Professors Leslie Brown and Charles Dew ’58 weave history and memory to help students understand how lives lived on opposite sides of the color line come together in one place.
Portraits by Mark McCarty
Interview by Peter Murphy
“The history of the American South is a racial one, where blacks and whites lived their lives intertwined and disconnected.” So begins the course description for “The South in Black and White,” taught during Winter Study by historians Charles Dew ’58 and Leslie Brown. The statement is also an apt depiction of the two professors’ life experiences. Dew was a child of the Jim Crow South whose interest in Southern history, the Civil War and Reconstruction was awakened at Williams; he’s since published three books on those subjects. Brown grew up on the heels of the civil rights movement and has published extensively on African American history, gender and race relations, and oral and documentary history. In an interview with Dean of the Faculty Peter Murphy, the two discuss what it’s been like to team-teach for the first time, the intersection of their lives and work, and the relationship between memory and history.
Peter Murphy: What’s it been like teaching “The South in Black and White?”
Leslie Brown: It’s been very easy. We tend to flow together. Our energy flows together. The students are getting both of our interpretations. Charles is very easy to work with, and we have similar ideas about what we should read, similar ideas about how we should run the course. We just fell into place.
Charles Dew: It’s easy to have a conversation with the class—that’s basically what we’re doing. Occasionally we’ll talk to each other, and sometimes Leslie will ask a question and I’ll be hell-bent to answer it, but I’ll let the students go at it. If I have something at the end to add, I will. The question of guilt, for example, about whether white Southerners were guilty over the institution of Jim Crow—
Leslie: Whether they felt guilty. They were guilty.
Charles: Yes, whether they felt guilty over the institution of Jim Crow. Leslie thinks that guilt was there. I think it wasn’t, and so we had an interesting exchange on that. I offered up the observation that what was driving so much of Jim Crow was this concern about interracial sex and the breach of the color line. That phenomenon, that fear, drove white Southerners throughout most of their history into a state of frenzy. The black/white sexual color line was at the core of so much that was going on. And my feeling is—Leslie disagrees—that that concern was so potent, it justified just about anything that whites did to sustain it.
Peter: And that’s a fear of black men.
Leslie: Yes, a fear of black men attacking white women. While at the same time, the opposite was actually happening: white men persistently attacking black women.
Peter: In some ways being sponsored by the system.
Leslie: Yes. And the reason I disagree with Charles is because, as Ida B. Wells said, “Nobody believes that threadbare lie.” So if you don’t believe the lie to begin with, and the lie overlays this whole system, then one must feel guilty about the system, because the system is built on a lie that one doesn’t believe. But this is the wonderful thing about history. We don’t agree. We had a disagreement yesterday, when I asked the question, “What did black Southerners in the deepest of the Deep South have to live for in the Jim Crow era?” Charles believes very strongly in a sense of survival, the will to live. And I believe the opposite among this group of people—that the situation, the horrible poverty, the misery they lived with, did not necessarily make them want to live. In fact, I think they were hopeless, and without hope the idea that life would be better didn’t exist among a couple of generations. They looked to heaven as the better place for them—We’ll get through this and then we’ll go on to heaven. And many of them didn’t really want to, or didn’t think they could, get much more—economically, politically, socially—out of the world they lived in. Charles has a very upbeat perspective on the world. [Laughter.] And I don’t.
Charles: My argument is that this instinct for survival is as basic as any human instinct, and we can’t make the assumptions Leslie’s making. But I’ve been thinking about it—she may have a case, particularly if you were profoundly convinced that the afterlife exists and there is a place for the humblest of us in that world. The tendency to give up might be more powerful than I suspected. I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff this winter and talking about it, and rereading some books I haven’t read for a while.
Leslie: We’re introducing each other to new materials. I’m reading a book about an FBI informant in the middle of the civil rights movement, and Charles will come in and talk about another book he’s reading on the same subject.
Peter: You are from different generations, and the students are now generations removed, not only from your own experience but also from the material you’re using. How does that affect what you have to do for them?
Charles: I use my own autobiography—growing up on the white side of the color line in the Jim Crow South—because students need to know what those cultural forces were like. They need to know what it was like to grow up with people and have the relationship governed by a rather elaborate etiquette that in many ways limited what you could say, what you could do. The whole notion of being in a room with someone and knowing that there were barriers, that there were boundaries you shouldn’t breach, is alien to them. It should be alien to them. I talk about having arrived on campus and seeing a black classmate and realizing in that moment how different this environment was going to be from the one I grew up in. I use that sort of thing to get students to try and come back to the way things were as I was learning and as it relates to a lot of what I teach about when I teach southern history. Leslie can pick up and magnify what’s happening on the other side of that line. So it’s not only what we’re reading and discussing—it’s also that we have experiences we’re willing to talk about.
