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What Howard Zinn taught the students of Spelman College

[The excerpt from a longer 1960 piece by Howard Zinn and Paula Giddings posted at TomDispatch.com are from the Nation magazine’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue on newsstands in April. They appear here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

In the current age of “lean-in” feminism at one end of the spectrum and an “anti-respectability” discourse at the other, the late Howard Zinn’s essay [reprinted by TomDispatch here] reminds us of an earlier meaning of women’s liberation.

Zinn was of Russian-Jewish heritage, an influential historian and, in 1960, a beloved professor at Spelman College, the historically black women’s institution in the then-segregated city of Atlanta. The attribution of “finishing school” in the title was well-earned: Spelman girls, whose acceptance letters included requests to bring white gloves and girdles with them to campus, were molded to honor the virtues of “true-womanhood”: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.

Nevertheless, by 1960, Zinn’s students had morphed from “nice, well-mannered and ladylike” paragons of politesse to determined demonstrators who picketed, organized sit-ins, and were sometimes arrested and jailed for their efforts.  “Respectability is no longer respectable among young Negro women attending college today,” Zinn concluded.

These young girls were born in the 1940s, and whatever the background of their parents (who might be sharecroppers, teachers, or doctors), their generation was destined to belong to a new stratum of Americans: the “Black Bourgeoisie,” as the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called it. An economic class that was literally wedged in the “middle” between a small black elite and the black masses, this group emerged in no small part because of the unprecedented number of educated women who, historically excluded from pink-collar positions, now had access not only to the elite professions, but to mainstream administrative, clerical, and civil-service jobs.

For black women, burdened by stereotypes of hypersexuality, this development meant more than a triumph of simple social mobility. With education, more girls could now escape the domestic and personal service work that subjected them to the sexual exploitation of employers and others. To be able to avoid such a soul-killing future was the dream of generations of mothers for their daughters -- one that I often heard from my own grandmother, who had migrated north so that my mother could be the first in the family to attain a college education. The stakes in taking advantage of these newer opportunities were indeed high and brimmed with profound meaning and emotion.

In 1960, Spelman, like other black schools -- including those that educated and employed the great civil-rights lawyers and intellectuals of the period -- had little tolerance for the student activities that Zinn encouraged and sometimes led. It was one thing to support integration and equality, and quite another to sanction a sit-in at the segregated library or enrage powerful politicians by occupying the whites-only visiting section of the Georgia Legislature. Although these acts were not as dramatic as the more violent encounters that we are familiar with, these young women were also risking their lives. Expulsion, the loss of a scholarship or a work-study opportunity, could mean an end to the hopes of a relatively secure -- and protected -- future.

Nevertheless, this was the Spelman generation that included students like Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, a former debutante who understood that the long-term future of others was more important than her own immediate well-being. She dropped out of college to join the Freedom Rides; became a leader of the “Jail, No Bail” movement; and was the first woman to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the premier youth organization.

Feminists today might consider Zinn’s insight that his “nice, well-mannered, and ladylike” students did not so much abandon respectability as redefine it. They recognized a moment when virtue required acting out, not leaning in, and when the corrective for stifling mores were not displays of unfettered individual behavior that reinforced dangerous stereotypes.

Former Spelman students Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, credit Zinn as being key to their own activist transformations. The kind of history he wrote and taught intellectualized traditions of black resistance and, as Edelman recalled, encouraged them “to think outside the box and to question rather than accept conventional wisdom.” For Walker, despite her perennial fear of losing a needed scholarship, the fact that Zinn not only supported but participated in student demonstrations encouraged her to “carry on” despite the risk.

The professor was also taking a risk, and in 1963 he was fired from Spelman for insubordination. “I plead guilty,” he responded with pride, and in the end both students and teacher were better for the experience. In an interview, Zinn once said that his years at Spelman were “probably the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me.”

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Copyright 2015 The Nation Magazine

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