Of the many recollections I have arising from my fifteen months as chair of President Clinton’s advisory board on race is that of the black woman who screamed during a meeting her history of how she had been abused and mistreated because of her race. My memory of the white man who claimed that already too much was being done for African Americans, and it was he who needed protection from policies such as affirmative action, is no less vivid. The advisory board was troubled by these and similar competing claims, and it became clear that open dialogues and, if necessary, limitless discussions were the civilized approach to finding constructive ways of dealing with America’s racial ills. It did and will require not only persistent diligence but also abiding patience.
During my life it has been necessary to work not only as hard as my energies would permit, but to do it as regularly and as consistently as humanly possible. This involved the strictest discipline in the maximum use of my time and energy. I worked two jobs in college and graduate school that made inordinate demands on my time, but there was no alternative to the regimen that circumstances demanded. And those circumstances included a refusal to check my catholic interests that have always prompted me to participate in activities beyond scholarship. Balancing professional and personal activities has resulted in a life full of rich rewards, a consequence deeply indebted to my near sixty-year marriage to Aurelia Whittington. My father called her the Trooper for her patient, good-willed, indomitable spirit. She was that and so much more. How do I calculate the influence of having spent two-thirds of my life living alongside an exemplar of selfless dignity?
Even before we were married, I learned much from Aurelia. She taught me to put others ahead of my own preference, as she did routinely. There is no more vivid example of her habit of self-sacrifice than when she abandoned her own career. She did so in order to be there for Whit, our only child, when our adult Brooklyn neighbors taunted him and sought in every way possible to convey that neither he nor his family was welcome to live in their previously all-white neighborhood.
My life has been dedicated to and publicly defined by scholarship, a lifelong affection for the profession of history and the myriad institutions that support it. A white professor at historically black Fisk University powerfully influenced my choice of a career, one I decided early on to dedicate to new areas of study, wherever possible, in order to maintain a lively, fresh approach to teaching and writing history. This is how I happened to get into African American history, in which I never had a formal course but that attracted an increasing number of students of my generation and many more in later generations. But I was determined that I would not be confined to a box of any kind, so I regarded African American history as not so much a separate field as a subspecialty of American history. Even in graduate school I was interested in women’s history, and in more recent years I have studied and written papers in that field, although I never claimed more than the desire to examine it intensely rather than presume to master it entirely.
I could not work in the field of history without maintaining some contact with other historians and some affiliation with historical associations. Consequently, at the Library of Congress and in local libraries where I was engaged in research, I made a point of meeting other historians and discussing with them matters of mutual interest. I not only maintained an active membership in the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History but joined other groups, even where it became necessary to educate members, to the extent possible, that history knows no bounds, either in the human experience or in the rules governing who is eligible to record it. This would not, could not involve demeaning myself or in any way compromising my own self-respect. On occasion it did involve venturing into groups and organizations when it was not clear if their reception of me would be cool or cordial. Nevertheless, as a consequence I became active in the major national professional organizations long before most other African Americans joined them.