better, I'd pack up and go to Africa tomorrow --- after deciding specifically where to go, of course, because Africa is a continent, not a street address.
GROWING UP BLACK IN JIM CROW AMERICA
Growing up in America's 1950s South, I knew that I could not go to the movie theaters downtown, that when getting onto many buses I should go straight to the back, and that I could not drink from "water fountains" unless they specified "For Colored." I knew that many of my school textbooks had been fully stamped on the inner covers --- assuming there were any covers that remained --- with names of schools and people I did not recognize: white schools and white people. And, I knew that I could not sit at a downtown lunch counter to eat a hot dog or a grilled cheese sandwich. Those were physical limitations and facts. I also knew that I could not gaze at attractive white women. That too was a physical limitation and fact, a fact that had resulted in the deaths of southern black boys just about my age, an age when gazing began to feel interesting. But what I did not --- could not --- know or understand was the psychic harm to me that was conjoined with those physical limitations. Thus, by the simple fact of my being denied access, there was an exclusivity associated with very ordinary activities, very ordinary people, and very ordinary places in the white world --- but especially to golf courses --- that allowed my conditioned psyche to rationalize and to accept my exclusion.
Throughout my youth, the prevailing view of blacks was that we were incapable of intellectual pursuits of quality, and that we had no history except that of nomads of far-flung jungles from which slavery had rescued us. As a young boy, I remember repeatedly hearing that blacks were too lazy ever to win a marathon and too stupid to excel at professional basketball. Professional quarterback was out of the question. In my all-black high school, although I had some brilliant and amazingly thoughtful teachers who sought to challenge me with quizzes and exams that had three-to-four times as many questions as those taken by my classmates, I had other teachers who were bewildered, to near ridicule, by my ambition of someday attending MIT. And, if I had ever allowed a dream such as becoming an MIT professor to slip from my lips, it would have certainly landed me in the state asylum; the black state asylum, of course.
In George Orwell's 1984, the Ministry of Truth, by constantly "correcting" the historical records, functioned under the Party dictum "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Black Americans have been defined and controlled by the laws and the culture --- past and present --- in ways that have been self-serving to whites, negatively serving blacks, and in many instances ultimately fulfilling purposes that were demeaning to blacks. This fact has been a constant throughout American history. For example, America's Founding Fathers were mindfully schizophrenic in their language of freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness on the one hand and of the protection and maintenance of slavery on the other. The U.S. Constitution that they wrote defined my ancestors as "three-fifths" of a person; chattel slavery banned us from the human race.
The Wall of Slavery is so immense that its omnipresence escapes our awareness. The Wall of infinite height and infinite width blocks essentially all attempts by blacks to reference ourselves within the human community prior to coming to America. There are no unambiguous sight lines to a pre-American culture or history. Thus, all references to who we are must be made from this side of The Wall; the side that tells us that we are intellectually inferior, that we have made few contributions to society, and that our relatively poorly academically-performing children will ensure our inferiority for generations to come.
The source of my personal angst and anger is clearly the 246 years of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow. Few black Americans have established for ourselves the root cause of our angst and anger; a miasma of distilled angst and anger that we struggle constantly to control. Yes, all black Americans experience this miasma of angst and anger: those who do and know it and those who do and don't know it; no other categories exist.
The true brutality of American slavery was obvious in its physical manifestations within each generation, but far less obvious, though even more damaging, in its psychological harm across generations; a harm in which lies were forged deeply into the souls of black people. And a century of legislative and judicial Jim Crow served to extend this psychic harm into the lifetimes of many living Americans. Without doubt, my historical slavery and my real-life Jim Crow childhood have continued to linger within my soul; and in the early 1970s, they were oozing up from deep within my unsuspecting interior during any fly-over of a golf course. That realization, in 1980, became my epiphany.
NO MORE PERSPIRING PALMS
Having explored The Wall, experienced my epiphany, and recognized the importance of both, I possess a positive and unhindered spirit, and a clear awareness of where I've been and who I am. I harbor no need or desire for affirmation or validation from others. Nowadays, when enjoying a golf course from an airplane, my palms do not perspire; and I think I know why.
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