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Black Alumni in Today’s Headlines March 23, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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Political consultant and commentator, Donna Brazile

Some have been appointed by committee, some are trying to earn your vote, and some make their living explaining the actions of their elected and appointed peers; but there is one thing that all of the following Black political newsmakers have in common — a strong academic foundation.

  • Barack Obama, presidential candidate — Columbia University (B.A., 1983); Harvard Law (J.D., 1991)
  • David Patterson, newly-appointed Governor and former Lieutenant Governer of New York — Columbia University (B.A., History, 1977); Hofstra Law School (J.D., 1983)
  • Donna Brazile, political commentator and consultant, owner of Brazile & Associates –Louisiana State University (B.A., 1981)
  • Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., retired minister, Trinity United Church of Christ, controversial former advisor to Barack Obama’s campaign — Howard University (B.A., 1968; M.A., English, 1969); United Theological Seminary (D.M., 1990)
  • Michelle Robinson Obama, former vice president for external and community affairs, University of Chicago, campaigner for and wife of presidential candidate Barack Obama — Princeton University (B.A., Sociology, 1985); Harvard Law School (J.D., 1988)

Posted by Ajuan Mance


In Memoriam: Jane Matilda Bolin March 14, 2008

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January 8, 2008 marked exactly one year since the death of one of African America’s greatest foremothers in the area of higher education. On January 8, 2007 Jane Matilda Bolin, one of the first African American women to graduate from Wellesley College and the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, passed away at at the age of 98.

Of her experiences at Wellesley, Bolin said,

There were a few sincere friendships developed in that beautiful, idyllic setting of the college but, on the whole, I was ignored outside the classroom. I am saddened and maddened even nearly half a century later to recall many of my Wellesley experiences but my college days for the most part evoke sad and lonely personal memories. These experiences perhaps were partly responsible for my lifelong interest in the social problems, poverty and racial discrimination rampant in our country. . . . I report my memories honestly because this racism too is part of Wellesley’s history and should be recorded fully, if only as a benighted pattern to which determinedly it will never return and, also, as a measure of its progress. –as reported in Wellesley Person of the Week, for the week of July 10, 2000

As a tribute to her memory and in honor of her legacy as a pioneer both in higher education and in the legal field, I am this excerpt from Jane Bolin’s obituary, which first appeared in the January 8, 2007 weekly digest of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Jane Bolin, one of the first black graduates of Wellesley College, the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, and the nation’s first black female judge, died earlier this month in New York City. She was 98 years old.

Jane Matilda Bolin was the daughter of Gaius Bolin, an attorney who had been the first African American to earn a degree at Williams College. In 1924 Jane Bolin graduated from high school at the age of 15. She lived only a stone’s throw away from Vassar College, a Seven Sister school in Poughkeepsie, New York. But instead she enrolled at Wellesley College because, at that time, Vassar did not admit blacks. She graduated with honors in four years and then enrolled at Yale Law School, where she was a classmate of Edward R. Murrow.

Bolin moved to New York City and opened a law practice with her husband. In 1937 Bolin was named assistant corporation counsel for the City of New York. Two years later she was summoned to a meeting with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Bolin expected to be fired, or at least reprimanded, but could not fathom what she had done wrong. After she had been waiting apprehensively for some time, the mayor burst into the room and abruptly said, “Raise your right hand. I am going to make you a judge.” Her appointment to the Domestic Relations Court made Bolin the nation’s first black woman judge. She served nearly 40 years on the court.

In 1978 Bolin was required to retire at age 70. At the time Judge Bolin said, “I don’t want to go. They’re kicking me out.”

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Integration Woes Plague South African University March 14, 2008

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I’ve been following the story of the struggle to integrate the higher education system in South Africa’s Orange Free State. For those who are not familiar with this region, this excerpt from a January report in The City Press, a southern African news weekly, describes a bit of the history of this region, known as a haven for many of the most inflexible of South Africa’s white apartheid supporters:

THE Orange Free State was one of the four provinces of the old republic. And it was the province most notorious for practising the worst forms of racism.

