White Boy: An Interview with Mark Naison

Editor's Introduction: Historian Mark Naison is Professor of African and African-American Studies and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham University. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (Temple University Press, 2002), Communists in Harlem During the Depression (University of Illinois Press, 1983), co-author of The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1940-1984 (Rutgers University Press, 1986), and the author of several articles on African-American culture and contemporary urban issues, including "Outlaw Culture in Black Culture" (Reconstruction, Fall 1994). His study of Buffalo's African-American community appeared in the Urban League's anthology, African-Americans and the Rise of Buffalo's Post-Industrial City (1990) and he was one of the historians asked to contribute his story to Historians and Race: Autobiography and the Writing of History (1996). He is now working on a major study of the history of African-Americans in the Bronx, in collaboration with the Bronx Historical Society.

Besides being a dedicated teacher and scholar, Naison is a community activist, and very much involved in various interracial youth organizations. He is a founder of the Bronx Youth Employment Project, "Save a Generation," and an organizer and fund-raiser for the Bonnie Youth Club, the largest sand-lot baseball league in Brooklyn and the only one that is predominantly African-American.

In the Fall of 2002, I sat down with Naison and interviewed him about his life and career, and the relationship between his activism and his scholarship.


RealMedia (part 1)

RealMedia (part 2)

MP3 (part 1)

MP3 (part 2)


[Part 1]

Mark Naison

Gerald Zahavi: Mark, it's a pleasure to have you here.

Mark Naison: I am very glad to be here.

Zahavi: Well, let's start by being provocative. How did a 'white boy' like you ever get so involved with the study of African American culture and history?

Naison: I grew up in Crown Heights in the 1950's at the time that it was undergoing a very dramatic change in its racial composition, a change which really polarized the community. I grew up in the early 50's when there wasn't a visible race problem Crown Heights was a Jewish and Italian community. Perhaps one and two percent of the population was Black and the Jewish population, at least on the surface, was very racially tolerant. They welcomed the Jackie Robinson Dodgers. Racial epithets were not used in my presence. When people were talking about Blacks they used the term "Shvartza"; they actually went into Yiddish. I was there when integrated sports were capturing the imagination of the neighborhood. I was there when rock and roll was doing the same. But then, by the time I entered High School, the neighborhood became very tense. I went to a local high school which had about twenty percent of its students African American, many of them coming down by bus from Bedford Stuyvesant. There were fights outside the school; there were fights in the school. I got in a locker room fight with six black kids. It led me being knocked out cold. I ended up going to a school out of the district, and my parents who had not talked about race very much when I was eight, or nine, or ten--by the time I was thirteen or fourteen-- [were] becoming very visibly angry about the changing racial composition of the neighborhood and their anger came to a head for the first time when I was in High school and decided to participate in my first civil rights demonstration which was being organized by the Erasmus Hall High school Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which was joining Brooklyn CORE in picketing Ebinger's Bakery. This bakery chain refused to hire African Americans as truck drivers or [have] people working in the stores, even though many of their stores were being located in Black neighborhood. And when I went to this demonstration my parents hit the ceiling and said one, that I can get in trouble for going to a demonstration because in their era people lost lost their jobs because of this, but two, I should'nt be doing something to help black people; I should be doing something to help the Jews if I wanted to help somebody. It was clear that they saw African Americans as a treat to their neighborhood, their security -- in ways that upset me. So, when I went to college I also became involved in the chapter of CORE at Columbia. [I] was watching with great concern and dismay at the violence that greeted civil rights demonstrators in the South. [I] also was disturbed at how race played itself out in the Columbia campus. There were some Southern students at Columbia who were openly racist. Columbia itself had this very contemptuous attitude toward Harlem, had also displaced many people of color from the neighborhood. And so, I looked around me and saw an extension of the racial issues that I was seeing in my own neighborhood which seemed to really divide people, and of course was now dividing the whole country. So when I started taking history classes in American History, I decided to do my research papers on subjects relating to race. The first big research paper I did was on the disfranchisement of the Negro in Alabama in the early 20th century, when the Alabama Constitutional Convention was debating whether to overturn the Reconstruction actions which had placed African Americans in positions as voters and as office holders and basically eliminate them from politics and establish a formal segregation code. So that was my first research venture into the study of race and it was a fascinating experience. I loved going back into the past. It was, I think 1903, and I was living this. I was at the convention, and the issues seemed so alive to me that I said "well, this is the kind of history I wanted to do." And I got some encouragement from this. I mean, this was a time at Columbia there were no courses in African American History. I don't ever recall reading a book by an African American author, but I had professors who encouraged this interest, particularly Walter Metzger who really, you know, every time I took a course with him and wanted to do this kind of research, he encouraged it. So I was moving in this direction, based upon my experience in Brooklyn, based upon what I was seeing and experiencing at Columbia, based upon what I was watching in the news, but the thing that really pushed me into this was what happened to me when I was a senior at Columbia and I met an African American woman at a basketball team party at Columbia. We started dating and then I fell in love with her. When I told my parents, they reacted with a level of hysteria that just blew me away. They had no interest in this young woman's background, character, personality, accomplishments; just the fact that she was Black meant that they would have nothing to do with her. They basically told me she could never be part of our family, and they would see me but never with her, and basically said that I was destroying everything that they had worked for in their lives. Now this experience (and parenthetically I was adopted by her extended family of transplanted Southerners), that experience made me feel that race was the overwhelming issue in American society , that we as a nation was unable to deal with not only at the level of politics but at the level of folk culture mores. And as an intellectual, if I was going to do anything to make a difference it was to find the language, find the images, to try to understand the force of this in people's lives. So I said I've got a subject that will keep me busy for a lifetime. I mean I wish I didn't have the momentum and drive for this interest coming from this experience, but it did and it's something that's never left me.

