By Curtis Stephen
Twenty-nineteen (2019). It truly was The Last Year. And that’s because in our last decade, we marked the 50th anniversary of something or other from the 1960s. The assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK. The moon landing. The Black Panthers. The Great Society. The riots. The war.
And Now for Something Completely Different. With the arrival of 2020, a brand-new decade is in the spotlight for reaching the half-century mark. (Yes, you’ve come a long way, Baby –– of The Seventies, that is.) Still, we’re not likely to ever put The Sixties to rest, nor should we. After all, the seismic, climactic events of that era are deeply ingrained in our collective DNA. Yet there’s still so much that has yet to reveal itself. And, in turn, so much that we’ve yet to come to grips with.
Take Mark Naison, for instance. He’s a professor, a provocateur and a prolific booster of all-things Bronx. And he’s also a longtime professor of Black studies at Fordham University. Years ago, he garnered his share of raised eyebrows when he served as chair of that academic department (more on that later).
His public persona –– as the white professor who’s so passionate about Black history that he periodically raps about it –– has earned him a colorful nickname, The Notorious Ph.D. (And, for the record, that was long before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was remixed into The Notorious RBG.)
In fact, Naison became such a curiosity that he landed a cameo on the iconic Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show” (The clip can be seen here.) and was also famously parodied by the controversial comedian Louis C.K. on an episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
These days, Naison, 73, regularly takes to social media to sound off on any number of subjects, ranging from the virtues of public education to labor rights, while restlessly recuperating from knee replacement surgery.
But back in the 1960s, if you were looking for Naison (outside of the New York City basketball courts) –– and, at one point, FBI agents were feverishly trying to do just that –– then it required staying in the streets. That was where Naison had been organizing low-income tenants in East Harlem while also campaigning against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Students for a Democratic Society. (He also had a year-long stint with the notorious Weather Underground before he split with the far-left militant group.)
In the winter of 20o2, Naison’s memoir “White Boy” was released –– much of it devoted to his forays, as an activist, into the fractured fault lines of race in 1960s New York. Weeks after the book hit retail outlets, I spent some three hours discussing the work –– and its related themes –– with Naison at his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
While en route, I stopped off at a local record store and picked up a live album by The Doors, on CD, which served as mood music for the session. The following are excerpts from our interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve taken a pretty deep dive while exploring your life and times with this work. What are your thoughts after revisiting those experiences?
OK. Writing this book was not traumatic because I’ve been teaching a course on the Sixties for years. And I’ve been using a lot of the incidents to illustrate things that I was trying to get across. I tend to use personal vignettes to illustrate political or historical themes. So a lot of it was already there. But it did require me being angry to write it.
What I was angry about was in having met so many white people who thought I was in physical danger for teaching in a Black studies department. They actually thought that Black studies was filled with hate-filled separatists who were ready to humiliate, intimidate or harass any white person who stepped onto their turf. And it was so different from my reality. Finally, after the hundredth time of someone saying, ‘They let you do that?’ –– I just started writing. I needed that push to write this.
You just started writing?
Well, it was definitely a process. When I started this, what I was hearing from a lot of people I knew was –– ‘You’re a 50-year-old professor with a modest reputation. Why the hell would anybody wanna read about you?’ So I had a lot to prove. But I felt I had something to say. So in that situation, you need to be strong-willed and stubborn –– both of which I am. But it also took a lot of writing, rewriting –- and other people’s help –– to get it to the point where a publisher would be interested. That took over two years.
And what sort of reactions are you anticipating to the book’s title?
Well, it might offend some people. But my thing is, read the book and then come back. Let’s talk. I don’t mind pissing people off. I have a T-shirt with the cover of the book on it that I wear sometimes when I’m playing tennis. Some people look like they want to say something, but then they’ll look at me and say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t.’ I don’t mind messing with people. That’s OK. If messing with people leads to learning and discussion, then I’m all for it.
You describe your upbringing in Crown Heights during the 1950s and how you were drawn to rock & roll and football, which your parents very much opposed. And you were barely a teenager when you attended your first civil rights demonstration. Looking back, do you believe that it was, initially, an attempt to just defy your parents?
You know, I don’t know. Rock & Roll. I didn’t think of it as rebellion. That was just how I defined myself –– sports and rock & roll. And then the civil rights movement happened. I didn’t think of it in a mechanical way. I felt drawn to it and then my parents said, ‘No – you can’t participate.’ And then I went anyway. That was actually the rebellion. The first conscious act of rebellion was when I was 15 and decided to go to that CORE demonstration when my parents forbade me. That’s when I became aware that I was rebelling against a way of thinking about race.
What led you to take that step given that, as you also note, you weren’t immersed in social and political issues when you became a teenager?
Part of it was that I watched television. So I was aware of the student sit-ins. Also, when I transferred into Erasmus High School, I met a lot of students who were politically aware. They helped to shape my analysis of the world. But I felt some sense of right and wrong was being triggered in terms of how Black people were being denied very basic rights, both in the south and north. I definitely felt that racism and discrimination was wrong and there was a movement that was challenging it. There were people at my school who were already involved. So I took cautious steps towards it. And then when my parents flipped out, that made me want to do it even more because there was a wrong that needed to be corrected and they were refusing to accept that. It was a gradual process of politicization for me.
You highlight interracial cooperation, but you also delve into the tensions. That definitely comes across in the protests you participated in while attending Columbia University in the spring of 1968. By then, many white student activists had moved on to strictly protesting against the Vietnam War. But you largely remained focused on race. Why?
When Black Power came, a lot of white people ran away under the assumption of –– ‘Well, Black people don’t want us there.’ Well, some Black people didn’t. But was that a reason to run away? Of course, you had people who were just thinking politically. That just wasn’t the case for me. I volunteered to get involved in East Harlem [tenant activism] because I’m from a working-class family and that’s where I felt most comfortable. What I was doing and experiencing was far more personal than politics.
In fact, for most of the 1960s, you were in an interracial relationship. It was impacted by the turbulence of the decade. But it also caused a rift in your family, especially with your mother. What lessons did you take away from that?
Well, it was very painful. My mother just couldn’t bring herself to embrace her, before she grudgingly agreed to do so in her own way. But my girlfriend wanted no part in just being tolerated. It was clear to me that race was so overpowering and deeply embedded in the subliminal recesses of American cultural, social, political and economic life that otherwise intelligent people just could not function when it came to dealing with it. It was beyond their resources, beyond their talents, and beyond their capabilities.
We’ve been talking about a time in which so many aspects of life in the city, the nation –– and the world, for that matter –– were being upended. What are we to make of it now, all these decades later?
I’ve written a lot of stuff before, but nobody’s ever accused me of writing a page-turner [Laughs]. The very interesting thing to me is that the best and most enthusiastic response that I’ve been getting is from young people –– from people under 30. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re also living in a world in which racial and cultural boundaries are much more fluid compared to earlier generations. The book is a labor of love, but I want to offer a very realistic look –– or something that tries to be a realistic look –– about what racial encounters were about back then. The good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s inspiration, humor, misunderstandings and terrible things. But there were also a lot of beautiful things too.
In a segment, News 12 The Bronx reported on Naison’s “Rock & Roll to Hip-Hop” course at Fordham University in December 2014.