Leslie: Charles talks so eloquently about the white side of the color line in the South. I know about the black side of the color line in the South from my family—an elderly, old southern family. The balance I bring in is the transition through the civil rights movement. I raise the moral questions: Why would someone take their life in their hands to get involved in civil rights activities? Why would the Black Panthers carry guns? Why would women be willing to go to jail? Why would white students be willing to go south? Why so few people actually in the midst of the morass didn’t join the movement. So Charles and I talk about two different time periods and two different sides of the coin.
Peter: Is it the case that the civil rights period is now as distant to our students as the Civil War is, that you have to work fundamentally to re-energize and bring both of these periods into context?
Charles: The ’60s and ’70s are the distant past for them—it might as well be the Civil War or colonial America. And that’s a bit of a shock, because it was such a struggle, and it was so triumphant when it happened. I can remember ’64. I can remember ’65. I can remember Fair Housing in ’68. At every point along the way it took a blood sacrifice to get there, but then it got done. And now we’re seeing the pushback, and it’s hard.
Leslie: To start out saying the history of the United States is a racial history—it just shocks students, because that’s not necessarily what they’ve learned. But you’d be hard-pressed now to find a practicing Americanist historian who doesn’t agree with that statement and who doesn’t add in gender, class and region. Those are critical factors.
Peter: I’m interested in hearing both of you talk about the difference between memory and history and what it has meant for you to become practicing historians and, through professional practice, encounter material which is not just family story but pre-story, the stuff inside of your experience. Are there tensions between those ways of telling the past?
Leslie: If we think about history as the academic work and memory as one of the primary sources for the analysis that informs academic work, then we push through the ways memory can be flawed. Memory opens the door for further analysis. I remember as a kid sitting on the floor under the table with the elders gathered around and listening to their stories, looking at their lives and drawing an analysis from a distance: Where did they come from? How did they get to our table? Who’s from the South? Who’s not? I know I’m on the right track in my research when it’s beginning to resonate with the stuff I know deep down in my bones. Even in my present, I look back and understand things I didn’t back then. I understand why my parents were so strict about my being around boys, white or black, what their fear was, particularly with white guys, their dislike of my white friends. I understand all those things from a distance. Back then they were things I resisted; now I see them as history informing their own perspectives.
Charles: What I experienced as a boy growing up in the South is not dissimilar—except that the myths I was raised on were profoundly different. There was a rite of passage in the South that when you were 14 years old you got a .22 caliber rifle. When I was 14, I got my .22, and I was given a copy of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants, a three-volume classic history of the Army of Northern Virginia. I read it, and I absorbed this reverence for the South and the Confederacy and the sacrifices that had been made—never thinking about, never even hearing the word “slavery” mentioned in my household. Then I arrived at Williams, and all of a sudden I was taking one class with Professor Fred Rudolph ’42 and another with Professor Bob Scott. And here was this history that I had no awareness of. Suddenly things began to look different to me, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a historian. I wanted to know about my part of the world in ways that I had no inkling of before I got to Williams. Bob Scott really is why I’m a historian, because he lit a fire in me to come to grips with this world. I have my father to thank for my coming here, but I don’t think he ever imagined that the cultural values I grew up with in Florida would be transformed by my experience.
Peter: You both have personal experiences that are closely related to the material you ended up studying as historians, and that has to be a powerful thing. How do you practice history in order to encourage the world to evolve in a positive or better way? Is it just about telling the truth?
