A Long Path to Anti-Racist Scholarship and Activism

White Anti-Racist ActivismThe subject of this essay is my evolution as an anti-racist activist, which led from cautious participation in the Northern Civil Rights movement, to involvement in the Columbia Strike and New York and National SDS as a theoretician on race and Black nationalism, to the founder of an anti-racist and anti-war organizing group in the Bronx, to my becoming what was most likely the first white scholar hired by a Black studies program or Department in 1970.

Though this odyssey was unusual in some respects, it paralleled a generational experience for many white Baby Boomers who became political activists. What I would like to do today is explore my own upbringing and experiences in post war Brooklyn to explore the different cultural traditions that shaped my own encounters with race and then discuss how these made my experience slightly different from those of most white anti-racist activists I met at Columbia University or in National SDS

I was from a lower middle class family in a Jewish and Italian working class neighborhood in Brooklyn that had a handful of Black families. My parents, school teachers who were second-generation immigrants, were strong trade union supporters who could probably best be classified as liberal Social Democrats. They came from a tradition that saw all workers as having common interests, but that did not emphasize the fight against Black racism in the United States as a moral commitment equal to that of fighting for workers rights. This led to a series of complicated negotiations with the lived reality of race in American society that I often, as a child, found confusing.

To start with, my parents never used the word “nigger” and if I had they would have washed my mouth out with soap. They despised Southern racists who denied Blacks their constitutional rights and spoke very highly of Black leaders like Martin Luther King who took the moral and intellectual high ground in fighting for civil rights.

But at the same time, they regularly used the term “schvartes”—and not in a flattering way—to refer to Black people who lived, worked and went to school in New York City, and periodically had conversations in Yiddish, which I couldn’t understand, when referring to those mysterious individuals. In their personal dealings with African Americans, whether it was with the housekeeper they hired, our building superintendent, or in my mother’s case, with teachers and students in the vocational high school she taught in, they seemed decent, fair, and occasionally caring.

But there was no question that there was a deep undercurrent of resentment, even contempt, in those discussions they were having in Yiddish about Black people as a collective entity, something I would come to understand, in more explicit form, when I became an adolescent and showed some interest in Civil Rights activism. But until then, what I encountered was a mixture of confusing, even contradictory views about race some of which my parents seemed embarrassed to share with me

Another powerful influence in my childhood was popular culture, where the dominant influences were sports and music – each in forms that were commercially marketed to totally dominate the lives and horizons of working class boys and male adolescents in the highly gendered world of post war Brooklyn. As television and radio evolved in the post war era, driven by an impassioned and chaotic entrepreneurship that gave small enterprises and media hustlers as much or more power to shape media content than large corporations, my peers and I were bombarded with images and sounds that presented a racially hybrid society in the making before anyone was able to set forth a clear understanding of what was taking place, or even say that this was important or revolutionary.

From the time I was 6 years old, televised sports were a major influence on my life, from the Friday night fights that I watched with my grandfather, to the Dodger, Yankee and Giant games that were televised regularly, to the National Basketball association and National Football league games that were broadcast, to regularly televised New York City high school basketball.

White Anti-Racist ActivismAnd in every one of those televised spectacles, except the Yankee games, Black athletes were part of the picture that entered my living room without anyone EVER commenting on that fact. These images normalized something that was in fact quite new, uncontested, revolutionary, and in many places extremely controversial. As I child, I never thought of Ezzard Charles as a Black boxer and Rocky Marciano as a white one, or Mickey Mantle as white, and Willie Mays as Black. And because the members of my family and extended family never commented on this either, at least not in English, I found myself identifying with athletes based on their movements and body language rather than their “race.” In fact, I even lacked a language to distinguish athletes based on race because no announcers EVER mentioned race!

Was this strategic and planned? I doubt it. It was probably done both to reach the maximum market and to avoid controversy in Cold War America. But the result was that in a highly subliminal way, as an emerging athlete in a multiracial neighborhood, I internalized images of Blacks and whites playing together and of Black athletes as sports heroes I would want to emulate. That this experience was profoundly different from that of anyone in my parents generation I would only realize later, but it made for a somewhat relaxed approach to playing ball with the small number of black kids in my neighborhood or the black kids I would encounter when playing ball outside of my neighborhood. I don’t want to make it seem that therefore I was free of racial prejudices or fears – merely that this experience of race through mass sports media was juxtaposed to family influences in shaping how I would respond when racial tensions in Brooklyn and the national civil rights movement emerged as major themes in my life in the 1960’s.

