Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fifty-two: The Passing of Robert F. Engs

I learned today that Robert F. Engs died on Monday.  This is very sad news indeed.  Bob was a one-of-a-kind. He was one of the brightest people I ever met, a great historian, and he was a fantastic human being. Here is a very nice blog-obituary from Al Brophy, (I believe).

A few years back Jeff Kerr-Ritchie organized a series of workshops on Bob's influence. At one of the sessions, I presented the following on my work with him on the University of Pennsylvania's President's Forum on Race. I had posted it before in Histrionics, but I think it is worth posting again.

I want to briefly focus on the University of Pennsylvania’s President’s Forum, which lasted for eighteen months from 1986 through the end of 1987. I think there are a number of intriguing aspects to the story of this forum that may tell us a little about Robert Engs, whom we are honoring on his retirement, and a little also about the university to which he contributed so much.

I should back up a little to the fall of 1979. That was when I first arrived at Penn as an exchange student from Edinburgh University. I decided to take a course in African American history at Penn, I think, in part because I wanted to get the “real” story of the place – the United States – that I would be spending a year studying. As a foreign student I was not particularly unique in looking for the real America in this way. Many British students came to America and wanted to find out about race and the black experience. This may be because they came from a place that seemed to be so class divided that they expected to find some kind of equivalent in the United States – which at the time seemed to revolve around the issue of race. This was also a period when a lot of great African American history was being written, and exciting new work was being undertaken in Black Studies, so it wasn’t surprising that this field would be appealing to the foreign student.

Anyway, I remember the first class that I turned up to in the seminar room on the second floor of College Hall. This was History 176 (a) and it was a relatively small class focusing on the first part of African American history up to the Civil War. I remember it well because I was the only white student in the class, and there were about 15 students altogether, sitting around the square table. I remember Bob entering the class and starting to lay out the course requirements and taking us through the syllabus, and I remember very clearly that, right from the beginning, he didn’t pull any punches whatsoever. What he was going to be teaching about was something that we wouldn’t be getting from other American history courses; it was a narrative or a set of narratives that placed race and racism at the center of the American experience. Bob’s presentation was electrifying, and while it was fairly uncomfortable being the only white person in the class talking about the issue of race, I knew that I was definitely going to want to take the course, and was also going to get a lot out of it – which I certainly did. I also felt that while Bob was talking about the issue of race at a theoretical level, he himself was very pleasant and welcoming to me personally and clearly evidenced that he himself harbored no animosities – so long as I seemed willing to take seriously the issues that he was raising.

Bob had just gone through a difficult tenure battle, but he was not someone who brought the scars of that conflict into the classroom. I remember that Freedom’s First Generation was published during that semester, and this was a point of considerable pride for him – he brought a copy of the book to the class to show the students. I had an extremely good year in part because of what I learned from Bob – in part also because of the different approaches to teaching Bob took; he asked us, for example, to keep a journal as a slave, and I recollect very much enjoying writing fiction based upon our studies of the readings he had provided. When I went back to Edinburgh for my final year, I combined the intellectual history from the other courses I had taken at Penn, with the African American history and wrote a thesis on W.E.B. Du Bois, having been assigned and read Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America in History 176 (b).

I then came back to Penn as a graduate student and was very fortunate to have Bob as my advisor. He may have thought I was a little strange, as I would do some odd things, like taking on Lee Benson, or writing weird assignments for Mike Zuckerman, but Bob was always supportive. This was a pretty rough period for him, I believe, in retrospect. He had tenure, but didn’t get the respect he deserved from other members of the department, and this made life pretty difficult for him. They didn’t care that he had been a Princeton student, one of the first to break the color line there, and one who had excelled in that rigorous academic environment; nor did they much care that he was one of the very best C. Vann Woodward students at Yale. By any measure, with his success in the classroom and a solid first book manuscript in his pocket he should have been considered a prize for the university, but the department only could see race, seemingly, and didn’t take African American History particularly seriously. One professor who received a Guggenheim at the same time as he did, said to him, “Ah, but yours is a Black Guggenheim.” These were the kinds of slights that were fairly frequent at that time, and I think they took a toll on him.

