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SEPTEMBER 2005
CAPTIVES OF OUR ORIGINS
By James Moeser

 

On Monday, new Carolina students entered our classrooms for the first time, and together, we had a conversation about race. In a discussion that I led with Student Body President Seth Dearmin, students confirmed what I suspected – that we all tend to shy away from substantive conversation about race relations. The students in our section all admitted that tended to be true for them, too.  

But for a couple of hours Monday, we did talk about race, and we were helped along by our Summer Reading Program assignment, “Blood Done Sign My Name” by Timothy Tyson.

This bookprompted me to think about my own origins, growing up in segregated schools in Lubbock, Texas, where I vividly remember the separate drinking fountains for whites and colored at the Lubbock County Court House.

In 1957, I enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin when it was becoming integrated.  Black students had been admitted, but they lived in segregated housing and most of the commercial establishments alongside the university – theatres, restaurants and barber shops – refused to serve them. 

For the first two years of my university experience, I was a dutiful music major, practicing the organ and studying hard.  Gradually, however, my world view began to change.  I had grown up in a deeply religious family – church twice on Sunday and Wednesday nights as well. Upon going to college, I did what I had been trained to do – I moved my letter to the nearest Baptist church. 

The University Baptist Church in Austin, however, was not a typical Southern Baptist Church.  Its minister, Blake Smith, was a graduate of the Yale University Divinity School and was one of the most eloquently powerful preachers I had ever heard.  This church had integrated in 1948, at which time it lost much of its membership. 

By my junior year at UT, I had become involved with the Campus Y and a residential community engaged in ecumenical theological education, both of which were the locus of the campus civil rights movement.  By my senior year, I had been elected to the student assembly, where we succeeded in requiring commercial establishments alongside the university to integrate in order to qualify for a “Steer Here” student government endorsement. 

I tell you all of this simply to establish my bona fides as a “white liberal” as defined by Tyson in his book.  I identify with Tyson’s Methodist minister father, with his good intentions and often faulty understanding of his own latent assumptions of white supremacy. 

We are all captives of our own origins, especially when we do not fully know and understand them.”  Tyson wrote that sentence in reference to his father, but as I read it I realized it applied to me as well.  I believe if we take this book seriously, it will cause us to ask (or we will be asked by others) some difficult questions. 

Outside the Campus Y there is a student-painted sign that reads, “Blood Done Sign My Name – History or Current Events?”  Another reads, “How far is Oxford from your home town?”  Our students will not let us get away with sugar-coated answers to these questions.

Race remains one of the most difficult issues for Americans to deal with.  It is still with us.  Looking back on myself in the 1960s, I was hopelessly self-righteous in being on the right side of the race issue.  In the 1970s, we white liberals were shocked when the black power movement essentially told us to go away – that this was their movement, not ours. 

This was a difficult time in America, culminating in violence and chaos.  It is my hope that this book and the discussions around it will help all of us to know better ourselves and our origins, so that we might deal with these difficult problems with true empathy and compassion. 

James Moeser is chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.







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