I had no doubt that the department I’d be entering after graduating from Oberlin was a good one. The program would provide me with a sound foundation in quantitative methods, research techniques about which I knew net to nothing and needed to learn, if only to be able to carry on a conversation with the young woman in the biostatistics department whom I’d followed from Oberlin and would soon marry. Though Carolina’s program was well regarded, I was not a good Carolina student. I did well enough in my classes and especially enjoyed the ones I took in the History Department. I was able to take them only after petitioning our senior faculty to accept history as the equivalent of a foreign language just as they’d long accepted students taking advanced statistics or biostatistics to satisfy the university’s foreign language requirement. I’m sure they did so grudgingly. But their tolerance of my interests allowed me to write a dissertation that I really enjoyed.
I may have been one of the last persons to enter and complete his dissertation in four years, inspired both by my wife who was an even bigger grind than I was and my wish to get on with my life and, not coincidentally, out of Chapel Hill. We ended up in St. Louis only because she didn’t like the man who would have been her boss at the pharmaceutical company in Philly that had wanted to hire her. I turned down what was then and would remain my dream job: the interdisciplinary urban studies program at Penn. It would take me 34 years to join another at a university which would close it down two years after I had returned to St. Louis and joined the faculty at Saint Louis University. The intervening time was spent at the public university in St. Louis, which took me 16 years to write my way out of, and 18 years at Boston University whose faculty I joined in 1991 on the strength of work I’d done on tenant managed public housing for Peter and Brigitte Berger while I was still in St. Louis. I loved Boston and was able to reconnect with Pat Rieker, who I was able to bring to the Sociology Department before I blew out of town. But back in 1991 I’d really wanted to take the job as Chairman at Howard University, a decision my then wife vetoed. By the time I left Boston in 2009 – with two grown children more or less on their own and wifeless – the plan was to return to the city where my career had begun in the hope that something I’d learned along the way might be put to better use than it had been in Boston. I think it’s going to turn out okay.
My purpose in telling a personal story that might easily be found in a really bad Christmas letter is not to solicit sympathy for missed opportunities and a failed marriage. It is a preamble to a confession and acknowledgement.
I’ve now completed 40 years as an academic. I didn’t end up at Harvard, which disappointed the late Derrick Bell who took a generous interest in me after my first book was published. Nor did I get either of the named professorships for which I’d been nominated. But, like I said, I’m doing okay. In fact, I’ve done pretty well.
I have had the privilege of doing work, good work, on matters I considered to be important and taught with some fine people in addition to the requisite number of pretentious jackasses one inevitably bumps into along the way. My writing was made better by teaching. My tolerance for academic windbags has gotten appreciably better, not so much because I became more accommodating but just numbed. And, now closer to the end of my career than the beginning, I have five book-worthy projects queued up that will help show: we’re not nearly as unequal as we’ve been taught to think, that the U.S. Supreme Court recently got it wrong when it conflated differential impact with differential treatment (i.e., discrimination), that urban neighborhoods can be redeveloped with the help of corporations and large institutions so that they are both sustainable and racially and economically mixed, politics can actually help make civic life civil, and the racial violence that took place in Ferguson, MO was far more conservative in character and consequence than people are prepared to recognize or acknowledge. This last project is especially special because it’s a topic that first caught my attention as an undergraduate, became the foundation of my dissertation, and I have returned to over the course of my career.
Like I said, I have lived a privileged intellectual life.
What I experienced during my four years in the Sociology Department at Chapel Hill didn’t annoy me enough to walk away. And it provided only glimpses of the clues that I’d spend the better part of my life trying to unpack and reassemble into a good picture of who we are as a people. Nothing that the faculty did or might have imagined wanting to do to me hurt me nearly as much as having to wake up weekdays to five-minute editorials by Jesse Helms or the inimitable Cousin Chub Sewell who would stand in for Jesse on those occasions when the future Senator of the United States was out of town beating back to life somebody else’s already dead black-and-white horse.
The department did me more good than its faculty believed while I was there. (This was a confession I made to a genuinely surprised Peter Uhlenberg years later. Peter thought I’d disliked the faculty.) My professors were actually more generous than any of us, and especially me, probably deserved. (This revelation was occasioned by another conversation with Peter Uhlenberg who confessed to me on a bus ride to the San Antonio airport that the faculty could never make up its mind as to whether one of my fellow students was brilliant or delusional.) But, just in case they think I’ve mellowed to the point of unrecognizability, unlike them I never doubted my ability to tell the difference.
submitted Sept. 2015