Leslie: There are two things that go on in my classroom—and probably in Charles’ also. One is that I try to demonstrate how change has occurred in the past, who the change agents are and that they’re usually not leaders but instead people being pushed from behind by young people to become leaders—the disempowered. I bring stories of change forward to students so they can see themselves as change agents. Students look to the past that I teach and say to themselves, “Oh, God, I could never be a Martin Luther King.” But if I tell them about some young person who did something that was really interesting, then I can get students to see themselves as a piece of a larger change process. Take the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Not everybody could go to the march, but the people who couldn’t go did other things that were just as important for the march to occur. Students begin to see that they don’t necessarily have to put themselves on the line and be shot in order for change to happen. The second thing I do—and this is to push back against what they’ve learned in U.S. history before they got to college—is talk about how there is no truth in history. Everything is a partial truth. This is what Jacquelyn Hall, a great Southern historian—a great women’s historian—writes. We can’t get to the truth, because we weren’t there. And even the people who were there, the people who leave their sources for us, saw things from their own perspectives. As a historian, you try to find as many perspectives as you can in order to be able to write the story. That helps students see that there’s not necessarily a right way. They don’t have to wait for the march to occur, because maybe marching isn’t what we do anymore. I ask them, “What else can we do besides just do what a group did in the past? Is there something new?” I like to break down their barriers and shine the light in dark places in their lives.
Charles: My hope is that students will be informed citizens—that they will know the tangled history of this country and they will see the roads we’ve gone down that have been so destructive and, in some cases, dangerous. So much of what I deal with is race. Bringing to the forefront how powerful that force has been and hoping they can somehow understand and come to grips with that—those are the things that motivate me. Leslie and I share a passion for history. That’s really what engages me with this material. We’ll never get to the truth, but I do hope students will come away from my classes knowing more about how complex this country’s history has been and knowing there are ways in which they can make a difference. If it’s only by being informed, if it’s only by being an intelligent voter, if it’s only by understanding that some of the things that have been happening contemporaneously have their roots in the past—then if I’m a missionary, that’s my mission. I’m not self-consciously trying to elevate students or make them better. That’s not my purpose. But I think in trying to teach history it’s probably a secondary by-product.
Leslie: Really, it’s all about trying to move students. And even though they’re young, they don’t want to be moved yet. This is one of the things that’s different between first-year and second-year students, and third-year and senior students. Third-years begin to drink this up; seniors can really begin to talk about it.
Charles: But you see the value of a liberal arts education over the course of that experience. Exposing them to unpleasant truths is beneficial. It gets them to think, and they start to think of the world in more complex ways. History is something that lends itself to that.
Peter: In “The South in Black and White” you’re encountering material where, because of your different perspectives, the same facts might generate different stories. Can the students understand Leslie and Charles together as one story? Do you want them to understand it that way? Or do you want them to process it as two stories you can tell that are similar but also very different?
Charles: I think we want to give them two stories that merge into a single story. We want them to understand life on opposite sides of the color line, but we then want to bring them together in that place we call the South, because that’s where the stories both lived. Since much of what I have to deal with is man’s inhumanity to man, I am constantly reminding myself to also tell students that everyday life wasn’t always lived that way and that there are real values in southern culture that transcend race. The tragedy is that those values so often were compromised by a racist sense of honor, a sense of devotion to place. There is an amiability about the South. Good manners is their pride. There’s nothing wrong with that. It helps to grease the wheels of civilization. But at the same time there is this racial component that is so awful, so toxic and occasionally so explosive. So it’s constantly this struggle to try and fold the black story and the white story into one and realize that what you’re trying to get the students to do is probably almost impossible. Yet I want to make an effort to get them to the point where they can understand this. It’s a hard thing to put into words because we do it every day and don’t think about the philosophic umbrella under which we’re operating.
Leslie: I couldn’t agree more that there are two stories, and we want students to be able to see how they link together and how they link together across time—both our individual stories and the stories we’re reading about. Whenever I think about the story of the South and the black and white story, I’m reminded of the DNA molecule, these two separate strands that wind around each other with pieces along the way that connect them. Part of what we do is introduce students to the pieces that come off the strands. It’s a really good metaphor, and it’s really good history. But as that black and white transformation has occurred over the last 20 years, we’ve also become more aware of Asians in the South, and Jewish life in the South and now the browning of the South with immigration from Latino nations. I think our students are opening us up to seeing the South even more broadly than we’ve been teaching it. So the story has gotten much more complex. It’s really a good thing that both of us stop at about 1968, 1970, where we can point to these anomalies and not say any more. [Laughter.]
Charles: But we’re learning. I think we’re doing our best work when we’re storytelling.
Leslie: Jacquelyn Hall writes that historians—we—are the keepers of the stories. We keep the stories alive. We pass them on to the next generation in hopes that the next generation can pass them on to the next generation. And we hold the official histories, not the family ones. These are the official histories.
“There is no truth in history. Everything is a partial truth.”
“We want to give them two stories that merge into a single story.”