History from African American perspective challenges beliefs
This excerpt offers a look at how a thoroughly integrated environment can provoke personal racial transformation. Irons describes the eye-opening experience of taking an American history class that made room for African American students to express their outrage at the violence perpetrated against them throughout this country's history. He remembers his discomfort when black students cheered a scene in a film where some African Americans massacred some whites, but after a black student explained why they did so, Irons concluded that African Americans have a right to feel angry.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Ned Irons, March 16, 1999. Interview K-0170. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
PG: Are there any particular classes that have been memorable for you here, just in general, that’s what I’m moving toward.
NI: I would say that my US history AP class last year was pretty memorable because it was led by this old white teacher who’s color blind. And he started out the year by saying, “I’m color blind so you can be black or white. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.” And that was probably the first time where I really got into intellectual debates with African Americans who were smarter than I was and could illustrated their point better than I could, and so I found myself at a loss for words and sort of taken aback by how well spoken and how generally intelligent some of these kids were, and I thought I’d never really experienced this before. As soon as I realized that, “Wow, these kids really have something to offer,” it was such a learning experience to find out what they thought about American history and find out a black perspective on the founding of our nation. It was really surprising to see the way they reacted to some things, and informative, and just helped me, I think, to be come more understanding of what it is to be black and in America.
PG: Were there ever points in that course that were difficult for you to hear some of the things that they said?
NI: Oh, yeah. There’s always times I think when you don’t want to hear that you’re racist, or you don't want to hear what your forefathers have done, like the horrible inequities that have been forced upon black people simply because they were black and that you feel bad about simply because you’re white. You don’t want to feel like it’s your fault, but in some way you sort of do. And you don’t want black kids to have aggression or feel oppressed by you, but you know in some way they have to simply because of history. That’s hard to deal with. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that, “Yes, my group of people oppressed your group of people, and to this day is oppressing your group of people. But in terms of this classroom, let’s move beyond that and discuss the ramifications of it and make it an academic subject.” In terms of just fessing up to that, it was difficult.
PG: Was there any particular historical moment?
NI: I was trying to think of that. When we talked about the civil rights era we watched a movie called—I can’t remember the title of the movie. It’s about a black settlement shortly after the Civil War.
PG: Was it like Rose— .
NI: Rosewood. Rosewood. I’d never seen it before, and we watched it. I don’t know if I need to give a plot line for the movie, but it’s about a black settlement rising up and being successful, and a white settlement sort of moving in and antagonizing the black settlement. There’s a show down, and a lot of white people are killed. To see, I don’t want to say joy, but to see the satisfaction that was gotten by watching that movie by the black kids where it was almost like that was the right thing to do, to have a massacre of white people. I got mad. I said, “How is that possible? That’s not right.” And I talked with Jeff Black who’s a black kid on SEC and just won the Morehead scholarship. I was talking with him about it, and I said, “How can that be okay? How can it be all right for anyone to kill anybody?” And he said, “Well, Ned, you know black people were in slavery for about three hundred years before that. Three hundred years of aggression building up to twenty white people dying. For us that’s a,” he said, “small victory,” but I don’t think he meant killing white people was a victory, but that fighting back, having a voice and standing up was a small victory. For me, I sort of thought, “Well, okay. I guess you’re right.” And after that I reflected on it, and thought, “I guess I don’t want to think that black people have a right to have a distaste for me because I’m white, but they sort of do because of the history of this country.” I don’t want that to be that way, but that’s how it is, and I have a greater understanding of that now.