Writing a Dissertation? Take Time To Remember Why You’re Doing It.

It is remarkable to think about how often we approach our work in a spirit of fear. At least, that’s my story. The fears run along well-worn tracks at this point: I’ll never finish this dissertation; I don’t have what it takes; it’s so big one day of work isn’t going to make a difference; and at the end of it my reward is an impossible job market.

There are joys to consider: I love to explore the past and learn new things; writing is really hard but it’s also really rewarding to create something that didn’t exist before; history is a longtime hobby of mine and now I get paid to do my hobby! Not to mention this is my God-given vocation.

But sometimes all the joys are overshadowed and you’re left with the fears. On those days, you might need to do something else entirely, or do something that I call dissertation-adjacent. It may not be the most productive use of your time. It may not move the ball forward very much. But it may be a means of finding your way back into the material with a new spark. You’ve got to remember why you went into this in the first place, and if you can’t remember, maybe you should just stop for a while.

Today was a dissertation-adjacent day for me. Or at least, it started out that way. My dissertation looked like a big giant monster that wanted to eat my soul. So I did something else. I started trawling through old student newspapers from an evangelical college. At some point I ought to look at these particular newspapers anyway, but they’re certainly not at the top of the writing or research agenda this summer. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this today. But it was a way to try to recover the spark. And besides, I might find some useful material.

I ended up with a lot of useful sources, a new chapter outline, and some great quotes. Joy.

I’ll share an example. In the early 1970s there is a particular genre of article from black students at evangelical colleges that keeps appearing at a lot of institutions. These students are trying to find some way of communicating to the white students that it is really hard to be black there, and that the campus needs to change. Part of what makes these letters so poignant is that they are, on the one hand, a unique product of this particular radical moment when young black people were taking new pride in their identities and, on the other hand, often read as though they could have been written yesterday (because white evangelical environments remain oppressive today).

cc r.e.a. 1971

This particular black student began modestly: “I am not a writer,” he wrote. But he had a lot to say nonetheless. Here are some choice lines:

If only for a moment the true and living God would allow and grant to you, to your world, and this community the insight, the vision to see the living, the creeping, the stalking devastation brought into existence, given life and perpetually sustained by you, by your world and the character of your world. That character is Imposition. You have imposed your whiteness over and upon my blackness in your oak-like concepts, ideals and values…

How have you done this? Please try this question, is there anything black in, of or about [this] College besides its six black students or did you know how many of us there were? Why is this?…

few of you will understand this statement: THE AFFIRMATION OF OUR BLACKNESS AND OUR HUMANITY IN BLACK IS A BEAUTIFUL, LONG AWAITED GIFT FROM GOD.

And now I remember why I’m doing this.

The Racist History of My Alma Mater

Jet March 19 1970 p30
Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity To Silence Black Students

I’m in the archives today and have an interesting find to share.

White evangelical colleges were not entirely immune from black radicalism sweeping college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one white evangelical college* in the fall of 1970, the new black student organization observed Black Solidarity Day and had blunt words of criticism for their college. In a public panel discussion, black students critiqued white missionaries, the college administration (why no black faculty?) and the white-centric curriculum. As if anticipating the response they would get for speaking so honestly, one black student wrote, “we are loved for being ignorant and hated for being militant.”

One white student responded with a ringing defense of Christian colorblindness:

A few things to notice from this letter:

–The basis of colorblindness is not the Constitution or the American Way as it would be in mainstream conservative rhetoric. Here, it’s grounded in what Jesus has done. Rejecting racial distinctions is not just what good Americans do; it’s what good Christians do.

–In this framework, the explicit discussion of race is not seen as a threat to white advantage (at least, not consciously) or a danger to the American system. The stakes are actually higher than that. Racial consciousness is seen as a threat to the unity of the body of Christ, an assault on the very meaning of Christian community.