Nonetheless, Bob was an excellent citizen at Penn, and when the university found itself in some deep water trying to deal with some of the racial issues on campus it was to Bob that it turned to help get them out of the mess. This was how he came to be running the University of Pennsylvania’s President’s Forum, titled “The Enduring Significance of Race.”

This needs a little bit of background and perhaps a little bit of Penn history to give a sense of what was going on at the time. The University of Pennsylvania has always had a difficult time trying to relate to the surrounding urban community. When the college moved out to West Philadelphia from center city in the late 19th century, it was given land by the city in exchange for it providing certain services to the community. For example, when it received the land for the library, the university was supposed, as part of the exchange, to provide a free library for the community – in perpetuity. This it did for many years but as it the community changed the willingness of the university to provide the service diminished significantly. Likewise, the university’s Mayors scholarship program was also established to pay back the city for the land it gave Penn, and this benefited large numbers of the children of immigrants who were able to get free educations at Penn; but when the city community changed these scholarships began to fall by the wayside also, and the university attempted to reduce the number of these it gave, even fighting a court battle over this issue.

By the 1970s Penn was facing a number of difficulties. It had displaced large numbers of African Americans in creating the residential area between 38th and 40th, and Spruce and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia and in closing off Locust to the outside community, and as a result it had very bad relations with the communities of West Philadelphia. By the time I arrived at Penn, there was a clear injunction that you shouldn’t (as an undergraduate) go past 40th street after dark, except perhaps to walk down to Walsh’s Tavern on Spruce Street in a group. The notion of Fortress Penn had come into being; all the buildings were constructed in such a way as to ensure that they were only open towards the inside of the campus – so that outsiders would be discouraged from wandering in, and when they did they could be detected easily as they came onto the campus. This growing sense of threat developed at a time when the university President, Martin Meyerson, decided that Penn needed to become less local in drawing its student population, and more regionally diverse. In other words, it needed to start appealing to more white suburban kids from around the country – so that it would begin to look more like Princeton (only a Princeton located smack in the middle of a blighted city). This was going to be difficult to accomplish, however, if tensions existed with the outside community, and if African American students themselves were unhappy with the way they were being treated on campus.

One example of the kind of stress that existed seemed to be symbolized in a stabbing of a Penn student that occurred at the MacDonalds on 40th and Walnut. The Penn student was loudly proclaiming his allegiance to the Boston Celtics, his home team, and also the whitest of all the NBA rosters at this time, while the local man was clearly a Sixers’ fan, a team that had only one white player in the starting line-up and he was the journeyman Bobby Jones. Somehow, things got out of hand, and the Celtics fan ended up stabbed – though I think I recall he survived the encounter.
At this time there was very much a sense of segregation on the campus, with African Americans in the Du Bois residential house, and white students often claiming that blacks were self-segregating. Whether or not the latter was the case was open to question, but the atmosphere was sufficiently unwelcoming at the time that most African American students who lived on campus did opt to live in the black dormitory.

By 1985 there was a lot of animosity on campus, and a lot of hostility, as many black students felt bitter and embattled. White students felt comfortable using racial epithets and one occasion when this occurred, the infamous “Water Buffalo” incident, resulted in considerable embarrassment for the university, and a great deal of protestation among African American students. President Hackney believed that he needed to act to try to move towards more racial tolerance and increased harmony, and who was there better to take on this role, he felt, than Bob Engs?

Put this way it might seem as though I am saying that Bob was not especially radical and was not in line with other African American faculty and students on the campus; but it was much more complex than this. It is true that I think he felt that he was at some distance from other leading black professors, people like Ralph Smith in the Law School, and Houston Baker in the English Department. But I think it is worth remembering what I said about my first class with Bob. He was entirely uncompromising in challenging mainstream thinking and was in his own way extremely radical. But I think what was different about him was that he believed in the power of persuasion and engagement. He felt that people were inherently good and could be swayed to a different way of thinking about race and about those who were unlike themselves; they wouldn’t necessarily be moved by direct confrontation, and might only harden their positions of ignorance and bigotry.

Bob was also different in some ways because he was keenly aware not just of interracial conflict, but also intra-racial divisions. His sense about African American history, was that until the variegated nature of the black experience was appreciated, in all its dimensions and with all its conflicts, such history would not be doing justice to the people it was being written about. Freedom’s First Generation was deeply rooted in an understanding of the complexities of the black community in Hampton, and it was fair to assume that Bob would bring some of his analytical frame from his historical work to dealing with contemporary political and social issues. So I think President Hackney’s assessment, one based on the qualities of a fellow Southern Historian and Woodward student, were largely correct.

