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Black history wasn't my birthright, yet I wanted to claim its lessons as part of my history, too.

The Color of History

Ten years ago, a Ph.D. in American history newly in hand, I taught my first big lecture course. I was to instruct some 70 Duke students — most of them black —in the history of the slavery era. Would the students accept me? Not only was I was white and female, I was also green and untried. For the first weeks the course went smoothly enough. I was a little awkward. But I was also passionate. My dissertation had carried me deep into African-American history, and I cared about the subject in both personal and intellectual ways. Before I'd gone to graduate school most of my work had been in the field of race relations. The civil rights movement had shaped my consciousness as a teen-ager growing up in North Carolina; the black power movement had hit me and my black friends when I was a Harvard undergraduate. I'd been moved by black Americans' courageous, disciplined participation in nonviolent marches, sit-ins, and bus rides; I was upset by the deeply entrenched white violence the movement revealed. Growing up in the segregated South, I'd sensed an underlying brutality and tension in Southern life. Often my white elders had tried to shield me from it. The movement illuminated the hypocrisy I'd been reared on. Like many of my generation, I cried when King was assassinated in 1968. I had loved him: He was a man who spoke eloquently to all Americans, passionately addressing the burning issues of our time: poverty, materialism, unjust war and its excesses, inhumanity and flawed national priorities. Black history wasn't my birthright, yet I wanted to claim its lessons as part of my history, too. Young white students had also participated in the Movement, exulting in the early moments when the "beloved community" seemed real, finding spiritual and political strength they never knew they had, making history. I came to see black history as the essential key to American history. It offered the clearest map to comprehending our country's subverted dreams. A few weeks into my course, a small note appeared in my Duke mailbox. A dean in charge of interracial affairs had summoned me to his office. There, I learned that a few of my black students had gone to this dean and questioned my right to teach the course. They had expected a different professor, they told him, someone more experienced but, above all, someone black. The dean, an African-American himself, questioned me closely: What was my background? How did I feel about teaching black history? I poured out my story to him. He decided I was dedicated and well prepared. He told the disgruntled students to be more tolerant. And he gently advised me: "Tell them about yourself like you've told me, let them know who you really are." Slowly, as I revealed myself more in class, the tensions with my angry black students seemed to ease. We ended up discussing, among other things, why Duke as an institution was sometimes referred to as "the plantation." When the course came to a close in December, I believed I'd done a decent job. The students wrote impressive papers. They had obviously learned a lot. And so had I. Now, 10 years later, I have taught African-American history courses many times. I believe more than ever in the importance of this work. Whatever our racial background, we all need to understand the African-American saga to understand anything real and important about ourselves as Americans, and not just through occasional black history courses, or during black history month. American history is incomprehensible and soulless without it. Can a white person, a woman, a Hispanic person, an Asian effectively teach African-American history? Should a person of one racial or cultural background teach the history of a culture not their own? For years, white men taught almost all history in this country. They instructed undergraduates in everything from Greek, Roman, British and Italian Renaissance history to Russian, Latin American history and the history of ancient Mayans. Should we straitjacket ourselves now? It seems absurd that only black professors should teach African-American history, just as it seems ludicrous that only women should teach women's history, or Chinese people teach Chinese history. The danger is a more divided, fragmented people than we have today, with many failing to comprehend our complex interracial heritage. Unfortunately, many traditionally oriented white academicians are all too comfortable with the idea that only black professors teach black history and that primarily black students enroll in these classes. Through this segregated arrangement, black history can remain a peripheral part of what is defined as "American history," and "American history" can continue to be primarily white history. Undoubtedly it is the marginalization black students feel on predominantly white campuses that makes them want to carve out their own spaces. As a woman I too feel marginalized, though in different ways. But I don't believe the answer lies in segregating classrooms or learning, keeping black history as a subject primarily for black professors and black students. I was shaken by that handful of black students who had complained about me teaching black history. I was shaken even more when I went to a workshop with a distinguished black veteran of the civil rights movement, historian Vincent Harding, and told him about the rejections I'd faced because I was white. His counsel was: "Just tell your black students that you're passing." This bit if wisdom dismayed and enraged me. I couldn't "pass" without being dishonest. It's true I couldn't teach black history the same way a black professor could. But I could nonetheless show the students what black history could mean to me as someone not black. History is for everyone, not for one group or another to push its own agenda. In this complex, diverse world, I believe that the more we break down social and political barriers, see through each others' defenses, comprehend each others' true history and humanity, the happier and the wiser we will all be. The answer lies in teaching American history in a profoundly different way, integrating African-American history into it, transforming what has been a mostly white narrative. A wide range of compelling ethnically focused history courses can and should be offered, including African-American courses, enriching us all in the process. I'd love the chance to understand my Celtic and Scotch-Irish ancestry better. Bagpiping 101, anyone? Spencie Love, Ph.D., is the author of "One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew." Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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