TAYLOR KING: Hello, and thank you for joining us today. Welcome to today's first special Black History Month episode of Unwritten, where expert authors join student hosts for discussions on the most important current events of our day. I'm Taylor King, a sophomore at North Carolina A&T, majoring in business administration, and a campus ambassador for Pearson.
MYKEL BROADY: And I'm Michael Brody, a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Reno, double majoring in marketing and management. I'm also a Pearson campus ambassador. Now, I hope you have a paper and pen, maybe your favorite beverage, maybe your favorite snack because we have a lot in store for you today. Today we'll explore three main themes that's super important to us as Black students from a historical perspective-- perceptions of race and society, mental health, and disparities and education. Now, of course, these are all disparate topics but all have a profound influence on our experiences
TAYLOR KING: we're Excited to be joined by Dr. Clayborne Carson, founder of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute and professor emeritus of history at Stanford University. He's devoted much of his professional life to the study of Martin Luther King Jr. And the movements that he inspired. Dr. Carson joined us in episode 9 of Unwritten, focusing on the history of protest movements and is co-author of the Pearson book The Struggle for Freedom-- A History of African Americans.
MYKEL BROADY: So we'd actually like to start with you, Dr. Carson, on your unique perspective on Black History Month and why it's important.
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think the best way of describing why it's important is to try to imagine American history without Black History. I don't think it's possible. Although for many years, the Black presence in most American history textbooks was rather minimal. And I think that that led to very bad history textbooks. I think it's vital for Americans to understand the central role of African-Americans.
As we were writing the textbook, we understood that the same topics that are in standard American history books are going to be in ours. We're discussing the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization, all of the-- the New Deal. All of these things are central in our textbooks.
But for some reasons, which we can understand, there was a blind spot in many of these textbooks that authors tried to either minimize or simply didn't know about how central African-Americans were in terms of the major events in American history. And so our job is to correct that. And our job is to make it clear to all people that an African-American history textbook is actually closer to the reality of American history than the history books that previous generations of Americans read in their high schools and colleges. MYKEL BROADY: Yeah. Well, we appreciate your perspective, Dr. Carson. I can assure you it's only been about two minutes of you talking. And my mind is already blown. I see Taylor smiling. She's probably feeling the same.
But we're looking forward to hearing more. And we have a bunch of questions in store for you. So let's get started, shall we? How would you characterize the evolution of the perception of Blackness? Or in other words, what was it like in the 1960s and '70s at the height of the civil rights movement compared to a more modern history?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think when you think about the conceptions of Blackness, that has been a theme in African-American history. WEB Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk was about how Black people perceive themselves. He talked about that duality of seeing yourself through the eyes of others as well as your own conception.
And the 1920s, all of the-- the rise of the New Negro, what was the New Negro? Well, it was a new conception of how Black people perceive themselves. When we talk about the literature of Black America, it's all about trying to develop a conception of how we are different but also how we are central to the American narrative. And I think that that's a continuing process that we're still in.
Every social movement is also a movement about reconceiving oneself. Are we simply an oppressed people? Are we a people that are undergoing a liberation process because the latter is always associated with a sense of pride, a sense of empowerment? And these are ideas that are very, very important in terms of understanding why history is important in the first place, is that it helps shape one sense of who we are and what is our role not simply in the United States but in the world.
MYKEL BROADY: So also, you hear the thing ignorance breeds fear. At the time when a lot of us were desegregated, do you feel like integration efforts force people to get to actually know a Black person and say, hey, this isn't the person I heard about on the news, or, this is not who so-and-so told me this is? So has our integrand efforts been helpful in the perception of the Black individual?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, it depends on who you're talking about in terms of the perception. Is the white perception of Black people, Black people perceiving themselves? And in the integration process and when we look back at the Brown versus Board of Education decision, part of it was based on psychological reasoning that if you purposely segregate someone, that that can in itself affect their perception of their own importance and their own role in society. As Kenneth Clark, the psychologist who wrote a lot of the literature on the impact of segregation, he said it imposes a sense of inferiority.
Now, that wasn't necessarily because of segregation. But the way in which segregation was imposed was not Black people making a choice to go to Howard University as opposed to Stanford University. It was imposed by whites because of the sense that this was the badge of inferiority. And what Kenneth Clark in his studies found out is that that is internalized in many Black people. Why am I segregated?
And sometimes that got mixed Up one of the things I talk about in the book is that the first real challenge to segregation came from people who felt that the way you counter it is to improve the quality of Black education. And, for example, Barbara Johns, who led a walkout in 1951 from her segregated school in Virginia, her goal was not to integrate into the white school. Her goal was to make her Black school equal at least to the quality of the white school.