Zahavi: But it strikes me that even in becoming involved in an interracial relationship there must have been a awful lot of psychological preparation of you . . . because of the people you come in contact with, the readings you've done, the influences . . . to make you enter an interracial relationship. So, you're suggesting that that experience itself was a shaping experience. But were there factors before that led you to be willing to enter into an interracial relationship.

Naison: I thing that's a very good question. I mean, clearly growing up . . . there were a lot of things that probably contributed to this. Growing up as a child with black heroes in sports and music, having taken the step of participating in Civil Rights demonstrations against my parents wishes, having spent some time in college being involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and also studying African American history probably prepared me for staying with the relationship once it began to blossom. But I don't think I was looking for an interracial relationship. I think that it was something I stumbled into accidentally. I mean, I was looking for companionship; I wasn't looking for interracial companionship. I didn't expect to fall in love, but when I did all of these things predisposed me not to give in to the pressures that I was feeling from my parents, from people in the street, later from African American students who became politicized in the Black Power Movement and began to question it. So I think that I was predisposed to respond but I think that a lot of the things that happened to me were accidental things that happened to young people when they meet. Nor was I the only person who this happened to. I think I was one of the few people who also planned to be a historian. I had decided I was going to be a historian before I got in the relationship. The relationship added a layer of passion to that career choice, if not obsession, that I think wouldn't have otherwise been there.

Zahavi: What actually led you to decide to be a historian?

Naison: Both of my parents were teachers and I grew up thinking that teaching was a wonderful way of life. I think that the first experience that made me want to be a historian was actually a European History I took as a sophomore with this amazing lecturer name Paul Noyes who unfortunately died of cancer at a very young age. He was doing the French Revolution and European revolutions, and made you feel like you were living in the revolution, and it was so exciting to see somebody take two hundred people and make them feel chills going through them when he spoke. But then I did a paper on the Paris Commune where I got the original minutes of the Paris Commune in French, and as I read through this--and I remember they were in the New York Public Library on 42nd street--I just felt chills going through me even more than I felt in the classroom. It was like, "My God I 'm entering the past," and research of a certain kind just energized me, my imagination, my intellect, and made me feel like nothing else had ever done and so I said, you know, if I can combine this research experience with the capacity to move people and make them feel and think the way this man could do, wouldn't that be a great way to live. So, I think it was a combination of that--and then I had the same experience when I did that paper on the Disfranchisement of the Negro in Alabama. Going through original documents excited me because it enabled me to enter a different time and place.

Zahavi: Now, you went to Columbia in 1962 and you finished in [19]66 and you went immediately into the graduate program? ["Right"]. Now you studied with some folks I don't normally associate with radical history or history that focuses on racial issues: William Leuchtenburg . . . Richard Hofstadter. What was it like--by this time you considered yourself a radical? ["Right"]. What was it like for a radical to work with faculty members like William Leuchtenburg and Richard Hofstadter.