–Material conditions and power relations are completely ignored. The writer has nothing to say about whether or not there should be black faculty or a more balanced curriculum. There isn’t any space for that conversation to even occur for this writer, because it would mean grappling explicitly with racial identities.

–The writer comes awfully close to calling into question whether the black students are even Christians. A true believer, he implies, would not talk as they had done. In the name of Christian brotherhood, this writer would have black students be quiet about the realities of their experience and conform to his standards.

The rhetoric of Christian colorblindness often sounded good. It still does. Christians do believe that Jesus died for us all and has broken down barriers of hostility. But pay careful attention to the purposes for which this rhetoric is deployed. Does it liberate, or silence?


*Since I just found this in the archives today and have a lot more to learn about this institution I’m not revealing individual or institutional identities here. I do know that this particular institution has been unusually aggressive in seeking change in recent decades. In any case, the point is not to disparage a specific institution but to suggest that this document is representative of broader dynamics in white evangelicalism in the 1970s.

Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

wheaton record 1964
The Wheaton College student newspaper reports on the results of the campus’s mock presidential election, November 5, 1964.

The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.

Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).

Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).

Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.

wheaton record 1964 protest

Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:

Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…

Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference.  The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people.  That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:

The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…

A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:

Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…

Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.

Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.

In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.

He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological  goals.

From the Archive: “I Had to Stay Really Close to the Lord to Keep from Committing Suicide.”

img_20161219_134517408
In 1960s publications and advertising, the prospective evangelical college student was white.

When black students began to go to white evangelical campuses in larger numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s, they often had very difficult experiences. On many campuses, especially rural campuses outside the South, most of the white students came from backgrounds of isolation and ignorance. For many white students, seeing a dozen black students on campus might have been their first real contact with black people.

In the spring of 1978, a black student at a white evangelical college¹ authored a guest editorial in the student newspaper in which she reflected on her experiences and lessons learned during her time there. She wrote,

I have had some bad encounters here. As a Freshman, I was lonely, miserable and terrified of the whites on my floor in the dorm. I was even more afraid after students told me that they could not invite me home because their parents were prejudiced or their father hated ‘colored people’ because “they are so violent and rude.” Some of the other statements were: “does your color rub off; is your hair wirey; and when do you wash your hair?”

My Freshman year was really difficult, and I had to stay really close to the Lord to keep from committing suicide. I could not understand why God had put me in this type of situation. I could not believe that there were only four Black girls and six Black guys. This caused me to go through real culture shock. But now as I look over my four years here, I can see all the things God has taught me, and how much I have grown from being in this type of culture. I have learned to be content…

The main purpose of this editorial is to make you, my fellow-Christians, aware of the damage you can do by not trying to understand Blacks, and to share with you the way I have felt as a student here…I must admit that I would never recommend Blacks to attend [this] College.

There are at least three important things to know about this editorial. First, it is a good representation of sentiments that were extremely common among black students at white evangelical colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. This young women may have felt alone, but black students all over the country were having similar experiences. Second, some things have changed in the past 40 years. Some white evangelical colleges have made genuine strides. Third, take away the dated indicators of ignorance (“does your color rub off?”) and you’re left with a sense of alienation and isolation that could have been written this year at many white evangelical colleges. It is still extremely difficult to be black at many of these institutions.

As a researcher, these kinds of accounts are a kind of north star for me. It is incumbent on me to read them critically and with care, but I frankly find them more credible than the happy talk of white administrators at these colleges. As I sift through documents I sometimes begin to get the sense that things were beginning to go really well at such and such a place at this time or other. And then a document like this brings me up short. They are heartfelt testaments to peoples’ lived experience. On that level they have enormous moral force. But they’re also analytically useful for me, because they expose the fictions of the colorblind college. A community that makes people feel this way is not simply “united in Christ” as its rhetoric would imply. It is also united in and through whiteness.


¹ I’ve elected to withhold the names of the individual and the college because of the nature of this content.