When she led that walkout, which was a remarkable event-- here's a 16-year-old convincing all of her fellow students to walk out of class and not go back until the school board improve the quality of the Black school and made it equal in every respect that you could do with the white school. And NAACP lawyers came there and said, look, you've got to go back to school, your parents are going to be in trouble, all of these sorts of things.
And she finally gave in and said, OK, if you take our case-- and the NAACP made the decision that they were going to add it to these other cases. So there were five cases-- one of them, this Barbara Johns in Virginia. And that's called Brown versus Board of Education. That is the case that led to desegregation of schools even though that was not her objective. Her objective was to make her school equal in every way it could be made equal.
TAYLOR KING: And so when we talk about Black-led movements, how would you say that those perceptions of Blackness have historically impacted those movements that we've seen in history?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think that when we talk about Black-led movements, they've happened throughout American history. And there was a Black-led anti-slavery movement. There were Black-led movements against the Jim Crow system throughout the history of the United States. There are Black-led movements to build political power.
So all of these movements have really shaped the African-American experience in America. And all of these movements, by the way, have been affected by international issues. Black people understood the importance of the Haitian Revolution and that Haiti became the first nation to abolish slavery.
And that was one of the reasons why white slaveholders in the South were so intent on preventing Black people from reading books or newspapers. So they might be inspired by that. And many of them were. So all of this is part of, I guess, the truism that you would have that no one really accepts being oppressed. Sometimes they might be complacent in the sense of, what can I do about it? The people who are oppressing me are more powerful than I am.
But throughout history, there's also been the counterargument. Well, we have to develop ways of confronting that power. And the tactics and strategies have changed over time.
But that's a constant. There's always been a freedom struggle going on. There's always been a civil rights struggle going on.
That's why I'm kind of taken aback sometimes when students talk about, back in civil rights days. My question is, when did civil rights days start? When did they end?
They are still going on unless you have not been reading the newspaper. The civil right to a vote, that's still in contention right here in the 21st century. A Supreme Court decision can gut the Voting Rights Act. So civil rights are never completely won.
And, more importantly, the notion of what is a civil right or what is a human right is constantly changing. Do we have a right to decent health care? Do we have a right to decent education opportunity? Do we have a right to be treated decently as employees? All of these are civil rights issues. And they're always being-- there's always a struggle over that.
Now, there are those who want to expand that notion of civil rights. And we have seen that over the years. And then there's also those who resist that change and frightened by that.
One of the things we've learned from struggles is that many white Americans have an investment in being superior and acting superior and assuming that they are superior, that they are the ones in control. And so whenever you have a Black movement to expand our freedom, there's always going to be a response to that, a white backlash against that. The Southern strategy that developed in the 1960s, which still dominates American politics, that drove tens of millions of white Americans who had been loyal Democrats to say, I'm going to move over to the Republican Party now and especially in the South.
And that reshaped American politics in ways that we're still living with it today. Even today, I would argue, there's aspects of the Southern strategy that are still there. And what that is is just reassuring white Americans, yeah, you're still in charge, don't be frightened, these changes are not going to happen too fast. And on the other side, you have Black Americans saying, I want my freedom now. I don't want to wait.
MYKEL BROADY: Yeah. That's a great point. So why do you believe that ideology exists of we've gone past the civil rights movement and we've already discovered and made it equality for all and it's equal? Why do you believe that ideology exists?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Which ideology?
MYKEL BROADY: The ideology that we are good as a society, things are equal as a society.
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think that America was a colonized place. It was a part of the British empire at the beginning. And then we have the American empire.
And throughout all of this, this history, you have white people, Europeans, who in various parts of the world came in as the dominant group. They had the technology. They had the military might to expand their empires.
And I think that that history is embedded in the notion of white supremacy. You are a dominant force in the world. And that's why you have colonies. That's why the colonies ultimately had to rebel in order to make it clear that we're not going to accept colonization. And that's why African-Americans had to rebel in order to say that we're not going to accept being enslaved and having no rights that a white person need respect.
And there's-- and that's connected with things like domination of the native people of this continent. There was that assumption that the small group of people who arrived in the 17th century on the East Coast of North America-- when you look at the map of the original colonies, it's a relatively small part of a large continent. How did that grow to become the United States of today, which goes all the way to Alaska and Hawaii and reaches the Pacific Ocean?
How did that happen? Was it simply that the small group of white people who arrived on the East Coast just kind of walked across the continent and found some empty land and decided to settle here and there and fill up the continent? Or was that by conquest? Which story do you tell?
