The writer is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow.” She lives in East Lansing.
Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote in his 2017 book, "The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges," “It’s the need to make progress toward both objectives simultaneously that presents the greatest challenge to America’s colleges.” Bok’s objectives were educating more Americans, and to do so better.
Bok was talking about multi-tasking. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter presents another opportunity.
As college and university administrators finalize plans for fall 2020 for continuing student education amid the reality and consequences of COVID-19, they need to simultaneously address Black Lives Matter and structural racism. They can do this by making a class on American slavery mandatory.
It’s needed. Systemic racism is not being addressed in most American schools. Even students not in college know that it’s “not the thing you learn in school.” Race is the chief motivating bias of more than 40 percent of hate crimes on American college campuses, according to "Indicators of School Crime and Safety," a report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics in July.
In every way, the treatment in our country of Black Americans is immoral. To make that point, protesters in Portland, Oregon, put up a Wall of Moms against President Trump’s stormtroopers.
The basic moral conundrum is that white Americans continue now to reap the benefits of the “peculiar institution” while knowing little about how it relates to a system of racism, including police killings, that African Americans encounter today, and most white Americans prefer to keep it that way through willful ignorance.
Manisha Sinha, an Indian-American professor of African American History, wrote in The New York Times: “After graduation, I interviewed across the country for positions in early American history. I was asked over and over again why, as an Indian woman, I chose to study the history of slavery and the Civil War. The one interview where no one asked me that question was for a position in African American Studies.”
American leaders can ignore systemic racism as long as they think slavery is peripheral to the U.S. The reality is that slavery is central to our country. They can think the treatment of Black Americans is a problem Black Americans cause themselves through individual behavior, or, alternatively, through bad luck. A mandatory class connecting slavery to today will prompt college degree holders, our future leaders, to thinking about slavery and its connection to systemic racism.
Mandatory classes are not new to American colleges and universities. “Perceived social and cultural need” has kept composition in place at all types and sizes of schools for 134 years, David Fleming wrote in his book “From Form to Meaning.” I was required to take mandatory classes to earn my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees in English, and I taught the mandatory course for 18 years at Lansing Community College. Everyone who earned a college degree passes freshman composition before walking across the stage.
In response to Black Lives Matter protests, Femi Brinson, African American Master of Business Administration Association co-president, was reported as saying on the Wharton School of Business website, “There’s a need for us to educate people. There’s a need for us to have some of these tough conversations because we expect that our classmates are going to graduate and become leaders. They’re going to lead diverse teams. They’re going to need to be pounding the table for people who don’t look like them, and they’re going to need to understand some of the cultural nuances of the things that we go through. Even though we’re in the same spaces when we walk into an elevator to go to work or in a meeting, we might have different experiences based on our history and based on how we’re treated”
Today’s college student destined to be tomorrow’s leader needs to study slavery and grapple with its meaning and the fruit it produced so they are equipped to help build an America that lifts African Americans and the entire country towards the values of our Constitution, and Declaration of Independence.
Those values fuel immigration. When Steve Harvey addressed the issue of racism on his television show, an audience member whose parents were immigrants protested that Black Americans today can fix their situation with hard work. But in the YouTube comments section, viewer Rodriquez S. wrote, “It’s one thing to come to the country with nothing, and quite another to come as nothing.
A mandatory Black American college course will say that the Black American cultural experience is important, as important as European or white American culture. For instance, a Stanford University course whose content is Wordsworth, Austen, Bronte and Dickens is described as “a critical and historical examination of our culture’s obsession” with happiness. Among American literature, a college student can spend a whole semester studying American southern Gothic culture through William Faulkner's work where Black people are depicted exclusively, and romantically, as servants/slaves.
Generally, the closest focus on Black cultural experience arrives in survey courses, such as an English class on the Harlem Renaissance, the golden Black literary period with a constellation of stars such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston. Such courses are offered infrequently, because, as Professor Sinha discovered, the prevailing thought is that only Black students should have an interest.
Some students already chose Black classes. The first and only time I taught African American literature, the class was nearly full, but in a fit of honesty, I told them that I was a writing professor. And, actually, the class was the second-semester writing course. Two days later, the second class meeting was socially distanced. This was pre-COVID.
I found one student who had disappeared in the cafeteria. He told me, “Honestly, I just didn’t want to work that hard.” Of the half-dozen left, two wanted to leave every class 15 minutes early to drive to their next class on the other campus five miles away. Making an African American slavery class mandatory will help change the image of Black courses from easy-A classes to valuable, idea-rich classes deserving of serious thought.
With only one-third of today’s 20 million college students being the first-generation in their family to attend, it is clear that Americans believe college has proven to be a valuable experience for young adults. Black students who bask in their parents’ triumph over post-secondary institutional racism, may not realize how slavery is their concern so that when it strikes them, they think it’s their individual fault.
White students are more than happy to live their college lives in the image of Black culture — playing rap music as loud as any urban Black guy, or styling their hair in African-American style braids and locks. Once they get their degree, they can soften their music, cut their hair, get their good job and start living their lives, making their way up. Sometimes they don’t even have to do that. Dad hires them hoping for the best. If only it was so easy for African Americans.
The knowledge that slavery and systemic racism now can prevent Black students from mental and emotional problems. A mandatory course can impart integrity to those white students’ lives. For those who don’t care about slavery and the American system that holds Black people down literally and figuratively, a mandatory class will require an intelligent, reasoned argument. Their college degree will depend on how good a job they do on that.
Derek Bok put little faith in accrediting agencies for achieving his objectives, but these agencies have already started working on mine. Accreditation agencies’ general education requirements pave the way for a mandatory American slavery class.
For instance, The Higher Learning Commission, a regional accrediting agency for schools in 19 Midwest states, judges schools by “Its encouragement of curricular or co-curricular activities that prepare students for informed citizenship and workplace success.” Professional school accreditation criteria such as those revised by The College Commission on Nursing Education in 2018, call for students to be “exposed to individuals with diverse life experience, perspectives and background.” The point is to “broaden student perspectives.” College faculty and administrators can make recognition of how slavery impacts Americans now a requirement for an educated person. This would be a specific class, not a selection from a smorgasbord of electives with tenuous ties to American slavery and how African Americans live and work today.
Connect the dots. African Americans have and continue to contribute to every aspect of American culture and that means slavery is in every aspect of our culture.
The only way to change America is to educate our future leaders. Stuart Stevens, author of “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” said in an interview any time you attack education you are on a path to decline. The corollary is any time you hold up education you are moving forward. This Black Lives Matter moment can be extended when American college students finally study American slavery and systemic racism now a matter of their general education. Colleges and universities must move now to make such a course a mandatory requirement for graduation.