Conversations that Matter, Conversations that Heal — and Books to Inspire Them
“Why would you minor in African-American Studies?” For over 20 years, I’ve been asked versions of this question, in job interviews, by colleagues, and by acquaintances. Implicit in the question, regardless of the background of the asker, is another question of why a white woman would do such a thing. Here’s one short answer: I studied race, religion, and politics in order to have conversations that matter and conversations that heal. These conversations have always been necessary on a broader scale in America. They may be more necessary right now than they have been in my lifetime. As an educator, it is my responsibility to make these conversations happen.
When I applied to college, Princeton’s admissions office advertised “ Conversations that Matter.” It showcased the University’s hallmark precept and seminar programs. Every lecture class divided weekly into groups of no more than 15 students to hold intense discussions of the course material. Seminars, also capped at 15 students, then involved 3 hours of discussion and 300–400 pages of reading per week, including complete books. This deep, common foundation prepared us for conversations that mattered, inside and outside the classroom. Tellingly, the first of the “Conversations that Matter” on Princeton’s video, filmed in 1991, was about civil rights and rioting in America.
I had conversations that mattered every day at Princeton. And no conversations mattered more than those in my African-American Studies courses. The phenomenal professors who led them included such lights as author Toni Morrison, historian Nell Painter, and artist Aleta Hayes. I’d thought Princeton’s history of institutional discrimination was long behind it, but I quickly learned I was wrong. I was shocked that in the late 1990s, white students and students of color usually sat separately in the dining halls. Some of the University’s attempts to include and integrate students of color, such as courses and programs designed to help lower-income students prepare for Princeton’s academic life, were often perceived as putting students of color on a different track than their peers. I was the only white student I ever saw in Princeton’s Third World Center, which was a trek away from the campus center. I listened to unfathomable stories of the Princeton police disproportionately targeting people of color when they stepped off campus. Patently false rumors circulated that some African-American Studies professors held lesser credentials than their white colleagues and did not hold Ph.Ds. (I’ll never forget the moment when my professor-a female, Ivy League Ph.D. with five graduate degrees from top universities-tearfully and angrily dispelled these rumors in class). Compounding this was the fact that African-American Studies was a major at peer universities, but only a minor was available at Princeton. (I participated in a protest about the issue while a student-and was quoted by a campus reporter as I rode on a friend’s shoulders).
Although I primarily teach international law and international security, the conversations that mattered in my African-American studies courses impact my teaching and research every day. My books from those classes are still on my shelf. They improved my critical thinking, not just about race, but about the consequences and implications of all laws and governments for the individuals they affect. They also forced me to think about how and why institutional legacies of discrimination persist, and how to change them.
Those conversations that matter have changed Princeton too. My beloved alma mater has made tremendous strides in the 20 years since I graduated. One of my proudest moments as an alum was when a student of color whom I recently interviewed for Princeton told me she applied because she was so impressed by how a historic institution was unafraid to change. Students can now major in the full-fledged Department of African-American Studies. The Third World Center has been renamed and centrally relocated. Most famously, Princeton changed its University motto and many policies in response to student protests about former University President Woodrow Wilson’s legacy of racism. These protests spurred a much broader discussion-and even national discussion-of the legacy of slavery and racism.
America cannot change as quickly as Princeton. Princeton has the resources, the relatively small size-and yes, the privilege-to facilitate institutional change. But it also had to have the will to do so, along with the blessing of its leadership, trustees, and students. That will to change was generated through millions of conversations that mattered. Similar conversations can help other Americans heal.
As we witness unthinkable events unfold in America’s streets, many public servants and academics are asking how to help. As so often happens, one of my students provided a great answer. At graduation this week, a Marine field-grade officer asked me to give him a list of books he could read to continue his learning. In that moment, I realized that I could facilitate more conversations that matter and conversations that heal, far beyond the classroom. I always tell my students to read outside their field to improve their critical thinking and understanding of the world. Here was my chance to make it happen.
The most poignant questions military officers have asked over my four years at Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College have been about striking the proper balance between Constitutional and human rights and national security-and also about race in America. In our Master’s of Military Studies curriculum, we rarely study race. But they ask me, in and out of class, to help them understand it. My students understand the importance of these issues for what it means to support and defend the Constitution, and for creating a stronger and more diverse military that represents-and is representative of-the American people.
I don’t pretend to have answers to all of my students’ questions about country’s problems of race, civil rights and civil liberties, and national security. But I can facilitate conversations that American leaders-and all Americans-need to have to find them. So, for my students and others, I’ve listed below some books that matter, to facilitate Conversations that Matter. I do not necessarily endorse the authors’ views. But I absolutely endorse the discussions they will provoke.
A fellow professor recently urged others to “show up with our brains” to condemn racial injustice, especially if we are unable or unwilling to show up with our bodies. (h/t Daron Roberts) As an educator and a parent, it is my duty to show up with my mind. I’m incredibly proud that my students want to continue our conversations that matter and recognize their importance.
I’m most proud of one particular student. For his “Virginia Studies” class (a dreaded requirement for all elementary school students in the state), my son chose to do his “Famous Virginian” presentation on Woodrow Wilson. He wanted to study a leader with a complicated legacy, from his idealism in international relations to his policies that perpetuated racism at home. The fact that my son is leading fourth-graders in Conversations that Matter gives me hope for America.
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Books that Matter-to Inspire Conversation that Matter and Conversations that Heal:
· Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me -If I can recommend one book, right now, this is it. You won’t be able to put down Coates’ story and reflections on race in America today.
· Martin Luther King — any collected essays; many biographies.
· The Autobiography of Malcom X — again, not because I endorse his views, but to understand them.
· Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — shook me when I read it at 21.
· James Baldwin — anything, really — but a few are The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, and If Beale Street Could Talk
· Toni Morrison — Beloved, or anything, really- you’ve never heard a voice like Morrison’s until you’ve read it.
· Maya Angelou — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings -I hear Angelou’s voice in my head every time I am the “only” woman to do anything, because women like her paved the way.
· Nell Irvin Painter — The History of White People — Tells the story of the invention of the concept of race. I had the privilege of taking Painter’s class while she wrote this book and think of it every time I think about race or immigration in America.
· Any good book about the lynching of Emmett Till and its legacy. Few single incidents so acutely encapsulate the history of today’s climate of US race relations and its lasting implications.
Jill Goldenziel is Associate Professor of International Law and International Relations at Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College. Her views are her own and do not represent those of the University, the Department of Defense, or any other arm of the US Government.
This post was originally posted on Balkinization.