The same was true, even more, of the musical explosion that entered my life in the form of rock and roll. Much has been written about how small record companies and enterprising disc jockeys figured there was a large market in reinventing and renaming African American urban musical form popular in the post war era rhythm and blues for a multiracial, but predominantly white, teenage audience, but it hit my pre adolescent Brooklyn world with the force of a hurricane.

When I was 11 years old, a mixture of television and radio influences managed to convince everyone of our friends that we had to listen to, dance to, watch, and if possible, sing and play this amazingly energized musical called Rock and Roll. Here, however, the images were even more insurgent than in sports, because a majority of the groups we ended up following and admiring were black, particularly Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Drifters, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

And though we were aware of Elvis, and Buddy Holly and Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and loved their music, it was the urban harmonic groups, all of them based in New York, that most captured our imagination and until Dion and the Belmonts came along all of those groups were Black.

In retrospect, this was an incredible form of cultural insurgency in a segregated society, all the more bizarre because it took place without commentary, and without any explicit connection, by anyone in the industry, to any political event, be it the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the Emmett Till Lynching, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Indeed the only event of those three which I was dimly aware of, growing up, was the Montgomery bus boycott.

But my imagination was FIRED by uncontrolled images of Blacks and Whites playing ball together, singing together, dancing together and as an athletic, but intellectually inclined child in a tough neighborhood, these images defined who I was and who I wanted to be and especially who I wanted to be—a ball player and a rock and roller compensating for the glasses I wore and the two grades that I skipped to make myself attractive, or even just plain acceptable, to girls I was interested in.

White Anti-Racist ActivismThese experiences left me with a rather optimistic, if totally unspoken and inarticulate perspective on race in the US as well as in my own life. In the two main sports I played, basketball and tennis, I competed with and against African Americans with little anxiety or fanfare, although the parks and schoolyards I frequented were 80-90 percent white. I don’t recall feeling fear or aversion. But I didn’t forge any strong friendships either.

However, as I reached my teens, I became increasingly aware of racial tensions in my own and nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods. Kids in my neighborhood started to speak somewhat fearfully of two Black Brooklyn gangs centered in Bedford Stuyvestant, the Chaplains and the Bishops, and we all heard of an all-out brawl between Black students who took the bus to attend the high school near where I lived, and tough Italian teenagers who lived near the school. I don’t recall being surprised to hear that, or unduly upset about it. I figured I would just play my sports, love my music, and do well enough in school to keep my very overprotective parents off my back

My response to what some might have interpreted as a racial incident when I entered that high school as a 13-year-old sophomore reflected what some would think of as a lack of race consciousness. As an up and coming tennis star, but an extremely young and physically immature one, I found myself in gym class with some much older and tougher black kids on the track team. They began teasing me regularly and when I refused to accede to a somewhat humiliating request — to tie one of their shoelaces — I got in a fight with them and got knocked out cold. I was prepared to go back the next day, but my parents, against my will, arranged for a transfer to a high school out of the district with a much better academic reputation and a much whiter student population.

And here began a rapidly proceeding sense of alienation from my parents on the subject of race which eventually turned a division into a yawning chasm

My parents , following this incident, suddenly started making their once private spoken in Yiddish comments about race increasingly explicit. They began describing blacks in Brooklyn as the source of a contagion that was destroying once safe and vibrant neighborhoods, and used what happened to me as an object lesson of the dangers Brooklyn’s white and Jewish residents faced.

I, in contrast, just viewed what happened as a fight with some tough kids that I happened to lose (I had been in MANY fights in my childhood) and saw no racial implications in it whatsoever, since I had faced comparable bullying from Italian kids in my elementary school.

But this was more than a disagreement over interpretation of the incident. Something in the way my parents referred to Black people deeply offended me on some visceral level. And I am not sure why, since my feelings didn’t come from any explicit political difference, or anything I read or heard on the radio. I was not, at this point, a very political person. Rather, it was that, through sports and music, I was so deeply and subliminally identified with black people as figures shaping my identity and imagination that my parents negativity seemed directed at ME as well as Brooklyn’s Black community. It was as though a bell went off in my head that said. “These people are crazy, These people are wrong. I am not threatened by what they are.” And moreover, although I don’t think I would have used the word, I began to see my parents if not as racist, as “prejudiced” in some way which was profoundly disturbing.