Naison: Well, hmm, William Leuchtenburg was somebody who thought that I needed to come down a peg . I mean, I think he, to some degree, respected my passion, but also thought that I had an element of arrogance about my new-found political radicalism that needed to be checked a bit. But he did it in a very constructive way; namely, he just tore up my prose, but in a way that helped me as a writer. In other words, whatever he brought to the table in terms of skepticism, his way of dealing with it mainly helped me improve my skills. Now, I'm a fairly thick-skinned person, so some people might have picked up what he had done and gotten discouraged or insulted, but I was probably so arrogant that the criticisms, the political criticisms, asides about my personal character, didn't bother me.

Richard Hofstadter, I think, identified with me because he had once been a radical, and he kind of liked the radical me even though he thought portions of my radicalism were comical. I mean, he used to sort of make fun of me, in a much more benign way. There was a little bit of edge in William Leuchtenburg and with Hofstadter it was more humor. He dealt with me more in terms of humor and I actually really enjoyed working with him. I mean, unfortunately he also passed away soon after I began working with him.

But I also, at this point, had a cohort of fellow students who were such a great source of support and comaraderie that I was able to say "Ok, look, I've got two of the best known people in American History here working with me. This is going to help me. I'm not compromising anything. They're telling me what they think. I'm accepting the things that they're saying that can make me a better writer and a better historian and I am going about doing what I'm doing. It seemed to me--again, because of the camaraderie at Columbia Graduate School among so many other people who were doing similar work-- it was a good situation.

Zahavi: 1966, '67, '68, while you were doing your graduate work, were some of the hottest years in the 60's, in terms of student activism. What were the distractions . . . that's not the right term . . . I want you to tell me, situate yourself in that time, and [tell me about] all of the different influences that were tearing you apart as a scholar and as a person?

Naison: The first thing is, of course, the family situation I am in. I see my parents every two weeks in this very tense encounter which is complicated by the fact that my father has Hodgkin's Disease which will ultimately take his life. Even after what they did to me, I felt responsible to help them out even though there was never any reconciliation about my girlfriend. Bu then, every weekend I am going up to the Bronx to hang out with my girlfriend's sisters and their friends in a Black working-class setting which is totally different from anything I have ever experienced. These are working-class people who . . . . you know, they are eating different foods than I ever experienced. They're dancing to different music, and yet they completely accept my girlfriend and I. Then, we're also having her younger brothers and sisters come live with us and we're trying to put them through college. So, I am in this incredibly complicated family situation, which is both . . . My father is dying of Cancer and I am dealing with this, and I am a part of this Black extended family, which is wonderfully supportive and somewhat tumultuous. And then I am trying to do this graduate work which . . . Partly I just became incredibly compartmentalized. I set aside certain hours I would be in the Columbia Library doing my reading, and certain hours in the middle of the night when I would write when no one else was up. But, I also felt, "this is rough, but man, this is the real deal. You know, I'm twenty-one, twenty-two years old, I don't need sleep, and I am living it." Again, I'm feeling I am writing it; I am living it. Again, I was surrounded by love. I was surrounded by many, many friends I was surrounded by this loving family of people who accepted me unreservedly and that enabled me to deal with the pain of rejection by my parents.

Now, then the Vietnam War comes in, and that was in some ways the killer, because then there is this other . . . I mean, race alone was enough of an obsession with me but now we are dealing with something that not only threatens my life and that of my fellow students, but also could swallow up all of the potential gains we need to be making here because of the resources that were being siphoned off. So, reluctantly I become an antiwar activist also. And by that time, I don't know how the hell . . . I don't know if I was sleeping. By 1968, it's antiwar demonstrations, it's all these family responsibilities, and there's also the issue of a movement building at Columbia, which leads to the '68 demonstrations, so it's a time when the pressure starts to build to the point where I really do get close to the cracking point. When Martin Luther King is killed, and my father dies, and then Bobby Kennedy is killed, and the Columbia '68 demonstrations-- I don't know how I somehow kept from going under completely. Somehow there was a part of me that was determined to see this history thing through in spite of all of these other things going on. In retrospect it seems incredible that I kept going, but it must have meant an awful lot.