And how is that related to Black Americans? That part of what caused the Civil War is that the question became, are free white people going to go and settle the West and become farmers in Kansas and Nebraska and all those places? Or are slave holders going to bring their slaves?
And that was a basic conflict that really became heightened in the 1840s and 1850s because the one thing that free whites-- and, actually, that's kind of redundant. If you were white, you were not enslaved. But they didn't want to compete with those who were bringing their slaves. And that was a basic division that provided the background for the Civil War.
And, of course, Black people didn't have any choice one way or the other in the sense that that the way in which many Black people came to the West was as slaves. And even though there were efforts-- and we have that in the textbook about Black people are saying, well, I want to go to the West and be free and occupy that land also. And that's what led to the Exodusters, the people who went to Kansas and the Middle West and want it to be like the white settlers. But for them, it was a much tougher road.
MYKEL BROADY: Yeah. No, I hear you. And kind of moving on, the topic of mental health recently has been losing its stigma due to a wider societal conversation. Has mental health been discussed or researched in Black History as a facet of the lives of historical figures? And have you seen any change in this area?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Certainly over the last 100 years or so. There has been a lot of studies of the impact of oppression on mental health of Black people. I mentioned before the studies that were done as part of the Brown versus Board of Education.
What is the mental impact of being segregated? What is the impact of being oppressed in other ways? The books that have been written on that, you could do an entire course on Black psychology and the consequences of oppression-- people like Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth.
There was James Baldwin. He was one of those who wrote about that in various ways. Martin Luther King talked a lot about the psychological impact of racism and being oppressed. And that's something that-- I think what it does is it says that, yeah, Black people can have some of the same mental problems that white people have, just human problems that you need to-- you're not well-functioning. And those can have many causes.
But I think what was interesting to me is that many of these causes are affected by your racial identity and that Black Americans have always had to try to find ways of-- I guess one way of putting it is, how do you get by when you are being oppressed? But do you internalize that and say, well, there's got to be something wrong with me? Or do you externalize it and say, OK, this is being caused by the fact that I'm being oppressed?
And I think both answers-- when we look at the psychological issues that-- if someone is telling you every day that you are inferior and powerless, that's bound to have an impact. And that's why a lot of Black struggles are about changing that psychological status that you have of internalizing your oppression.
I am being oppressed because I am inferior. And that happens. And I think also, one thing about oppression is that it's always easier to turn your anger at being oppressed downward rather than upward. Now, it's almost like if your boss is treating you badly, do you take it up with the boss or do you beat your wife and child?
Both responses happen. And one of them has a lot of negative consequences. And the other means you're involved in a struggle that you might not win.
You might get fired. Am I going to find it hard to find the next job? But in either case, you have to deal with it.
And I think that one of the aspects of African-American history is we've had great leaders who have said, no, don't internalize this. Deal with the problem. If you feel powerless, empower yourself. If you feel inferior, get rid of that feeling.
And that's been the role of Black leaders since the beginning of our history. Take pride in yourself. Struggle to overcome that sense of inferiority.
And I think in large measure, that's one of the things that we've been successful, by and large, over the years. And I see that in the expression in the outburst of protest, that there's-- during my lifetime, since the time I was a teenager, when I went to the march on Washington and when I saw 200,000 people there, that gave me a sense. No, no, we're not powerless. We can demand freedom now. We've got leaders who give us a positive sense of ourself.
And so I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing today if I had not had that experience of seeing Black power in action, getting legislation passed, getting the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s passed. And I'm hoping that that's happening with young people today that are part of the Black Lives Matter. It's an expression of a new sense of pride and power.
And the power has always been there. Or at least the potential power's always been there. But sometimes even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, do Black people vote? Or do they find something better to do on voting day?
That's an interesting notion, I think, that unless they're mobilized and being able to exercise their vote-- just think of the last election. Black votes-- now, there was that poster that I remember seeing in John Lewis' office when I interviewed him for the first time. It was the hands that once picked cotton and now pick presidents.
Now, when I first saw that in 1970, that seemed like, oh, my gosh, that kind of shocked me. Hands that once picked cotton can now pick presidents. But that's what's happened.
Now, that Black votes have become a decisive-- play a decisive role in many elections, especially when you talk about the more progressive candidates getting elected and when you think about every election that we tend to have a more conservative candidate and a more progressive candidate. And in every election since 1964, Black votes have been the determining factor in terms of who wins. If only white people voted, we would have two conservative parties. And Republicans would simply be the more conservative.
But because Black people vote, that has pushed the Democratic party to be more progressive. But I think eventually, if Black people keep voting, it'll force the Republican Party to become more open to progressive change because they will lose every election. But that's a big if, if Black voting remains at a high level.