Having run away from the “liberal” Cape, the descendants of the Dutch settlers established the “Vrystaat” [“free state”] as their own ­Canaan.

Blacks of Indian origin could not even sleep over in the province. They could only drive through.

from City Press, March 1, 2008

According to City Press, IOL, and other South Africa-based news sources, the UFS administration has continued to take proactive steps toward opening the institution to students of color. City Press notes that, “Over the past few years the university’s administration has tried hard to enforce transformation.” The white students at the institution, however, have been somewhat more resistant to the change in the racial makeup of the student body, and much of their resistance has taken place within the residence halls (called hostels), a flashpoint for conflict between students of color and white student segregationists.

During the last few weeks, the University of the Free State (UFS), a self-described “multicultural” institution located in the region’s major city of Bloemfontein, has hit a particularly rocky patch on the road toward integration. The conflict between the administration of the University, which supports full integration, and those white students who wish to preserve segregation in the residence halls has come to a head around the leak of a racist video made by a handful of students.

The video depicts black custodial staff being subjected to racist humiliation and abuse by white student residents of the Reitz hostel, first established 12 years ago, by white students opposed to the integration of campus living facilities. In it, black residence hall employees are tricked into eating food that has been contaminated with urine.

A recent report on CNN.com (February 28, 2008) describes the video:

In the video, white male students at Reitz Residence are seen encouraging at least three black female housekeepers to participate in what the students call the “Reitz Fear Factor,” an apparent reference to the television show in which contestants eat live worms or compete in other feats. 

In one scene from the video, a student mixes what looks like a beef stew in a plastic bowl and adds garlic and other items. Then he tells the camera he will add the “special ingredient.”

The student then urinates into the mixture, which he later stirs up and puts in a microwave. Other students can be heard laughing on the tape.

The next scene shows a different student urging at least three housekeepers to drink cups full of the stew, saying, “This is our dorm’s ‘Fear Factor.’ We want to see who has the best ‘Fear Factor.'”

On the video, the student does not tell the women that there is urine in the mixture.

The women, on their knees, spit the stew into buckets after tasting it. Some appeared to vomit, but the women also laughed during the incident as the student urged them on.

Next, the women struggle to run in what appears to be a race. The video is put in slow-motion as the theme from “Chariots of Fire” plays.

Finally, one of the students awards a large bottle of whiskey to one of the women, telling her she has won the “Fear Factor.”

At the end of the video, a message appears on the screen in Afrikaans saying, “That, at the end of the day, is what we think of integration.”

Click on this link to watch a CNN-edited montage of clips from the student-made video.

In a report on South African news site IOL.co.za, journalists Beauregard Tromp and Botho Molosankwe, describe the developments that led up to the creation and leak of the video:

The video – planned and made by hostel residents Roelof Malherbe, Schalk van der Merwe, Danie Grobler and Johnny Roberts in September to protest against the racial integration of Reitz – was leaked, apparently by a scorned girlfriend of one of the men.

The residence was started 12 years ago by white students angered at being forced to share a hostel with blacks during the university’s first attempt at integration. At the time, the residence was a guesthouse on campus.

Left unchecked, Reitz quickly developed a reputation as a hotbed of racism, associated with drunken behaviour.

For black students, the area in front of the hostel was an unofficial no-go zone, which, if they went near it, resulted in a barrage of racist verbal abuse.

On numerous occasions, the local campus newspaper reported racist incidents involving Reitz residents. In one, a black female student was attacked.

On the face of it, the university allowed the situation to continue unchecked

Racial tensions began to peak in the middle of last year when the senate passed a motion to start integrating hostels, with the goal of full integration within three years. Initially they would aim for a 70-30 percent split this year.

The goal was achieved in the women’s hostels.

