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Column: What half a century of journaling tells me about Black lives in America

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2014, file photo, Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says Black Lives Matter, as a group of Penn State University students protest in University Park, Pa., following events in Ferguson, Mo. Nationally, the phrase Black Lives Matter was praised for its clarity and attacked as strident and offensive to police. But support grew as the list of slain black people got longer: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP, File)

For the Valley News
Published: 6/27/2020 10:20:13 PM
Modified: 6/27/2020 10:20:11 PM

I began to keep a journal more than 50 years ago.

You could say the civil rights movement made me do it.

The Danforth Foundation gave me a postdoctoral fellowship to spend 1969-70 at Yale studying African American literature and history. This allowed me to begin overcoming important flaws in my conventional understanding of American culture, evident in my work with Black students at Denison University, where I was employed.

When I headed for New Haven, it felt like the right time to keep careful track of knowledge that took me beyond my white male experience and training. So I began writing in a journal.

My early entries tell a story that feels a lot like today. Richard Nixon was president, Spiro Agnew his vice president. They’d been elected on a toned-down version of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 strategy, “Operation Dixie,” which was modified in 1968 to become the “Southern Strategy,” still operative in Republican Party politics today.

Coded phrases like “law and order” were meant to appeal to white racial fear heightened by the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — all passed when Lyndon Johnson was president.

Despite the impressive civil rights legislation in the 1960s, it would be difficult to make a case that “Black Lives Matter” was becoming an American consensus in 1969. In addition to the limitations apparent in our national leadership, for example, higher education was still hard to get if you were Black. The money that allowed me to spend the year at Yale studying African American literature with several other professors, just one of whom was Black, could have supported Black people eager to teach about the culture they lived.

Colleges and universities were ready to introduce courses in Black studies because of serious pressure from Black students, but not enough was being invested in providing resources for Black people to become professors.

In the years after 1969, my journal begins to tell of promising changes.

Colleges began to hire growing numbers of Black faculty members, many of them prepared to teach about the African American experience. Although I learned how to teach American literature and folklore courses more diverse than the courses I taught just out of graduate school, I was soon able to turn over my courses in Black studies to faculty members who could connect their life experiences with their academic training.

One small indication that the civil rights movement continued to be felt in the years that followed is the way Black studies began to shape work I’d started in graduate school on Henry Thoreau and science. Much of the writing in his wonderful journals anticipated “environmental studies,” an interdisciplinary field that gained traction in the 1970s. It began to fill my journal and inform my teaching.

In 1977, my journal focused on Thomas Jefferson’s effort to learn about the land included in the Louisiana Purchase, and I wrote an essay for American Scholar, “Lewis and Clark Probe the Heart of Darkness.” It explored the expedition’s complex relationship with Native Americans. And then I wrote a novel, York’s Journal, in which I relied on my reading of slave narratives to help me imagine how the expedition might have appeared to York, the only slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark.

By October 2008, I could affirm the continuing influence of Black studies when I was writing in my journal after the death of my Afro-Guyanese friend, Desmond Hamlet. He had been a powerful teaching presence at my college for 22 years, helping students understand, among other things, the international dimensions of Black culture.

“He would have laughed,” I wrote, “at talk we heard some months ago about living in a post-racial America, and it would have been the warm, deep laughter that could fill a large room. Desmond recognized racial injustice and called attention to it. He surely felt anger, but his generous laughter seemed to say we were all in this together.”

The implication in Desmond’s laughter, that all of us share the responsibility for speaking out about continuing racial injustice, not just those who take the biggest risks by doing so, has appeared to dawn on many white people all over our country in recent weeks.

In November 2008, after the election of Barack Obama, I expressed the giddy hope that the nation’s “childlike Christmas morning might last.” One of the first signs that it wouldn’t was the sudden increase in gun and ammunition sales in response to President Obama’s inauguration — early evidence of a newly energized white supremacy arising in our country.

Differences between the circumstances in 1969 and today suggest increased peril.

The Warren Burger Supreme Court then was more willing to limit executive power and to protect the right to vote than the John Roberts court is now. The Republican Party in 1969 was not yet committed to fierce, NRA-style gun-rights activism. Republicans and the NRA supported gun control in the 1960s, when the Black Panthers in California and members of the Afro-American Society at Cornell began packing guns in public.

But just when one might begin to think Black lives mean less to most Americans in 2020 than they did in 1969, a powerful video of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, joined with many other recent instances of lethal racial injustice, as well as growing evidence that Black people suffer disproportionately from COVID-19, to produce a public outcry that could change much more than policing in America.

On June 17, Bill McKibben wrote in his New Yorker series “The Climate Crisis” of “the Zeitgeist changing these past days.” He had in mind evidence like this surprisingly swift change in public opinion polls: After the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., 5% more Americans disapproved of the Black Lives Matter movement than approved of it. But a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this month shows Black Lives Matter has gained wide support, with fully two-thirds of American adults somewhat in support (29%) or strongly in support (38%) of the movement, while 31% say they oppose it.

McKibben interviewed Academy Award-winning actress and longtime political activist Jane Fonda, who these days has been organizing acts of civil disobedience in support of “climate justice.” He asked her if the energy she finds today in the cause of climate justice and racial justice reminds her of the 1960s.

It’s different now, she said, “far more diverse.”

The most recent entry in my journal is Fonda’s conclusion. “Frankly,” she said, “climate and racial injustice don’t seem like two causes anymore.”

If true, that change is sure to make millions of Americans more aware of continuing racial injustice, and that awareness is likely to influence our elections in November, also helping us make the environmental progress we so urgently need.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.




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