One other thing. I think that what also made a differences is meeting Paul Buhle and starting to write for Radical America, because Paul contacted me when he heard about the senior thesis I had written about the Rent Strike Movement in New York City, which I had read on WBAI. And when he had heard about that he wanted it for Radical America and eventually he published anedited version as an article. And then he wanted an article from my master's thesis on the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, and so all of a sudden I feel, "My God, people want what I'm doing as a historian, and they want it because they think in some way it helps build the movement." And I think that's also very important, that I felt . . . by 1968 I had had two articles published in Radical America and was feeling that my historical work is something that's important to my peers, and maybe that also kept me going.

Zahavi: Most people probably are not familiar with Radical America. Maybe you could take some time to tell us about it.

Naison: Ok, Paul Buhle was a graduate student in American History at the University of Wisconsin, just married, his wife Mary Jo, who is now an eminent scholar in Women's Studies and Women's History, and he decided that it was really important at a time when the New Left was building that it have some understanding of its History. So he started a magazine called Radical America, and it was called an SDS journal of American radicalism. It was identified specifically . . .it was like an SDS project; he was like an evangelist for the importance of understanding this history. And he found me, and it gave me a sense of purpose and probably a bunch of other people. Again, my experience--maybe some of the dimensions of it were unusual in terms of maybe this interracial relationship fueling this very focused passion--but there were a lot of people who were politicized in the 60's who were also, you know, who wanted to do history, and having a magazine which said you could do both, that the historical work could help the movement, that understanding the past experience of American radicalism, which had been erased from memory by the McCarthy era, was something important. And it was a terrific journal; a lot of people all over the country, most of whom were graduate students who were also activists, started writing for this. And people read it. I used to sell it at Columbia, peddle it to book stores in Manhattan. There was a sense of excitement about uncovering a lost legacy of radical activism that Paul triggered, and it triggered something in me that kept me from going under. In retrospect, you can almost say Radical America saved my life because there were friends of mine who went in directions where they lost their lives. I knew people who were my peers and comrades in SDS who died in this explosion, who went into Weathermen and died in the explosion, 11th street. I have people who I knew, who are serving life sentences. People in the late 60's who were in the left were driven into despair and rage in some pretty powerful ways. I think History kept me from jumping off the cliff.

Zahavi: One of the stories I loved in White Boys, your story of the oral exam, your PHD oral exam, maybe you can take some time to go into it . . .

Naison: Oh, God! I think this was probably in the Fall of 1969 or the early Spring when there was still building occupations going on on the Columbia campus. I had my oral exam ready and I had asked Mark Rudd and Lewis Cole, who were the two major leaders of the Columbia SDS chapter, if they could please not occupy Fayerweather Hall. I knew they were going to do a building occupation. I planned to join it, but if they could please not occupy the building I was having my orals in. So, I walk onto campus and I'm wearing my sport jacket and tie, trying to look professional. I still had that professorial personality I could pull out for this occasion, and Mark and Lew say, "Mark, I'm sorry, but we have to occupy Fayerweather, but what we'll do is when we occupy the building we'll throw everybody else out and let your orals go on." So, I go in and here I am, there's Richard Hofsdtader, Walter Metzger, Eric Foner, Richard Cloward, and Allan Silver. It's a very distinguished line up, and they start asking me questions. All of a sudden I hear breaking glass, furniture being smashed, people screaming in the hallway outside, plaster starting to fall, and I realized all hell is breaking loose in the building but nobody touches us. And this is going on -- they're asking me questions for two hours and I have the sense of utter unreality with this. Of course, I'm also pretty confident I'm going to pass. But when it's over, I realized this building is barricaded and there's no way to get out except through a window, so I escort all these people out through the window of the lounge in Fayerweather Hall, with people down below to make sure they don't get hurt. Then I go back home, change into my movement clothes, and come back in through the window to finish the occupation. So that was my oral exam. It shows that nepotism exists even in the left.

Zahavi: What was their response to this whole experience?

Naison: I think that Allan Silver was deeply offended. I think it really upset him. I thought Richard Hofstadter thought it was hilarious. As I said, he look at me as sort of almost, you know. He had a radical youth which he looked at benignly on, and I think that . . . so I don't think that he was upset by this. I mean, even though he was very critical of building occupations, very skeptical that the left could achieve its goals, I think he also had a sense that people can be radical in their youth and this is not a bad thing. And I really felt he had that sort of ironic distance from it that I found a very wonderful thing to be around.

Zahavi: Did he ever speak to you about his years in the Communist party?

Naison: No, no. He--at this time--unfortunately, was also very, very sick. So that was also an issue. I felt that I was going to get really close to him, but I didn't want to impose at a time when he was ill, and I think there would have been a lot of conversations that we would have had, had his illness not proceeded that way.