However, in traditionally white hostels, less than 15 percent of the men are black. And no white students took up accommodation in traditionally black hostels, instead opting to find digs off campus.

–from Iol.co.za, Feburary 29, 2008

The surfacing of this video has sparked widespread anti-racist protest in the Orange Free State and beyond, including today’s protest (March 14, 2008), in which roughly “1000 union members affiliated to the Congress of SA Trade Unions”  marched to the University of the Free State to hand over a “memorandum on racism.” Workers at UFS have been picketing the Rietz residence for the last two days. (Source: IOL.ca.za)

Posted by Ajuan Mance

The Culture of Testing (Part 2) March 12, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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For many of the young Black men and women who take standardized tests, neither the language of the questions, nor the subjects addressed reflect or validate the local environment in which the test taker was raised, the values, interests, and experiences that young Black man or woman was exposed to, or the stories he or she read or was told. Too many of the scenarios presented in the word problems and too many the settings addressed in what used to be called the “reading comprehension” sections depict activities, places, and ideas that he or she has never heard of or experienced.

It is essential that young Black men and women, boys and girls have the opportunity to see, hear, visit, read about and otherwise encounter a broad range of experiences that transport them literally and figuratively beyond the boundaries of their communities. Such opportunities will not only broaden our young people’s vocabularies and decrease their alienation from the standardized testing experiences, but it will also help them develop interests, and hobbies, their passion for which might well become the motivation for excelling in high school and moving on to college and even graduate education.

And such activities don’t have to focus exclusively on dance and theatrical forms rooted in the European or white American experience. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre tours the U.S. regularly; and The Dance Theater of Harlem is currently holding a national audition tour, open to young people between the ages of 8 and 24.

Black-oriented Broadway productions like The Lion King and Black written, produced and directed theatrical productions like The Color Purple are currently on tour. My mention of these big-budget national shows should not, however, overshadow the often exceptional local Black theater groups (and dance groups, for that matter), many of which are considerably more affordable than some of the big Broadway touring companies.

My passion for this issue — the increased exposure of Black boys and girls to a broader range of settings and experiences — is quite clear. This issue is — big surprise — very personal to me. I was one of those Black kids whose parents took it upon themselves to make sure that I had a range of experiences. Newly migrated to the NY metropolitan area from the deep south, and living modestly on one public schoolteacher’s salary (my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in middle school), they joined the American Museum of Natural History, where we became regulars. Between subscriptions to Natural History magazine (free to members), the late and great Omni magazine, and Smithsonian and weekly trips to New York’s discount book shops, museums, flea markets, and salvage shops, piano lessons, ballet lessons, and frequent (and economical) trips to the public library, my parents created an environment for us that was as culturally stimulating and intellectually rich as any I can imagine.

When, at the age of 16, I took myassigned seat in the school library rearranged–for the day–to function as a testing center, I was no more or less nervous than the other kids in the honors track at my overwhelmingly white high school. My experience taking the SAT affirmed this belief. I left the testing center with a feeling of accomplishment and cautious optimism. It never even occurred to me to feel alienated, largely because three prior years of taking classes with my intellectually precocious peers taught me that, although some of my classmates had traveled abroad or grown up on the college campuses where their parents were faculty and administrators, they knew no more of the sciences, the arts, history, literature, or mathematics than I did.

I wish that kind of confidence and that kind of breadth of experience for all Black children. I’m still not quite sure how my young, new-migrated parents knew to saturate their kids in such a broad range of the experiences and tastes, colors, and sounds — the range of possibilities — that the world had to offer. I have a feeling it has something to do with the value placed — in the pre-integration communities of their youth and in the historically Black college where they met, in their homes, and in their churches — on the importance of learning and on a very specific definition of what it mean to be “educated.”

