Could you tell me about yourself?
There’s an assumption [among my students] that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was born in East Baltimore, where we heard gunshots. We crossed two sundown towns, to Hayward, where the teachers–in my junior year, my teacher wouldn’t allow me to take a typing class because she said I would never have a job that would require it. And this was back in 1978. And you still have those same things going on…
Brothers after school in high school, when they saw that I had a little bit of brain and I wasn’t ashamed of it–they picked up that I was a scholar because I didn’t have any Fs on my transcript, I only had a couple of Ds. So they said, “Oh, Garrett, man, man” and they formed a protective shield around me that I found out about on graduation.
Not a single one of us is where we are because of who we are as an individual.
You’ve got one brother who didn’t graduate; there was only like three brothers out of forty of us who were there that graduated. The brother, Lamont, came up to me, and Lamont and I never got along, because I when I moved to the neighborhood, we had a fight in the sixth grade, and he whupped my behind…And he came up to me, he said “Garrett, I don’t know if you know this, but we formed a protective shield around you. We wouldn’t let anybody punch you, sell you weed, or give you alcohol, because we wanted to make sure you made it through, and you better come correct, do your thing, and you better come back at us.” We never hear of young brothers as being protective factors. We only hear about them being risk factors..
That’s exactly it. Not a single one of us is where we are because of who we are as an individual. Whether we’re dealing with despair, or success…
So, I know that you joined the Nation of Islam. Was your family in the Nation of Islam, or did you find it and join it?
My mother tried to prevent me from leaving home for 400 miles away because she thought that I would become beaten down by the racism that I inevitably encountered. But we get crazy, some of us, when we leave home and we go away to college campuses. And I thought it was just Black folks and Chicanos, but it was across the board. We established these new orthodoxies, where all of a sudden, we established what it is to be Black. It had nothing to do with our upbringing. We would read Malcolm X, and all of a sudden we’re going around saying “I’m like him.”
…So I had two friends who were just like, really off-the-chain mean, mostly the Black people. One day, they come back, they’re humble, she has a hijab on, he has a suit on, and they’re calling people brother and sister, yes sir and no ma’am. I said, “okay, this is a miracle, I want to check out who did this to you.” And they brought me to a mosque. Mosque 27. And I’m looking at all these brothers and sisters, even the young, I’m talking about six years old. The six year olds referring to adults as Brother, by their first name. And doing it in a pleasant way. And I’m like, “wow.” And that’s when I converted to the Nation…
“Go to this white man’s University, get his knowledge, and then you go out and you do something for our people, in our communities.” That was the best advice I ever got.
Khalid Abdul Muhammad, he’s the one, when he heard that I was going to Egypt to attend Al-Azhar University, after graduation, and I had a fellowship there, to learn Arabic. he came up to me. Everybody else, you know, all the brothers and sisters, they come up to me “Oh, oh yeah, you’re the original black man, you’re about to go to Africa, you’re about to go to Egypt.” Khalid came up to me, and he said “Brother Garrett, Egypt is not the light of the world. You go to this white man’s University, you get his knowledge, you get the knowledge that he’s presenting to you, and then you go out and you do something for our people, in our communities.” And then he said, “Maybe one day you could go to Egypt, where you could be the light of the world, but right now you need to be here.” And that was the best advice I ever got.
I attended the Claremont Graduate School, and I was recruited to go there. They paid everything. Now, keep in mind, I was struggling…working at the gas station, having to hustle bean pies. Here I am, a 30 year old guy, after eight years of teaching, and struggling at a teacher’s wage, not having to have a job. It was like being a youth again. I would spend all my days and nights reading and writing. And I got prepared.
I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, where I am now. And it was supposed to be a renewable one, but instead of renewing it, the second year, they offered me a tenure-line position. I went through, they provided me all the support I needed, I got tenure, without a struggle, and I’m embraced by my colleagues.
But you know how it is, there’s always haters, because even like I mentioned, the Black orthodoxy, in college, as an undergraduate, you have some Black professors who come in who expect you to behave a certain way, to speak in a particular way. Now, they’ll drink Johnny Walker Blue Label with you at your house on a weekend, but when they’re on campus, you know, they want you to put on a performance. It’s all about respectability.