TAYLOR KING: Right. So switching gears here a little bit. Dr. Carson, you're an educator on top of being an author and historian. So what has your experience in the classroom been teaching Black history? And what experience have your students brought that may have been formed how you led those classes? DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think I point to two things that have changed over my career as a teacher. One of them is that, increasingly, I've taught in the classroom through using audiovisual materials. I was involved in making-- I was a senior advisor to the making of Eyes on the Prize.
And there is that saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. And increasingly, what I've done is incorporated visual material into what would traditionally be the print book. You can read about Black history. Or you can watch it. And I think that that has changed the way in which many students absorb Black History, not just about the '60s but about the entire history of Black Americans. And I think that that's really great that it's happened.
I think also, though, that, increasingly, I've put more emphasis on online teaching. During the last 12 years, I've always had an online course. And at first, it was just kind of inviting the camera crew and the film crew to come into my classrooms. And they set up at the back of the class and just filmed the-- filmed the class. And it really wasn't very-- it wasn't well done. Let's put it that way.
Because if you think about it, the film crew should have been up at the front of the class. And it would just make it much more immediate. I could be talking directly to the audience.
And so only gradually over the years have we kind of developed the technique for online education. But even at that early stage, I remember getting letters from prisoners who were allowed to watch some of my lectures. And I was really-- like, this is amazing.
Here I am teaching at Stanford. And somebody sitting in a prison can watch my lecture and be inspired by it. And, of course, it was kind of literally a captive audience.
But it opened my eyes to the notion that, why should only students who are able to get into Stanford have the benefit of my knowledge? Why can't I teach to a larger audience? That's happening in other fields. And then you look at math education with Khan Academy and how online learning can be particularly effective because it's immediate.
It's like having a private tutorial session with one of the best teachers on your subject. And you have the kind of dialogue we're having right now. You can see me on the screen. You can ask me questions. And I can do a lot of prep work to try to say, OK, this is what I'm going to try to teach you now.
But if you didn't quite get it, you can just repeat it. And then the classroom becomes a setting where you can discuss what you've learned. And more recently, I've set it up so that we have an online office hour. And I don't know about you. But at Stanford, I'd always offered an office hour. And many times I would just sit in my office. And maybe one, maybe two students might wonder by and complain about a grade or something like that.
But it's not a popular thing for students to walk, at least in most universities, into a professor's office. But online, I've got far more. I probably get a year's worth of students into an office hour because they don't feel quite as intimidated.
They can not even show their face. They can just listen to the office hour and listen to other students asking questions. And so it's kind of opened my eyes to the fact that education doesn't have to be this traditional elite model of a small classroom. And you're listening to a lecture. And then you leave.
And if you didn't get it, if you didn't take good notes, it's quickly out of your mind. But you try to take good notes so that you'll get a good grade on the exam. And that's been the model of higher education for several hundred years.
And we're only now beginning to question that model that maybe there's a better way, a more personalized way, where you can have this kind of intimate relationship between a teacher and a student so that the student feels like, gosh, that person is talking directly to me. And I can learn directly as opposed to taking notes. And rather than taking notes, I can go back. I wasn't very awake at that lecture. So maybe I should go back and listen when I'm in a better mood and more able to concentrate. So I think that that we're seeing changes.
MYKEL BROADY: I'm glad to hear it. Keeping up to pace with education, can you talk a bit about desegregation in higher ed? Now we have Brown versus Board of Education. But we all know that desegregation just didn't happen overnight.
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: No, it didn't. And the comment I would make about that is that there have been studies that indicate that for the average Black student in high school, they're just as likely to go to a predominantly Black school as they were 60, 70 years ago. That's the sad thing about it is that we think that because there is now not a legal barrier to a Black person going to a predominantly white school, there's a practical barrier because they don't live in that neighborhood. And so segregation is alive and well.
What I'm hoping is that we can get to the more important thing of equal education. And we need to separate that sometimes from the notion of desegregated education. I think both are important. I think being able to go through an educational experience with people of different races and backgrounds is itself an education. That's very important in terms of your consciousness of being a part of a multicultural society.
But that in itself doesn't make you learn history more effectively or more math more effectively. And we kind of mixed these things up and assume that, well, if it's a racially mixed classroom, it must be better education. No. No, that's not true. You can become a fine scientist and learn a lot of history in an all Black environment as well as an integrated environment.
And that's one of the things that I think a generation of students has kind of learned, like my son. He went to Howard University. He could have gone to Stanford or Berkeley or any of these places. And that was the choice.