Not every Black child will have the happy privilege of being born into a stable family of intellectually curious, college-educated, emotionally available parents. Not every child will have the benefit of being born into the safe, stable, and supportive environment that he or she deserves. The challenge, now, is how to fill the gap — how to enter the lives of those children whose families, however well-intentioned, struggle to provide even the most basic staples of survival and help instill in them a sense of self-love, possibility, and entitlement to a life as remarkable as they can imagine.

The now familiar mantra, “each one teach one” seems too gradual for the dramatic transformation that needs to take place in so many young Black lives. We need broad action that penetrates deeply into all Black communities in need, and we need it soon. We need magic, but not the type of magic that we see in the pages of Harry Potter or on the stages of Las Vegas. We need the kind of magic that happens when a people moves as one to aid and transform the lives of their most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

The kind of magic that young African American children need is the magic that Amiri Baraka is speaking of at the end of Ka’ba, his love poem to Black communities in struggle. Baraka writes,

We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

Posted by Ajuan Mance


The Culture of Testing (Part 1) March 12, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in ACT, African American Students, Black Students, Higher Education, race, SAT, SAT II.
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If the following report from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education does not disturb you, then you haven’t taken a standardized “aptitude” test lately:

Black-White Divide in Cultural Pursuits

A survey published by the National Endowment for the Arts compares the rates of attendance and participation in various cultural activities for blacks compared to whites. In almost all cases, whites were more likely than blacks to attend or participate in these types of events. And in many cases, the differences were large.

For example, whites were three times as likely as blacks to attend a classical music performance, the opera, or the ballet. Whites were twice as likely as blacks to attend a musical play or other type of theatrical production. Whites were also twice as likely as blacks to go to an art fair. Whites were also significantly more likely than blacks to attend a dance recital or an art museum.

The cost of attending these events is undoubtedly one reason for the racial gap in attendance. But money is not the only reason for the cultural gap. This is demonstrated by National Endowment for the Arts data on people who watch these types of cultural events on television. Here, blacks and whites have roughly equal access to the performing arts. And the racial gaps are considerably smaller. But whites are still more likely than blacks to watch classical music performances, plays, ballet, and dance programs on television.

You may be tempted to dismiss this report as but another attempt attack on African American culture and traditions. There are two very good reasons that you shouldn’t.

First, aside from classical music, opera, and ballet, there is nothing specifically racial about the events and activities described. Black people participate in dance and theatre (musical and non musical) as choreographers, directors, playwrights, and composers. Black people also make art of all types, from sculpture, to paintings, to textiles, to performance art. Also, classical music and opera are only racialized in terms of their origins. A number of African American performers have distinguished themselves as among the finest practitioners of these musical arts, including pianists like Andre Watts and Awadagin Pratt, and operatic divas like Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Marion Anderson, and the grande damme of them all, the great Leontyne Price.

Few young Black people realize that before integration African American high schools had a strong tradition of high-level vocal training in both traditional Black art forms like the spirituals and gospel music and classical and operatic forms for all voices. That tradition lives on at America’s HBCUs, in the form of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Bethune-Cookman Concert Chorale, and other similar vocal groups. Unfortunately, our cultural memory is short, and while a Black child in — say — Jacksonville, Florida in the 1950s could well be accustomed to seeing young Black men and women singing works of Bach and Gershwin or a choral arrangement of “Go Down Moses” at school and church programs, today’s African American youth consider such activities to be far outside the scope of normal or even acceptable entertainment in their environs.

This second reason that the NEH report on the divide between Black and white participation in and attendance at certain cultural activities is based on my own anecdotal experience as a one-time standardized test taker, a long-time veteran instructor in summer bridge programs (at two institutions), and as a long-time reader of college applications (first as an admission office and later in various capacities as a faculty member). Over the years I have had the opportunity to teach, mentor and evaluate the full range of Black student standardized test takers, from those who struggled to simply complete the exam, to those whose scores place them among the elite ranks of National Merit Semi-Finalists.