[Part 2]

Zahavi: Many of your research topics as an undergraduate and as a graduate student focused on the quest, in your terms--although I am taking it out of context here--the quest for "an interracial DMZ," whether it's the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, or the Communist party in the Great Depression, which became your first book . . . [Naison: Right] it seems very much, more so than [with] most scholars that I have spoken to, that your life and your work are so tightly bound up, incredibly tightly bound up. I thought maybe if you could take us through some of your research and what you were looking for, what you found, and maybe make some comments about how it related to your life, that will be very useful.

Naison: One of the things is . . . Let me talk about my life in the late 60's. I've already mentioned that I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend's extended family, but the apartment we lived in was this interracial DMZ there were the two of us, there was another couple, a white couple--Bruce and Wendy, there were my girlfriend's younger siblings, there were high school students we worked with in the Columbia up . . . It was an interracial, communal apartment, and then periodically radicals from all over the world would come and stay. And this was at a time when Black power was kind of dividing the movement, and we had this space where people from different racial backgrounds and class, cultural and national backgrounds, came together in solidarity, and love and friendship. And I understood that in my time, in the late 60's, this was very unique so what I guess I was looking for in history is other moments where people tried to bring people across the color line and what were the conditions under which people could be brought together, but also under what conditions were African Americans feeling suppressed to achieve this interracial solidarity, because that was one of the things that I encountered in the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, when this was brought together. There were this moment where the ex-clan members and the ex-Garvey people came together to fight the planters and fight the evictions under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, but in the later 30's I came across these absolutely devastating letters by a black minister named E. B. McKinney who had been the original person who drew many of the Black workers in bitterly attacking the socialists for not really being deeply committed to racial equality, for still having segregated bathrooms at the union headquarters, for not really respecting Black leadership, and I realized that interracial solidarity could not be done at the expense of African Americans achieving leadership, defining their own growth in history and agenda, and so that was the real challenge. I was very aware of . . . I'd see that also with the Communist party, when I studied it, that there were tensions, always tensions around creating this interracial space, tension from the White side in terms of the inherited prejudices, but also tensions from the Black side feeling that sometimes Black leadership could be smothered in interracial organizations. And so I understood how difficult this was and I didn't want to sacrifice accuracy and integrity to create a romantic story of love and harmony. I wanted an honest portrait of what the issues were as well as the possibilities.

Zahavi: You write on page ninety-four of White Boy, "Some how I have to find a way of reconciling nationalism and interracialism, of defending the legitimacy of interracial love and friendship, while still supporting organizations and movements that used nationalist stragedies to advance the Black community's interests," and that's really what you were looking for in that?

Naison: Yeh, yeh. And some people would say it was an impossible task or an impossible dream but I felt it was potentially a dynamic or creative tension, and I was going to face the abyss. That's how I saw it. I was going to go . . . . If this was the abyss that most white radicals shrank from, I was going to face it head on and try to walk through it.

Zahavi: Now, you seem to respect the Communists' and the Communist party's work in the 1930's in Harlem and look for that as a model somehow. Is that accurate? Or . . .

Naison: I think that one of the things about the Communist party that impressed me is they understood and respected Black Nationalism. They understood that nationalists were often the most passionate fighters for Black freedom and that they had to win nationalists over, not suppress them. And they were trying to figure out a way to incorporate the nationalist impulse into an interracial movement. A lot of their best militants had come out of the Garvey movement. Now, there were a lot of problems with the Communist political culture, to put it mildly, in terms of how decisions were made, but as a theoretical construct there were two things that I respected about them. One is they absolutely believed that whites had to come to terms with understanding . . . fight their own racism. And my favorite quote from the Communist party which I still think is applicable, and I actually used it when we were having that campaign to move the Organization of American Historians convention from the Adam's Mark [Hotel] a few years ago, "it is the duty of the White Communist to leap at the throat of the hundred percent chauvinist who strikes a Negro in the face." I believe that that is the principle which still holds. that if you're ever going to achieve interracial solidarity in this country then white people who support this have to fight racism wherever they find it, even when it's extremely inconvenient, and show Black people that they are are willing to put themselves on the line when it turns up. And that's the only way to overcome the suspicions that African Americans have of interracial solidarity. The Communist party understood that it was right for Black people to be suspicious of Whites. Why shouldn't they be, given the past history, and that Whites had to prove themselves as anti-racist fighters before there could be any interracial solidarity. And so I thought there were a lot of things there that really rang true to me, again, with all due understanding of what Stalinism represented as a murderously hierarchical social formation. You know, Stalinism was a corruption of a movement that had many progressive features and it didn't mean that at various times you couldn't have a Communist movement that didn't advance human freedom, and solidarity and social justice.