And I think he would say that, yeah, I got a great education there in a variety of ways. So I think we need to separate out high quality education from the question of desegregation. I think both are important. We need to learn to live together with people of different backgrounds and different races. Just in the world, we need that.
That's why we've developed this concept at the King Institute of the World House. King was talking about how humanity has inherited a world house comprised of people with different cultures and backgrounds and religions and all of this. And he said we have to learn to live in the World House.
And he posed the alternative. He said it's either chaos or community. Either we build a global community or we're going to have a very chaotic World and both of those are real possibilities.
So I think we need to learn about differences, learn that people bring to the table different qualities, learning to appreciate that. But I think that we also need to get the kind of global education that allows us to build community. So I would be opposed, for example, of just the idea that segregation, racial segregation, is a good thing.
I don't think that that's true. I think that there's some kind of mixture of we want to have certain experiences with people of your own group so that you develop a group consciousness. But I think you also need to understand that the world is not filled with people, just like white Americans need to understand that the world is not predominantly white, that there are many other types of people that you have to learn to get along with. And if you don't, it's going to be a pretty destructive world.
TAYLOR KING: Absolutely. I think that's a great insight. And I know we're running a little bit over. But I would love your input for this last one. And I think it's a great closeout. With Black History Month being a time to reflect on America's history, which is often overwhelmed by pain and trauma and negativity, how would you say Black Americans can increasingly incorporate celebration into next month?
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Oh, my gosh, that's not a-- I think Black Americans have learned perhaps more than most people how to celebrate-- how to celebrate Blackness. I think that that's been part of our basic education in the sense that you think of the impact of Black literature, Black music, all the creativity of Black communities and Black writers and musicians and all of this. To me, Black music is a celebration. When you compare the impact of Black people on American music-- just try to imagine what American music would be like without the contributions of Black people. To me, it's almost inconceivable. What would people dance to? What would American music be like if you subtracted jazz and swing and all the rhythm and blues and all-- if you took all that out, what would be left?
To me, it's impossible to conceive of most of American culture without Black contribution to it. And I think many white Americans at some level kind of know that, that they are part Black. White people didn't originate the way they dance and the musical tastes that they have. And that's something that-- I think it's almost more important for them to understand, for white Americans to understand, the extent to which they are Black in terms of their tastes, in terms of their understanding of the world, and just all of the contributions.
I think that what is really odd is how you can develop a consciousness, kind of a white nationalist consciousness, that the only important things that have been developed in America have been developed by white people. Yeah, I mean, if you go down that route, you have a pretty sterile notion of what an
American is. We're not the same-- the white American is not the same as the person who came over from England or from Europe and settled here.
They were affected by what they found here. And what they found is that there was a distinctive culture here. And that culture was in part developed by Black people.
And I would just challenge anyone. Just turn on the radio. Turn on television. Do anything in terms of absorbing American culture. And imagine it without any Black contribution. And to me, that's inconceivable.
So I think gaining an appreciation for that and also gaining for Black people an appreciation for that, that that is a contribution to the world-- throughout the world, when I go and listen to popular music, whatever is popular music there and understand how-- I've taken my play about Martin Luther King to China, to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
And what really resonates-- they might not understand the particularities of Martin Luther King's history. But they do understand the singing. They do understand that that gets through. That's kind of a cultural communication.
And I guess I'll end on this. I remember being in Beijing when the National Theater did my play about King. And after the performance, I have a picture of young Chinese students gathering around the piano player and wanting to learn freedom songs.
And this was a mile from Tiananmen Square, where you know the Chinese government had squashed a student rebellion. And here you have young Chinese students who want to learn about the African- American freedom struggle and are particularly engaged with the music, which they had never really heard before. And I think that that's something that sometimes even Black people don't understand is how much impact we've had on the world through culture and politics and ideas. And that's something that-- maybe I can't convey it as much in a textbook as I could through a documentary film. But it's something that I think is part of the teaching of African-American history.
MYKEL BROADY: Well, as we close out today, Dr. Carson, I'd like to thank you for your time. I hope this conversation was as meaningful as it was to Taylor and me.
DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I enjoyed talking with you. And this is the kind of communication that I actually have grown to love, where we're directly talking with one another and using the technology of our day to talk about this important topic.
MYKEL BROADY: And just something special things, special shout out to Amanda Perfit. She is the face of the Unwritten series. She's never on camera. But she always makes sure those on camera are prepared and are able to use our voice for change. So thank you, Amanda. Your work will not go unnoticed.
Last but not least, thank you to everyone viewing this today. Please have a great day. Stay safe. And Happy Black History Month.