It was in this confused, angry frame of mind that I arrived at my new high school, Erasmus Hall High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and was exposed to the third major influence on my racial attitudes — the civil rights activism of “red diaper babies” — Children of Communists who had been brought up to believe that fighting racism was a profound moral imperative of any person who cared about justice. It took me a little while to find these people, or to put it more accurately, for these people to find me. My first priority was to make sure I made my new school’s tennis team, which I did, easily and to establish myself as a star in basketball and dodge ball in all my gym classes. That being done, I started reaching out to make some new friends, largely through the honor classes I was enrolled in, and was intrigued to discover that several of them were forming or joining protests organizations like the Student Peace Union and the Congress of Racial Equality , each of which had informal chapters at my new high school

White Anti-Racist ActivismHere, my incipient identification with Black people and the Civil Rights movement was reinforced by people who had literally grown up with such an identification and were immersed in a culture that reinforced it. Not only did they introduce me to organizations I had never heard of, they exposed me to music that I had never known about, particularly songs by Black artists like Odetta, Paul Robeson, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, which highlighted how the legacy of slavery still lived in a southern system that ruled blacks by force and intimidation and in a system of less formal, but still potent discrimination, that handicapped Blacks at every turn in the so-called liberal north.

There were some ironies in my political re-education that even I noticed at the time. All of the students in these circles introducing me to civil rights activism and folk and protest music were white, and comfortably middle class, unlike the kids I played ball with in my gym classes and even the group of top tennis players I was part of in Lincoln Terrace Park. These passionate advocates of integration led more segregated lives than I did. However, I welcomed the opportunity to give words and a political analysis to some of the feelings I had and started going to some of the protests they invited me to as well as the parties, something which enraged my parents – who started saying things like “ if you want to help someone, why don’t you help the Jews”. Implying that any efforts I made to help Blacks in Brooklyn would backfire on me in some potent but undetermined way.

My parents’ reaction to my emerging anti-racist consciousness led me to view them, increasingly, not just as willing participants in a racist social order, but dangerous saboteurs of my personal independence. I was somehow becoming almost, but not quite-as identified with the civil rights struggle as with my identity as an athlete and rock and roller. It was murky, conflicted, confusing, still somewhat inarticulate, but here I was, entering college as a white adolescent who was living “race” in a way that hadn’t quite been invented yet- a split personality with a large element of rage and defiance when it came to dealing with any kind of racism.

My freshman year at Columbia was mainly devoted to surviving academically, and proving myself as an athlete. I tried out for and made the tennis team, and tried out for and failed to make the basketball team, and joined one of the sports fraternities. Most of my first cohort at the school were composed of other athletes, which ended up ironically, cementing my own “anti-racist identity.” First of all, it put me in touch with some of the few Black students at Columbia –- including two players on the basketball team who became my friends, and secondly it put me in close proximity with some wrestlers and football players from the South who were private defenders of segregation and the impassioned arguments I got into with them held affirm how much my Brooklyn upbringing — which I was increasingly proud of — had made me feel that multiracial social and cultural patterns were far superior to anything homogeneously white. I even found myself passionately defending interracial dating and interracial marriage in these conversations, although at this point I had never myself so much as danced with a Black girl at a party.

It was only during my sophomore year at Columbia, after reading James Baldwin’s Another Country and viewing the March on Washington, that I acted on my increasingly passionate political convictions and joined the college Civil Rights group, Columbia CORE. Here, more ironies emerged. The Columbia CORE group was, like the Red diaper baby circle at my high school, all white, composed of hip looking men and women who came from middle to upper middle class families. Many had gone to liberal private schools. Initially intimidated by their sophistication, I signed up to do community work rather than campus work, a decision which led me to an amazing experience doing tenant organizing in East Harlem working with Black and Latino working class families who were a notch below economically the people I grew up with in Brooklyn, but with whom I found myself more comfortable than some of the CORE people at Columbia.

I loved the music, the food, and the camaraderie I experienced in this hard-pressed New York working class neighborhood and incorporated it into my own emerging identity as a product of New York streets and schoolyards bringing my own unique cultural capital into an Ivy League school which was, for the most part, accustomed to socializing people like me into being part of the American elite.  I was now an anti-racist activist in the formal as well as the informal sense- but one with a distinct urban working class sensibility very different from virtually all my white civil rights peers at Columbia. I was now some odd combination of an athlete, a civil rights activist, and a New York street guy. And soon I would add to this, the persona of an historian in the making.