Zahavi: Besides your engagement, intellectual engagement, with the Communist party, you were actively involved in the work of SDS and the Weather Underground for a short period of time?

Naison: I want to correct that. I never was involved with the Weather Underground.

Zahavi: The Weathermen.

Naison: Yeah, because when the Weathermen moved in the direction of underground tactics and of "the propaganda of the deed" and acts of political violence, that's when I left. I left before that. I was with the Weathermen when they were thinking about very militant public mass action aimed at radicalizing working-class youth. I want to make that distinction because it is a very important one, especially now. I don't support bombing and never did, bombings and acts of violence directed at properties or persons. I supported very militant public mass protests.

Zahavi: Yes, that's clear from the book White Boy. I think readers will recognize that. I'm wondering how well these organizations, during the time you were involved in them, how well they fared on the issue of achieving an interracial DMZ?

Naison: I think, one, is they didn't even try most of the time. I mean, they accepted the idea that there would be a Black movement and a White movement and there would be negotiations to achieve common objectives. They never . . . the conception of an interracial DMZ didn't exist within the New Left, and that was one of the things that I had trouble with. I felt I had a conception of the politics of race and radicalism that wasn't echoed anywhere else except in traditional Communist organizations like Progressive Labor which talked about an interracial movement but didn't . . . but also regarded Black nationalism as reactionary. I was trying to do something which in its time was possibly . . .was very heterodox. I wanted to respect Black nationalism and have a zone of interracial solidarity and sociability, and that was something that very few organizations that I ran into accepted, promoted, or even conceptualized. And in that sense I felt very alone, and very isolated. I didn't know anybody else who really thought the way I did at that time. I guess maybe that's why I ended up writing this book, but it took thirty years before I had the courage to put it forward. I think that, in fact, in thinking about it, it wasn't until the 90's that I was ready to put these ideas out directly rather than indirectly through my historical writing.

Zahavi: One of the other things that you have been heavily involved in is the creation and the building of Black Studies as a legitimate discipline in academe. I was thinking this would be a good opportunity to . . . most people don't really know much from just reading here and there, if you could take us into that world as a white man in a Black Studies department at Fordham, and just take us through that story.

