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NEGOTIATING A HISTORICALLY WHITE UNIVERSITY WHILE BLACK

(A New Book by Jack L. Daniel)

 

At the beginning of my 1960 senior year at Johnstown High School, there was not an iota of evidence to suggest that the American social mobility dream was a possibility for me.  There were few routes for Blacks to escape the stifling impact of poverty, limited education, inadequate health care, and Johnstown’s racist employment practices that relegated us to low level labor positions.  I did not have the talent to become an acclaimed athlete, a famous soul singer, a rhythmical dancer or any other stereotypical role reserved for Blacks in the entertainment world.  

Having succumbed to the insidious lore of low academic achievement being synonymous with Black masculinity, my inferior high school transcript rendered me inadmissible to college.  My dysfunctional mentality also led me to view military service as my postsecondary “reach school,” the local Bethlehem Steel Mill as my “safe school,” and hustling for tips at Jolly Joe’s Carwash as my “no more school” scenario.  Fortunately, I never had to pursue these options because I was accepted as a “high risk” student at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown.

A superficial look at my subsequent educational career would suggest that I was evidence of the “Horatio Alger” myth, the notion that anyone could work hard and succeed.  The casual observer might note that I did things such as earn my baccalaureate degree in less than three years and my doctorate by age 26; had post-doctoral administrative experiences at Harvard University and Stanford University; and, among other things while working at Pitt, became a Dean, Vice Provost and Distinguished Service Professor, i.e., the highest faculty rank conferred by Pitt.  However, a closer look at my educational journey reveals the nearly miraculous way a Black, male, disadvantaged student, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, negotiated a very complex higher education labyrinth. 

Negotiating a Historically White University While Black is my personal narrative covering the dynamics of being [1] a Black student in the Johnstown Public Schools and at the University of Pittsburgh; [2] a faculty member for a year at Central Michigan University; and [3] a faculty member and administrator for several decades at the University of Pittsburgh.  In keeping with the racism signaled by the phrase, “driving while Black,” the book focuses on the nature of and ways of coping with the implicit biases, micro-aggressions, and other obstacles faced by Black people in historically White institutions of higher education.  Some of the matters addressed include factors such as the following: 

  • Stigma of being Black and also labeled a disadvantage student;

 

  •  Inadequate in and out of the classroom support services for a diverse student body;

  •  Struggle for Black identity in a predominantly White educational context;

  •  Extent to which Black students, faculty and administrators can become “mis-educated,” e.g., educated away from their culture while remaining on the margins of the dominant campus culture;

  • Need for high expectations on the parts of students as well as their faculty members;

  • White expectations for Black faculty and administrators to be race experts;

  • Efforts to develop Black/Africana research and teaching programs;

  • Importance of role models for first-generation college students;

  • Protracted obstacles associated with becoming a diverse and inclusive campus; and

  • Effective strategies for the ongoing pursuit of equity and social justice in historically White institutions of higher education.

 

Given the significant opportunity gaps that continue to exist for so many students, we cannot depend on the serendipitous factors that enabled me to go from being a classroom disrupter in first grade and an under achieving high school student to serving as a Distinguished Service Professor at a historically White major research university.  Thus, my hope is that the telling of my story, covering a period of more than 50 years of association with the University of Pittsburgh, will aid those who wish to proactively assist Black students, faculty and administrators as well as other people of color prosper in historically White colleges and universities.  With the intent of aiding those who are currently focused on matters related to diversity and inclusion, I also offer constructive commentary which might be used to better their programs.

What matters most to me about my Pitt sojourn are not things such as the appointments of “firsts,” e.g., the first Black Dean, Provost, Vice Chancellor, President, Coach, Professor, Director, etc.  Nor is the focus on the “first” student to earn a given degree or national award.  The prize on which I kept my eyes was not the turning of Pitt-type institutions into some sort of diverse Noah’s Arks on which we have some equal number of each species of human diversity.

At the center of my many years with my “hands on the plow” was the goal of providing Black students with equal opportunities for access to and success at Pitt and, in turn, the fervent hope they would play their roles in making society what it ought to be.  Hence, I am extremely fortunate to have been able to “go up to the mountain top” and not simply “look over” but also, with great pride, bare witness to their successes.

I have witnessed six Black Pitt alumni “come up the back side of the mountain,” graduate from Pitt with academic distinction, enjoy successful careers and, along the way, become Trustees at the University of Pittsburgh. 

I can testify to Black alumni having secured positions such as [1] a State Supreme Court Justice; [2] higher education Department Chairs, Deans, Vice Presidents, Provosts and Presidents; [3] members of City Councils and Congress; [4] critically acclaimed public school teachers, poets, and novelists; [5] entrepreneurs and corporate executives; [6] distinguished dentists, nurses, physicians, lawyers, engineers, social workers; and [7] presidents of professional associations. 

Of special importance is the fact that the Pitt African American Alumni Council is made up of people who “lift as they climb,” i.e., people who are helping to transform Pitt into the diverse, inclusive, just and equitable place it should have been from inception.  In a way, the writing of Negotiating a Historically White University While Black is a passing of the baton to these “sturdy Black bridges.”  It is my hope that they will play their respective roles in educating students who are well-prepared for global citizenship and leadership in a twenty-first, technological, technicolored century. 

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Contributor, Pittsburgh Urban Media

March 22, 2019

 

Negotiating a Historically White University While Black

Paperback at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1732433909?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860

Kindle at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PV6NMZS

 

 

 

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