The difference I have seen between these two groups is that the former group, comprised of those students who struggle with the SAT and similar exams, engage the test as an alien environment. For this group, the world of the test — the testing environment, the testing conditions, the tone of the instructions (both written and spoken) the questions asked, the topics addressed in the reading comprehension and essay sections — feel troublingly unfamiliar, as though they are part of an exclusive culture or community from which the test taker has been excluded.

Those Black young people who score well on their SATs, ACTs, and SAT IIs are those for whom the world of the test feels like familiar terrain. While they may feel challenged by specific questions, or by the time limit, they do not feel challenged by or alienated from breadth of cultural exposure and experiences that the test assumes.

Indeed, the SAT and ACT reward a breadth of experiences and cultural exposure, both directly and indirectly. The vocabulary on the language and literature-oriented portions of these exams are structured such that those test-takers who have encountered a range of words much broader than the relatively limited vocabulary that we use in our daily lives.

High scorers on verbal, reading comprehension, and other language-oriented tests tend to have encountered an extraordinarly broad range of words through two primary channels; such students tend to be avid readers, and they also tend to have experience a broader than average range of leisure, athletic, and arts activities, each of which has its own specialized vocabulary.

Black students decreased exposure to musical and dramatic theater, classical and jazz and world music concerts, museums (art, natural history, historical, and others), and dance (tap, modern, ballet, African, and other forms) as either participants or audience members leaves them at a disadvantage relative to many of their white counterparts, whose attendance at or participation in such events both provides them with opportunities to add the specialized vocabulary of these areas and significantly decreases the likelihood that they will encounter on standardized exams topics, settings, and figures with whom they are wholly unfamiliar.

Posted by Ajuan Mance



On Black Folks, Blackfolks and Feminism March 3, 2008

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 A shout out to the sometimes wise, sometimes witty, sometimes weird folks who keep the livejournal’s Blackfolks community alive, provocative, and thriving.

Today’s discussion thread on Womanist thought focused directly on one of my pet peeves, the residual tendency within our African American and Afro-diasporic communities to dismiss feminism or any woman-centered politics as “white.”

This mode of thinking is much less common today that it was even 10 years ago; and it is certainly a lot less prevalent during what I might call the 20th-century heyday of such ideas, the Black Arts and Black power movements of the mid- to late 1960s and the early ’70s.

Still, though, such thinking continues to rear its head, and often in ways that are silencing to those who feel differently. Despite the ascendancy of Black public intellectuals like Mark Anthony Neal and bell hooks who argue quite convincingly that feminism is liberatory for both men and women of the Black community, too many us of continue to ascribe to the belief that to adopt a political mode of analysis that addresses sexism as well as racism is to dilute or undermine the rightful focus of Black social justice activism on the restoration of male power to Black men.

Needless to say, any time Black folks begin talking about how feminism is a white thing, I become frustrated. To say that feminism is for white women is historically, politically, and ideologically uninformed. Those who assert that feminism and/or anti-sexist political activism is for white women have either forgotten about or never heard of  Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, all of whom fought for women’s rights before the name feminism had been invented.

I also think of the book All the Women Are White, All the Men are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave, the groundbreaking  reader that takes up the task of defining a feminst framework that addresses the specific interests of Black women, as it both white supremacy and some of the more sexist aspects of Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism.

Consider also the more recent contributions of these scholars: the prolific bell hooks, with her many volumes of Black feminist analysis; Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins’s s overview of Black feminist theory in the U.S.; the Gates-edited anthology of Black feminist literary criticism called Reading Black, Reading Feminist; and countless others.

These are powerful people and powerful texts. To say that feminism is a white mode of analysis of socio-political framework is to reinforce the invisibility of Black women’s myriad and paradigm shifting contributions to the discourse around sexism and racism.

When we as Black women and men deny that feminism can serve Black folks as well as white, we limit the meaning of Blackness and we limit the possibilities for our own freedom.

Posted by Ajuan Mance