Naison: OK, sure. I got involved in Black Studies very accidentally. When my fellowship ran . . . two things had happened at Columbia that required me to look for a job. One, is as a result of a demonstration in the Columbia campus, I was put on permanent censure by Columbia administration which meant that I would be automatically expelled from the doctoral program if I ever violated university rules again. So that was one thing. The other was my fellowship ran out. And so in the Spring of 1970 I started looking for teaching jobs and all of the letters I sent out went to American History programs or History Departments in the various colleges and community colleges of the New York metropolitan area. I assumed that if I was going to get a job I would have to be in History or American History, and I think I might have also senta couple of resumes to tutoring programs that were being set up in the City University. I didn't send a single letter to a Black Studies department because I had assumed that Black Studies departments would pretty much only, at this point, want Black faculty. The whole concept of Black Studies was relatively recent. The first program was created in 1967 at San Francisco State; this was only two years later. OK, so I'm getting these interviews with community colleges where I'm being asked, "Well, if we hire you you'd teach Western Civ and American History," and then I'm playing basketball in Riverside Park with a white Irish kid I befriended who's going to Fordham who said his Black History teacher asked the class if they knew anybody who could teach African American History. So he thought I'd be a good person to apply for the job because I had taught African American History in the Summer Program at Columbia that was run by Upward Bound. So I had done that for two summers. So I sent a letter to the Fordham Institute of Afro-American Studies which began, "First of all, I am white, and if you conceive of your program as something that is by and for Black scholars and Black students alone, I can respect that, but if you think that a white scholar with a background in this field could be someone who could potentially make a contribution, here are my credentials." And to my utter shock I got a letter back saying, "While we are primarily interested in giving scholars an opportunity to do this work, our courses are open to the entire university. We think Black Studies is something everyone should benefit from. We like your background; why don't you come in for an interview." So I come in, and the first question the person who interviewed me asked is "What do you want to teach?" Not, "You will teach Western Civ." And on the spot I made up three courses: "The History of American Racism," "The History of Black Protest," and a course called "Afro-Americans and the American Labor Movement." He said, "Very interesting. We'll get back to you." And in two weeks I am offered this job. So I had a choice; I could teach Western Civ and American History in a community college with departments run by middle-aged white men who I had nothing in common with, or I could go teach my dream courses in a Black Studies department. Now, I knew and anticipated that this would not be an easy situation given the emotions, and the time, and the feelings that Whites might be trying to control something that Blacks needed to do for themselves. On the other hand, I wasn't looking forward to hanging out with middle-aged white men either, given my life. So, to me it was ok, I'm going to with what is connected to my life and work and let the chips fall where they may and I entered this department where there were two other full-time people, five other part-time people--all of whom were Black--but where the students represented a pretty interesting cross-section of the Fordham student population. There were a lot of White kids and Latino kids taking the courses and it seemed like this particular Black Studies organization saw its mission as educating the entire university and it also had a special mission for Black students and the Black community. All the black student organizations were housd there; they had community outreach. And it was complicated because there were definitely some things that I felt it wasn't that easy for me to participate in. But in terms of the mission of reaching the larger community, I also saw that I could be an asset to this department because I could bring in a lot. My being there also made it easier for some white students to take the courses and help build enrollments. And it turned out that I made friends with the people in the Institute and I found a very exciting work environment that was at times racially tense. In the first couple of years there were some black students who thought I shouldn't be teaching, who decided to manifest their opposition through sort of the theater of intimidation; they would sort of come in the office and glower at me, but I also felt . . . I felt my colleagues supported me, and anyway, this was my life and so I just glowered back at them. And at times I panicked a little. At one point I had a body guard. At another point, for two weeks, I carried a butcher knife in my attaché case, and then I realized that there was no danger. This was theater, and once they saw that I was going to stick with it I was going to be left alone. And so after a couple of years it wasn't an overtly tense situation to be in. I always . . . at least for the first maybe five years I always felt a little uneasy because I really didn't know of anybody else who was in my position. I didn't knew of any other white scholars . . . I knew a lot of white scholars who were teaching African American History. I didn't know of anybody else who was in a Black Studies department, but what happened is I was also used to being alone in my thoughts about race even before then, and the friendships I was developing with my colleagues was so powerful that it overcame the uneasiness, and then the moment of truth was when the administration tried to dissolve our department. And then we had to wage this very complicated battle to prevent our department from being dismantled by, on the one hand, finishing our dissertations, and on the other hand mobilizing our students, and on the other hand insisting--well, that would make three hands, so I don't know if the hand metaphor works--of having an outside committee evaluate us. So we did all of those things. Four of us finished our dissertations. We had a student movement that was multiracial to support us, and the out side committee ended up recommending not only that we not be dissolved but that we be made a formal department. And fighting that battle ended any sense of anxiety about being in there. After we fought this bottle, this was what I did, this was who I was, and if there was nobody else like me that I knew, I could live with that. I had camaraderie, a sense of purpose. I was teaching the courses I wanted to, I had good relations with my students, and I was doing research that I was excited about, and if it meant that I was a little weird, hey, it wouldn't be the first time.

Zahavi: You now head the Urban Studies Department at Fordham. What's the racial atmosphere like today?

Naison: Fordham is becoming a much more racially diverse campus than it was in the 80's and early 90's. For a long time the Black student population remained actually below the levels of the early 70's and we had very few Asian students, and a growing but still small grow of Latino students. I would say that in the 90's we are now a campus that where probably twenty-five percent of the undergraduates are students of color, with the largest group Latino, but finally a sizeable Asian group, a sizeable Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean group and also more and more mixed-race students, who are another factor in terms of cross-cultural collaboration. So it's not that there aren't racial issues on the campus but people deal with them fairly quickly. There's a lot of curiosity and intercultural activity that is going on, like if the black students have an event they want to make sure that other students who are not black attend it. This is something that is encouraged. And my Urban Studies program, I am very excited to say, does a lot of intercultural work. Every year now we organize an underground hip-hop festival, and hip-hop is one of these cross . . . has become, especially underground non-commercial hip-hop, has become this really political cross-culture phenomenon. I mean, when we had dj battles with--to lead up, these are where disc jockeys compete against each other for . . . not disc jockeys in the R & B sense, but djs in the hip-hop sense where you're creating rhythmic sounds from records and other electronic mechanisms you use--the biggest group contributing the djs were Philippine students, and the Philippine students at Fordham were totally into hip-hop. That's something you wouldn't have realized because you think of it as African American, Latino. Why, you have a whole Philippine hip-hop scene. You have a South Asian hip-hop scene. So this phenomenon has become something which really brings together different cultural groups, and that's been very exciting to me to be part of that. And I think, for me, it's a great time to teach because the intercultural connections are more dynamic and more complicated than at any time that I have been involved as a college teacher.

