When Bran and I discussed some of the idea of white people working with other white people about our antiracism work, a question I wanted to ask her (and very well may in a future post) is maybe it’s not that white people shouldn’t have those spaces, but that Black people should have more spaces without white people? I was reminded of a story I’ve heard over the years in our family about disappointing and harmful attitudes about creating safe spaces for Black people. I asked my father to tell it to me again. Here’s what he said:
In the late sixties and early seventies, Wellesley College, the prestigious all-women’s institution in the Boston area, had roughly thirty African-American students out of a student body of about 1200 undergraduates. In an act of solidarity, those students banded together to demand that the college’s administration should provide them with a student center of their own. At that time, many of the college’s white students used the college’s elegant and spacious student center, from which the black students felt alienated. White students also had access to three gracious social clubs, akin to sororities. Black students had no place to congregate just by themselves, no place to prepare the food they might want to eat or to listen to the music they might want to hear or to entertain black male guests or just to be together without having to think about justifying their own presence in the wider college world.
So the black students decided to organize to bring pressure on the college administration to designate one of the college’s social clubs as a black cultural center. At that time the college administration and many undergraduate students opposed that proposal, often on the grounds that the college was a single community which did not set aside facilities for “special interest groups.” The administration argued that the student body should be one body, defined by what was then regarded as progressive social values such as “integration.”
Nevertheless, and against much social pressure, the black students organized to demand that one of the social clubs be set aside for them. The administration and the majority of the student body opposed them. Black students found support from only a handful of faculty and from the College’s Chaplaincy, sparked at that time by a Black Episcopal Chaplain. The black student group, which took the name Ethos, eventually voted unanimously to picket the college President’s office and to call in the Boston area press. At that point, the administration relented, and made one social club available to Ethos.
Along the way, many of the black students paid a large personal price in terms of friendships and collegial relationships with other students and with faculty members. Many black students found themselves shunned by other (white) students and by a virtually all-white faculty. It was a wrenching time for these black students, most of whom had never “protested” in this way, most of whom wanted nothing more than to do their academic work, to have a few friends of their own choosing, and to graduate to promising futures. But very few of them, in retrospect, ever regretted the fact that they had chosen to band together in solidarity and to claim a meaningful space of their own at that prestigious, upper-middle-class white women’s institution of higher learning.
Fast forward to about a year later. By that time, Ethos has not only become a thriving cultural and social center for black students, the group had created its own choir, which, from time to time, sang its own traditional and contemporary black music on Sundays in the College’s Chapel. That Chapel at the time had become a center for worship and preaching that lifted up the vision of Jesus as a champion of liberation of the oppressed.
On one Sunday in particular, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been invited to preach. Members of the Ethos Choir practiced eagerly in anticipation of the visit from this then nationally known black progressive leader. When Jackson arrived on campus, however, he mainly kept to himself and socialized with the entourage of supporters that he had brought with him. Jackson made no serious effort to talk with Ethos members to hear their concerns or to learn about their struggles at the college.
So it happened that during his sermon Jackson advanced the idea that blacks needed to engage white society on its own terms and to take over positions of power on their own in the wider society. As a contrast, he pointed from the pulpit in the direction of Ethos’ new social center and said words to this effect: “we have to get out of a ghetto mentality and get out of our segregated communities like that little house over there — and claim power of our own.” While there very well might have been validity in Jesse Jackson’s larger point as far as the society as a whole was concerned, his words had the effect of devastating the hearts and minds of the small number of black students who had fought so hard for a place of their own in their wider campus world at that time. He ended up giving a — probably valid — sermon on black aspirations in America, but it turned out, due to his failure to keep his ear to the ground and to listen to the voices of the college’s own black students, to be a disaster for the black students themselves who had struggled so hard for a place of their own in that all-white setting. At the time, the one black administrator at Wellesley College was heard to observe to a few friends: “not everything that glistens black is black.”