Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Race, the city, and The New School

I wore a hoodie to class today but nobody noticed. Our subject was The New School's engagement with urban studies and with issues of race, and it seemed necessary to end the class with time for a discussion of the case of Trayvon Martin - but there were as good as no takers. I can't imagine our students haven't heard about it. Maybe they didn't see the connections with our readings because, er, they hadn't read them...

Because the race/city story isn't connected to the Graduate Faculty story, we're having to break new ground researching here, and know only snibbets. But with the help of guerilla archivist C we've found some good stuff, and some questions. Courses on race and race issues started in 1921, and Franz Boas, the greatest anti-racist scholar of his generation, taught at The New School and wrote the article "Race" in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences - here's the closing paragraph.
  (XIII:35)
Several of Boas' students taught over long years at The New School, including Alexander Goldenweiser and Ruth Benedict (and her student Margaret Mead), as well as one of the great anti-racist scholars of mid-century, Ashley Montagu, author of Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942), who taught courses in 1932 and, with a few interruptions, from 1949 to 1966 (and one last time in 1972).

In the late 1940s, several courses on African American topics were actually taught by African Americans. We sometimes claim that W. E. DuBois taught the nation's first university course on African American studies here but that's not quite right (and not just for the obvious reason that historically black colleges and universities had been doing it for years). His "The Negro in American History" was offered in Fall 1948, but Alain Locke was teaching at The New School already in 1946.

In 1954, just months after Brown vs. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall gave a lecture on "Segregation: The Next Steps," and in 1956 was given an honorary degree. In 1965 he was made a trustee.
Starting in 1962 there were several courses and lecture series. We claim James Baldwin in various ways; he may have crossed paths with The New School before leaving for Paris, but confirmed is his opening the conference "The Negro Writer's Vision of America" in 1965. Forgotten until this year, Rev. Martin Luther King kicked off a lecture series in 1964 on the "race crisis." As part of our course we've been able to have the surviving audiotapes from that series digitized, and now you can hear Dr. King as I've certainly never heard him before, crystal clear like he's in the room with you, and talking, not preaching (we don't have his speech, just the q&a). Unheard by anyone for 48 years! Go on, try it!

(But the discovery which made me happiest was learning that the Free Southern Theater from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, made its first New York appearance at The New School in February 1964. The play? Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." [Richard Schechner, then at Tulane, was apparently an adviser to the fledgling group.])

The balance of the class was about urban studies, a field in which The New School was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a pioneer. Among famous names, architecture historian Lewis Mumford was involved from the 1920s, and Jane Jacobs chose The New School to be her institutional home when writing perhaps the most famous book in the whole field of urban studies, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). The city was analytic and artistic subject and context, and audience too.
My co-teacher J showed us what important things were happening at and by the school through the career of Charles Abrams, founder of the New York Housing Authority in 1934 and of the New School's Institute for Urban Studies at The New School in 1939. 1939 also saw the appearance of the first of Abrams' many books, Revolution in Land, which starts:
(Yes, Clara Mayer again!) Abrams' other passion was the struggle against discrimination, anti-semitic and racist, and he did important work exposing the ways in which government unwittingly reinforced segregation through misguided housing policy. He was an advocate and then a critic of large housing estates. He, too, spoke in the "race crisis" series, and recordings of his talk and discussion were among those digitized for our class, too.

J also introduced students to Jane Jacob's famous and inspiring but also problematic celebration of the "ballet of the streets" - safety and security ensured by constant "eyes on the street" - along with her battles against Robert Moses just south from us, at Washington Square Park. (How many of our students knew cars had long driven through it?
(Photograph of the Arch by Robert Haas, c. 1955, from here.)

We thought that these materials - students had been asked to listen to the recordings of King, Abrams and Roy Wilkins from the "race crisis" conference, and to read the chapter on sidewalks and safety from Death and Life of the Great American Cities - would resonate clearly and painfully with the way in which Trayvon Martins was shot to death by an overzealous Neighborhood Watchman in a Florida gated community... Maybe it was so painful they didn't want to talk about it?

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