Zahavi: It's interesting that you bring up hip-hop as an arena of interracial mixing because one of the things I did forget to ask you was about the role of sport in your life as another arena. That's a major theme in your book, White Boy. Maybe you can say something about that.

Naison: Wow! I mean, I grew up as a basketball player, as a tennis player, and in Brooklyn both of these, the sports cultures that I was in were interracial. Basketball is something that would be obvious, but I was in an interracial tennis culture in Brooklyn in the late 50'sand early 60's in this little public park called Lincoln Terrace Park in the border of Crown Heights and Brownsville, and this was a haven where civil servants played tennis, and there was a sizable group of African American civil servants who joined together largely with Jewish civil servants and this is where I learned to play tennis. There was a great coach there. And so I grew up playing sports in an interracial setting and it continued when I went to college. I was an avid school yard basketball player, in addition to being a varsity tennis player. I used to play in the West Side and even in the late 60's in Harlem, and then when I had kids I became involved in coaching and for fifteen years I coached baseball and basketball and ran youth leagues in Brooklyn, which crossed all kinds of cultural and racial lines and ironically that's were I became exposed to hip-hop, when I was driving around the basketball and baseball teams that I was coaching. So sports and music were my first entrees into crosscultural activity and they still remain central to it. Even though I embraced history I never stopped being passionately involved with sports and music.

Zahavi: And you've also gotten into struggles for gender equality as a result of some of struggles over your daughters entering into sports?

Naison: Absolutely! One of the things in White Boy is how I was singled out by a women's liberation organization in the Bronx as a symbol of male chauvinism and re-socialized by the women who assigned me to do childcare, to do layout and design for a newspaper and go to men's meetings. But when I got married . . . my wife is a feminist and our first child was a daughter, so I decided that one of the benefits of feminism was teaching my daughter everything that I had been taught about sports as a male child growing up in Brooklyn. So I had her throwing and hitting balls by the time she was three, but also giving her lessons of mental toughness like--some of which my wife didn't entirely approve of--like if you fall down don't cry unless you are bleeding, and if somebody pushes you, knock them down, and when you walk on an athletic field, strut. So by the time she was five years old my daughter could thrown a ball twenty feet further than my wife, and could swing and hit any moving object without ever missing. So at five I enrolled her in the local Little League where she became this sort of instant sensation, and then I used kind of the experience to sex integrate Brooklyn sports, and the most dramatic one was when she was ten years old she was the starting off guard on a boy's Catholic Youth Organization [CYO] team which won the Brooklyn CYO championship and then when she was eleven all the coaches got together to ban girls from boy's basketball and they announced this on the first day of the season. Well, when I heard that I called friends of mine who were reporters at the Times and Newsday who did basically front page stories about this, brought in all the TV stations, and what do you know, within one day the CYO had rescinded its rule. And so . . . other girls soon followed into these areas. Sarah wasn't the only one, there were about five or six really athletic young women in the neighborhood who were doing the same things. She was the only one with a crazy parent who would take on anybody who tried to ban these young women from activity. So it was a great experience for me and I think she also was very proud that she was able to open up these doors through what she did.

Zahavi: Well, Mark it has been a pleasure to talk about your years of engaged scholarship, as you put it . . . and the story that you end White Boy with I love, in which you are talking about the display case in your department and how there are pictures of demonstrations where faculty and students are in the photographs and next to the books of the published faculty . . . next to them, together . . . and you say "I can think of no place in the university community where I would rather be."

Naison: That's absolutely right. I mean, I love what I do. I still feel as excited going to work as I did in 1972, and I still feel the fire in my belly. So, hey! What could be better?

Zahavi: And thank you for sharing that fire with us.

Naison: Well, thank you very much. This was a great interview.

~ End ~

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