Probing History Moves to the Center of Work

In the early years of CCI, when salary was minimal, I sought income in other places. For twenty years I taught part-time at the Andover Newton Theological School, assisting in the Church and Ministry Department, teaching a course on Church Adminis-
tration. Some of the students knew of my work at Community Change, and when they were in a course on the Abolition Movement, they asked me to meet with their class to talk about the Abolition Movement. I declined because I knew nothing of that history; they insisted. We agreed that they would talk about the Abolition period, and I was to reflect on my work against racism today. After a session with that class, they astounded me, proclaiming that I was an “Abolitionist”! The Professor, Earl Thompson, then gave me the opportunity to co-teach with him for two semesters. I was launched into a study of history that was new and exciting.

There was still that need to “understand the history in which we were trapped”. Where did racism come from? What are the seeds of its origin? How did we get into this mess? Came a week-end workshop with faculty and students at Boston College, and then the invitation to teach. Thus began, in 1980, the semester-long course, The History and Development of Racism in the USA. I was launched into a new career as an untrained historian. Understanding history as the context of our present condition became an extension of the “dis-ease”. A beginning recognition of decades of deferred dreams which threatened to break the wings by which we might fly through and above the storm. The spirits of Baldwin and Hughes pushed me further into the past and beckoned me to a new future.

Understanding the history of racism in the United States is a kind of “flying goal”, an ever-engaging process of “Sankofa”, looking back to find guidance for the forward look. In 2006 I left that course, having seen 2197 students engaged with the History and Development of Racism in the United States. Each completed fifteen weeks of reading, discussing, researching, engaging in sometimes painful discussion, discovering the depth and breadth of the institutionalized, politicized racism endemic in a “dis-eased” culture. For about half of those years at B.C., Paul Marcus, friend, colleague, from Community Change joined with me in teaching. A gifted teacher, Paul has provided many students and me with what he likes to call a new “lens” for viewing our world. The primary teachers have been the students; listening to, watching, observing their growth, has nurtured my understanding and hope. About one-third of those students have been students of color, a number which far eclipses the proportion of white/color enrolled at B.C. It continues to be a remarkable experience, revealing for me what Baldwin means, what Bell means, why I, like Eliot’s Magi, am “no longer at ease here” in the old dispensations, by which this racist system regulates human affairs.

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