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Mark D. Naison

White Boy
A Memoir

Mark D. Naison

The author of White Boy reminisces on the obstacles of a white activist with African American interests and becoming an one of the most influential leaders in African American studies.

Q: You say in the beginning of your remarkable memoir White Boy that your heroes were often black. You saw them on television and heard them on the radio "without seeing their blackness as socially significant." What made these particular athletes and performers special to you?
A: They did what they did brilliantly and with style and we wanted to imitate them—whether it was Willie Mays making a catch, or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers singing harmony. And that made us the first generation of whites to openly look to black people for inspiration.

Q: You describe in your chapter "Race Conscious" the "threat" blacks posed—both real and imagined—in your community and even in your school. You were transferred (by your parents) to another high school after an "incident" occurred in your high school locker room. How did these events affect you?
A: Being beaten up, or getting in fights, was no big deal to me—it had happened plenty of times with white kids. So my parents' decision to move me to another school seemed irrational. My parents' racial outbursts—and their response to black people generally—deeply offended me.

Q: You entered Columbia University with the excitement and naivete of any Freshman. Yet your impressions changed once you got there. Can you describe that?
A: It was an intimidating place for a kid from the streets of Brooklyn, but there were some brilliant professors and interesting students and I gradually gained confidence socially and academically.

Q: It was through friends of the Columbia basketball team that you met Ruthie, your black girlfriend. You spent six years with her, and your romance had serious repercussions for both of you and your respective families. You claim you were "not an activist trying to defy tradition" by having this relationship. What can you say about this relationship?
A: It began with curiosity, attraction, and excitement, and then a grim determination not to let prejudice drive us apart. Ruthie shared these feelings, but she faced a lot of disapproval from nationalist black students in the late '60s . Sometimes she felt it was "too much pressure." My parents were violently opposed to the relationship and continued to pretend that "Ruthie was not a part of my life"

Q: How did the Black Power Movement's directive that blacks "take control of their organizations" put a strain on interracial friendships and organizations?
A: Many black intellectuals and activists came to feel that the presence of whites in the black community retarded the development of black leadership. They began to re-evaluate personal and political relationships with white friends and co-workers.

Q: Do you care to comment about being arrested?
A: In the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War, being arrested for one's political principles was a mark of commitment. Getting arrested to protest Columbia's attempt to build a gym in a Harlem park was something I was proud of at the time—and am still proud of now.

Q: So you have no regrets?
A: None at all, I've had a great life!

Q: Would you have done anything different?
A: If I were a little smarter, I would have left the Weatherman organization the minute I heard them talking about "smashing monogamy" instead of waiting until I had gotten arrested with them in a stupid incident in a Brooklyn coffee shop.

Q: How did you feel when you first began teaching a Black History course? Wasn't that a risky undertaking for a white man in 1968?
A: I felt nervous, but not frightened. I knew most of the students I was teaching as a counselor and a coach. But I made sure that their voices were equal to mine by organizing the class around a debate format.

Q: How satisfying was it for your "life's work" to culminate in being accepted as an instructor in the Black Studies Department at Fordham?
A: It was extremely satisfying, but it was only possible because my black colleagues believed that Black Studies was for everyone in the university. Some black students rejected my presence, but my large enrollments, the support of my colleagues, and the friendships I made on the basketball court helped neutralize their opposition. Eventually, I became more comfortable in my job than anything I had ever done.

Q: Do you care to comment on the Leonard Jeffries flap?
A: I defended—and would still defend—his right to teach, but deeply resented the fact that many whites I met thought his theories and conduct were representative of Black Studies.

Q: What did you get out of revisiting all of these heady times from your life?
A: The best part of it was seeing how excited my students and my children have been about the book. They have been White Boy's biggest supporters. They completely identify with a tale about crossing racial boundaries. They have shown their support by designing and wearing "White Boy tee shirts," helping me develop a website and trying to set up signings, book parties and media appearances.


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