Do you have any more thoughts about being Black in academia?
Are you familiar with the notion of the “Black B”? “The Black B,” this is something I encountered back in the early ‘80s, as an undergraduate. It means you could do nothing in the class at all, or you could work your butt off, and an average in 90s, well into the 90-percents, at the end of the semester, and you’d end up getting a B. So, one of two things happened. The ones who work really hard and have skill sets, they’re at a disadvantage when they’re going for these competitive graduate and professional programs, or these jobs, because their GPA is lowered by the Black B. Then you have the kids who really didn’t understand because nobody told them. Because either [the [professor is] thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to hurt his feelings,” or “I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” or you know, a Justice Scalia move: “You weren’t supposed to be here anyway, I’m not going to add to your burden.”
One young man, a brilliant economist in my classroom, knocked it out. He reminds you of Ta-Nahesi Coates, before there was Mr. Coates. I mean sharp. He told me about his Black B, and how when he tried to learn from the professor how he was averaging like a 96% in class, how he received a B+ in the course. She would not return his call, even though she was always playful and kind with him. Now, he goes to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Administration at Princeton. He did a gap year, he applies there; I recall writing him a letter. And, I get a letter from the Dean of the School four months later, saying “This man is amazing. He’s everything he said he was in his personal statement and his interview, and what was confirmed by you and the other letter writers. If there’s anybody else you want to send to the school, you send them directly to me, and they will be admitted.” So, this guy, who was getting a B here at Washington University, gained the praise of the Dean within four months of his arrival [at Woodrow Wilson]…
This is part of the angst,–the students, whether at UCLA, The Black Bruins, whether at the University of Michigan, whether at the East Coast colleges that are just stepping up and saying “Black lives matter.” It’s not only in the context of the violence being committed against girls and boys and women and men, the murders of these folks, but in terms of their own experiences on these college campuses. You know I still hear stories about students doing really well not long ago, they’ll go to a professor’s office hour, and he’s like real cold and real short with them. You know, he’ll be completely opposite of what you see in the class, where this guy is really open and friendly and nice. And then a white student will pass by him and you hear the guy say, “Hey I’m gonna play golf with your dad when he comes out next!” and [the student’s] like “what? I didn’t know professors played golf with the students’ parents.” Or they’ll find out they had the same GPA as their white peer and at graduation, it comes to their attention that their white peer got into the medical school or to the professional program that they also applied for. A professor wrote them a letter supposedly, but it comes out in conversation that their peer got to work in the labs of their professors and on some occasion received grants for the summer to travel across the country to work in the labs of medical schools or the graduate schools they’ve now been admitted to. These opportunities were never presented to Black students and they complained about that.
When you eliminate opportunities and restrict opportunities for Black students, you’re actually decimating communities.
And so when you hear people rebelling, it’s not about our feelings being hurt. We’re talking about when you eliminate opportunities and restrict opportunities for Black students, you’re actually decimating communities. Because for many of these students, they’re going back, and—A medical doctor? They’re going back to places like Baltimore, D.C., Chicago, where they are contributing and doing things to better the lives of underserved communities. And so when you eliminate them from this particular trajectory, you are having an impact not just on them, not just on their wallet or their self-esteem, but on the lives of untold thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, or of millions.
How do we move forward?
You need to step up and be courageous enough to honor that in yourselves and putting that out there to people allows us, when we hit these obstacles and these barriers, to be relentless and keep going forward. We have to be bold because I know just about every student, there’ve been many students in my course, regardless of their merit, who will not be accorded the same respect, not be provided the same experiences and opportunities that they are due simply because of who they are…
Who we are is an accident of our birth.
I always go back to this notion: who we are is an accident of our birth. And when I say accident of our birth, we had nothing to say about it. I didn’t whisper in somebody’s ear, and say, “make me blue-black and baldheaded.” I came out that way. That’s an accident. In other words, it wasn’t predetermined, it wasn’t by design. And we should not be penalized for things we have no control over. And this is not just along the lines of race, it’s the way women are portrayed, but overwhelmingly how Black and brown women are portrayed. People with different challenges, whether they’re psychological, mental, or physical challenges, are all still being subject to the same types of limitations.