Consequently, Hackney did call upon Bob to lead the Forum, and the result I think was one of the most interesting and far-reaching forums undertaken by a university campus. I don’t think it was recognized for this at the time but it really was a very innovative series of colloquia and presentations, one that helped to radically transform the atmosphere on campus, and help to make Penn the university that it is today.

Bob’s first act was quite symbolic, and he certainly said that he intended it to be so. On learning that the position of Chair of the President’s Forum would come with a graduate assistant, Bob hired me for the position. Essentially, this meant that I would receive the stipends I was receiving while I continued to work (a little) on my dissertation, but I would be working pretty much full-time on the President’s Forum, taking minutes at meetings, contacting speakers, organizing PR for the events, working with graphics, and so forth. Bob knew that he would get some criticism for hiring me for this position. It made logical sense at one simple level, as I was his only graduate student at the time who was at my stage in his graduate career (beginning work on a dissertation), at least who was in the area. I think he also thought I could do the job reasonably well. But Bob also liked the symbolic part of this inversion; that a forum on race and racism would be run by an African American who was assisted by a white graduate student. Other members of the committee also seemed to think this was interesting, because I never felt any of the negative response regarding my appointment, and, beyond the odd double take when I was first introduced as the Bob’s assistant, I had an extremely good working relationship with everyone involved in the forum.

But Bob’s creative thinking went beyond the hiring of an assistant. In order for a Forum to address the issues of race fully, Bob felt, it had to think beyond the United States, and beyond one or two colloquia on what were the usual topics considered at the time. Bob felt that every school in the university and every field should take on the issue and develop programming on the topic – and it is certainly the case that every School was touched upon. Health Sciences, Athletics, the Wharton School of Business, Education, the College of Arts and Sciences, Social Work, Annenberg, and a number of organizations (the Christian Association) – everyone sponsored an event relevant to their field. Given this, the events were very far ranging, diverse, from discussions of Black business, to health issues and race, blacks in communication, race and Athletics – and many extremely prominent intellectuals came to campus to present their work.

The title for the series came from the inversion of William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race. This was a work, published in 1978, which received a lot of attention at that time. It argued (though Wilson was less emphatic about the points than some of those who deployed his arguments) that class was replacing race as a determinant in the lives of African Americans and Americans generally. Many argued against these points around the United States, and this was clearly also the case at the University of Pennsylvania. It was Ralph Smith, I seem to recall, who first proposed that the President’s Forum be titled “the enduring significance of race,” to make a counterpoint to Wilson’s work, and this was quickly adopted, and the graphic that was established became a very prominent feature of campus life for the next 24 months. Whether or not the argument was sound that race was enduring, the logo took on a sturdy life over the eighteen months of the forum.

The title bears a little more evaluation of course than this. Wilson was correct in some ways that class was becoming more and more of an issue in the post-Civil Rights era, that some of the racial barriers were no longer so important as they once had been, and that many African Americans would face greater barriers of class and problems associated with income deficiencies compared to whites. There was a radical element to what Wilson was saying, that even if Civil Rights had had an impact, the situation for many was still dismal and needed to be changed; but some of the response to his work was to pigeon hole him as someone who was an apologist for the United States’ racial system, which he did not intend to be. There were two reasons for this reaction, perhaps more, but two that come to mind immediately. The first was that this was a period of racial backlash, and it was not good to be seeming to suggest in the face of greater hostility to social change among whites, that race wasn’t important. With the Bakke decision of 1978 and the retrenchment that followed in its wake, undermining affirmative action, there was a real sense that some of the advances would be fleeting and could easily be lost. And of course, the discrimination issue was an important one since the debate often has come down to the issue of supporting particular minorities, while not necessarily advantaging the poor more generally. Clearly there were many ways to respond to this, both in defense of …., but also , but Wilson seemed to be threatening at many levels at this time.