That process began with a great European history course I took in my sophomore year and continued in the American history course I took as a junior, where I wrote long research papers on subjects in African American history, a subject not taught at Columbia at the time. I had such a great experience writing those papers that I imagined myself, with lots of hard work, becoming a history professor whose specialty was civil rights and race in America. I launched this journey, ironically, in history classes where there was not one black faculty member, and almost no Black students. I started to see myself, implicitly if not explicitly, as part of some emerging academic vanguard which would help make American universities attuned to the world outside its gates, using my New York Street background as well as newly acquired skills in scholarship, to undertake this mission.

White Anti-Racist ActivismI cannot emphasize enough how idiosyncratic this vision was, along with the chosen identity that undergirded it. No one else in the Columbia civil rights group wanted to be an historian. Nor did anyone in my fraternity or the team I played on. And none of the history majors I knew wanted to concentrate on race in America. This was the Brooklyn me coming into my own at an Ivy League school, inventing a persona the school had never seen before.

This persona, along with the idiosyncratic identity I was creating, added many new layers when I met, and feel in love with an African American woman. This romance, the most powerful I had ever experienced, pushed me out of my own family, made me part of an extended Black family with roots in the South. It forced me to look deep inside myself to interrogate my own racism and decide how committed I was to overcoming it. On every level, this relationship, which lasted six years, forced me to deepen my understanding of how race shaped every aspect of daily life in the United States. Every encounter when we were together became a potential challenge, from walking down the street, taking the subway, to going to a club, restaurant or party. There was nothing I had ever experienced before which prepared me for what it felt like to have “all eyes on me” and to be seen by strangers as a deadly threat to their sense of how society should be organized

My willingness to immerse myself in this life-changing experience – while in large part shaped by my joy in finding a woman as beautiful, intelligent, loving and compassionate as my girlfriend – also reflected certain idiosyncratic elements in my background and personal history. First of all, I was by now so alienated by my parents’ racial attitudes that I was prepared to break with them completely over their disapproval of my girlfriend, especially since I had several fellowship offers to pay for graduate school for the next four years.

Secondly I was a large, physically intimidating person who was fully prepared to face down or even fight people on the street who expressed hostility to the sight of a white man and a black woman holding hands.

And third, because of my Brooklyn upbringing and experiences tenant organizing in East Harlem, I felt fully comfortable spending time eating, drinking and socializing in a working class Black family. In some ways, I felt more comfortable with them eating collard greens and neckbones than I did eating cucumber sandwiches at History Department receptions at Columbia. It was almost as though I could have my cake and eat it – I could expand and deepen my understanding of race in America while still remaining in touch with my Brooklyn working class roots – something that would definitely mark me as unique in the world of the Columbia History Department or anywhere else I would get my PhD.

The result of all of these experiences was that I entered the doctoral program in History at Columbia, and approached the political upheavals of the late 60’s, with a unique and idiosyncratic anti-racist identity, especially among the anti-racist whites I met at Columbia, or would meet later in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I respected the courage and passion of many of these people, but saw myself as more grounded in real life experiences with race, because of my working class upbringing, my sports background, my immersion in a Black family, and my willingness to be part of a highly public interracial couple at a time when this was highly controversial among Blacks as well as whites.

For me, anti-racism was something I wanted to live in real time and space with real people, not just pursued as an abstract principle, and I wanted my anti-racism to connect me to Black people rather than separate me from them. When the civil rights movement separated into Black and White wings, with most whites doing anti-racist work in all white organizations, I remained with one foot in the Black community through my work in the Columbia Upward Program, through the basketball and football teams I played on, and through the time I spent with my girlfriend’s family.

I was willing to do this even if I was the only white person in many of the circles I was part of; indeed, a part of me took perverse pride in doing this. But there was a large issue at stake here which I had trouble articulating at the time- that people had to work through the challenges of undoing racism and white supremacy through personal relationships as well as political actions – that it had to be tested in friendship and love as well as political comradeship.

mark naisonIt is that belief, more unspoken than explicit, that led me to take a job as an instructor in the Institute of Afro American Studies at Fordham over jobs teaching History in area community colleges. I wanted the challenge of teaching students about race in America not from the safety of an all white academic department, but as the only white faculty member in an insurgent Black academic unity where I was the minority, and a controversial one at that. It was a decision I never regretted. And one which helped make me a scholar who never shied from asking difficult questions, and drawing upon personal experience as well as research to help provide the answers.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent

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