When I was just beginning my career as a teacher I was hired to work in a program that was designed to provide equal opportunity to the poor and minorities. The program in NYS was called SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge). Later the name of the program was changed to EOC or Educational Opportunity Center. It was intended to serve as a sort of prep school in New York’s city centers, similar to the Educational Opportunity Programs on SUNY campuses, a program to boost the academic levels of poor and minority adults who had left school before graduating or who had been undereducated in inner city schools that tended to educate students to an eighth grade level (or less) and then lose them. The SEEK program began in 1965 and was a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement in American and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of what were actually relatively few violent demonstrations in some densely populated African American communities where citizens were emboldened by recent events such as the Black Power movement to demand a share of the American dream.
So I began teaching as a very young person with my little BA degree in Secondary English in the SEEK program and I was hired by a tall, white bearded hippie to be part of this sort of harem of young (white) women who he hired to assist him in what was basically, at that time, a speed-reading program. Every student had a little speed reading machine and a paperback novel. We, the sort of TA’s, would test each student to determine their initial reading speed and we would stand in a line in the classroom and peel off as needed to assist students who were ready to adjust their speed upward. It was absurd, but I really needed a job. It went against everything I had learned about good teaching and was miles away from being a good college prep reading course, but it did give me time and perspective to think about what I would do differently when I became the department chair, which I eventually did.
For the first time in my life, at the very beginning of my career, I found myself in an environment (except for the reading department) where I as a white person was definitely in the minority. The SEEK program administrator was a graduate of the University of Michigan, a powerfully energetic and ambitious young black man (at that time it was the choice of African Americans to be called “black”) who had pulled along with him into our small provincial city the cream of the crop of his young black buddies also from the University of Michigan. These men were educated, handsome, and very, very comfortable with each other. They were in their element. This is what they trained for and it was obvious that they wouldn’t be here long. These were guys (we called them “brothers) who could be very funny. They could switch back and forth from professional language to street within a single sentence. They were very smart and they were on their way to much bigger careers. By 1973 most of these young “turks” had moved on.
It was intoxicating, as a young white women, to share time in this energetic and testosterone-enhanced world with these young men who were the first and most entitled generation of African American men to benefit from the whole sad and heroic Civil Rights Movement in which many of them had taken part. They were young warriors and they exuded “Black Power” but did not make any attempt to be intimidating, although I’m sure they were capable of it. I could have fallen in love with any one of them with their giant afros and wonderful smiles, but that was not what we were all about and they had plans to marry educated sisters and live well. What we were was colleagues and we were establishing an alternative program which could funnel the poor and minorities up from the projects and into the middle class. I have carried the surprisingly vivid memories of those halcyon days with me during all of my life. And happily, although these young ambitious men did eventually leave our program and move up in the world, we were able to put together excellent preparatory courses and to send hundreds of people to college who would probably not have continued their education at all. We were able to give them the skills they needed to do well in their college studies and this, in turn, built their confidence in their ability to succeed.
It is no longer the sixties, but recent events have made it clear that we are still working out our national shortcomings in the Civil Rights arena. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager taking an evening walk with his cell phone to a convenient store, the wounds that remain on the American psyche reopened and we were taken back to the sixties again. In fact there was a direct connection; it was the 50th anniversary of a day when Representative John Lewis from Georgia, who had been the Chairman of SNCC and one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement, helped plan the March on Washington in August of 1963 and then led the March which was the occasion of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. Fifty years later here he is on national television reacting to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and sadly confronting the fact that the work of winning equality for African Americans is not done.
In fact television that week, after that hotly contested verdict, was chock full of more African American men and women, with their intelligent, cogent, and very professional discussions of the emotions being experienced by African Americans and the historical context for these feelings. They were able to contain what was probably some significant anger and discuss the ramifications of the trial decision and to explain to the rest of America their problem with “Stand Your Ground” laws and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. When John Lewis spoke out we were reminded of the cosmic irony that this trial occurred on the anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech that almost every American knows by heart. The IRS hearings brought that wonderful Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland to my attention, with his commonsense ability to bring the soaring fiction of DarryI Issa back to earth. I also have to mention The Grio in this mix because I was watching MSNBC much of the time and they have hired Joy-Ann Reid as an adjunct to their staff. She has great connections in the African American community and she expresses herself clearly and powerfully. She is a real asset, as is her colleague Melissa Harris-Perry who has her own show on MSNBC. What can beat two intelligent women who also happen to be African American who can offer their sophisticated perceptions on politics in these wacky political times we are living through since 2008.
So for a moment I was back in those faculty/staff meetings at the old SEEK program with all those glowing African American men, just ready to step off into their very distinguished futures. If was good to see all those intelligent, highly educated black people who may even have benefitted from the programs that were developed in the 60’s to diversify the American middle class. It felt a bit like old home week. Too bad it took one alleged scandal and one very sad event to hear from all these erudite black voices. Hopefully they will continue to be consulted over other issues as we have seen on a few of the Sunday shows.