The second reason, I think, was that Wilson seemed to miss some of the institutional racism that existed and which seemed to be embedded in the American system. I think this was more apparent in the 1980s than it is perhaps today (though this is a point that might be argued over), and Wilson was after all suggesting a direction in which the United States was moving, one that we might easily suggest has been confirmed in the last few years of social and political change in the United States; but in the 1980s, during the years of Ronald Reagan and the decline of the New Deal and an on-going assault on political rights, such a movement did not seem particularly clear.

There was also a degree to which I think that Bob, himself, spoke to some of the problems of Wilson’s work, and this was something that I learned most from conversations and listening to him lecture and teach. It was also something that very much made its way into my thinking relating to my first book on the migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the Great Migration. This was the close relationship that existed between race and class, and an understanding of how they played off each other. For Bob, it seemed to me, the fact that class was growing in importance, did not diminish the significance of race; in fact, the very limited nature of resources that a community had at its disposal resulted in a considerable rift between the haves and have-nots and a conflict over those resources. As people made their way out of the ghetto, as the phrase used to be, the very nature of the racism in society meant that they didn’t want to maintain strong ties with they places from which they had come. Thus, a clear difference existed between the migrations of African Americans and other so-called European ethnics – while those groups frequently kept ties with the places they left both in their original rural European communities and then the urban American communities that they established – using these as the basis for their social networks, African Americans faced a different climate that often saw them breaking away from their roots in the South, giving up property and connections that they may have had there, and then also giving up their place in the inner cities when they moved to suburban areas. The severing of such ties was all the more understandable in light of the fact that these inner-cities were going through a decline, one that was deeply inflected by race (as the cities’ populations became blacker the support that they received from the States and the nation diminished).

So class and race were inextricably linked and it was often the case that dealing with the one, through affirmative action, for example, while not actually reaching down to help the urban poor, might nonetheless still affect the situation and improve the position of the community as a whole – this is particularly evident in the cultural transformation that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s in music and other fields, with African Americans rising to the fore in quite symbolic, but significant, ways.

Getting back to the President’s Forum, one would like to suggest that the whole university was transformed, and that this led to a transformation to the larger community, and spread like George Bush’s thousand points of light, until the whole of the United States succumbed to the change, resulting in the election of the first black President. But the President’s Forum wasn’t so significant, and Penn is not so significant either. The forum did make for a better community. Large sums of money were spent bringing prominent theorists and public intellectuals to raise consciousness regarding important issues, and the plethora of events did contribute to making people more sensitive to a number of the concerns held by many about racial attitudes on the campus. It also was the case that some of the things done in the forum fit within developments in academe across the country as cultural studies was beginning to take off and as concerns with power, particularly with regard to issues of imperialism – were increasingly focused upon – with colleges forced to consider how they themselves were to systems and histories of oppression.

I am not sure whether Bob felt that he was better off after the Forum than he had been before. He did receive the gratitude and respect for what he had achieved, but he also felt significant pressure, I think, to bring off a series of events that were successful and meaningful. He attended them all, and spoke at most of them. The toll it had on him was great, I believe, and played a considerable part in delaying his second book and in the decline of his health. But he transformed himself after his heart attack and he came back to produce his second volume (Educating the Disenfranchised and the Disinherited) and other important works. His own view became different, though this may not have been related to the forum at all, but was growing wisdom and acceptance of others’ limitations. Certainly he seemed to look on the History department with greater amusement, where he had previously felt considerable anger at the way it had treated him. Whether or not leading the President’s Forum helped in this process, I don’t know, but I believe it was an important event for him, and he certainly helped shape the way many thought and felt about race through it.

In the end, the Forum was important in many ways for helping direct us to where we are today, even if it wasn’t instrumental in bringing about that change. The forum demanded that American college students and faculty consider the issues of race and equality when they might otherwise have been happy to go on believing that they had moved beyond all that, that the Civil Rights era was over and all the change that was necessary had already occurred. But at the same time, Bob demanded that we be open and expansive about our understanding of race – that it wasn’t just limited to one group of people who had experienced one history of oppression in one country. He wanted to know more; to link it to more things, and see it as something that could be interpreted in multiple ways. The fact that the United States would elect a man who was born in Hawaii, of a white mother and a Kenyan father, who had grown up in different parts of the world, and had gone on to be a community organizer and a politician in Chicago, would not have been beyond Bob’s understanding of the world.

Interestingly the world seems to have caught up with him, and that is a very good thing.

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