Honorary degree recipient William L. Andrews '68 delivered the following remarks as the keynote address at Davidson College's 2007 Spring Convocation.
To the Board of Trustees and President Vagt, thank you for this honor. To the faculty of Davidson College, thank you for your part in conferring this honor on me. To all the Davidson community, I express my gratitude for this honor. I’ve never received an honorary degree and never dreamed of receiving one. Being able to claim this honor is analogous to my possession of a genuine Muhammad Ali autograph. Once you have an Ali autograph, you don’t think about asking for anybody else’s. By the same token, now that I have an honorary degree from Davidson, that ambition is quite fulfilled. Not that I would turn one down if, say, Harvard were to ask me real nicely. I could display my Davidson degree prominently in my study, and following the example of Chalmers Davidson, hang my Harvard degree over the toilet in the bathroom.
The title of my remarks today – HOW DID I GET HERE? – should be placed in quotation marks, to provide proper attribution to my source, the Talking Heads and David Byrne, who in 1980 wrote a hit that featured the lines, “You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife; you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. You may ask yourself, Where? HOW DID I GET HERE?”
That sums up how I feel today. How did I get here? is something I’ve been asked more than anything else during my 35 year career as a scholar of African American literature and literary history. How did I, a product of the segregated suburbs of the South, become part of a scholarly enterprise that since the 1960s has changed the way the American academy reads and understands its own literature and history. How did I, a white guy, become, in a peculiar sense, intellectually mulatto?
Calling myself an intellectual mulatto, in this case, is simply a short-hand way to describe how my engagement, as early as graduate school, with African American literature, altered and colored my intellectual outlook as I became a scholar. My engagement with what we called back then black literature changed dramatically not only the way I learned to read books. The black writers I read also revised the ways I viewed and assessed the world, not to mention my own identity and place in it.
So how did I get into this field of study, anyway? When I’ve been asked that question, and it’s been asked of me practically everywhere I’ve lectured, I’ve regularly offered two replies: First, it was no road-to-Damascus experience; it was more like a gravitational pull. African American literature just claimed me around 1970, mid-way through graduate school, and it never let me go. I tried to pursue other interests, especially when I thought about how iffy were the chances that someone of my color and background could make a contribution to Black Studies. Nevertheless this field of study captured my imagination – or, more accurately, opened up my imagination. In the process it demanded considerable risk from me, not to mention faith and commitment. It promised me – the white southern male who had been the beneficiary of decades of racial preference – little in the way of professional recognition or advancement. Yet at every stage of my professional development in the 1970s, as I had to make key choices about what I would study and teach and research, I found African American literature inevitably the only authentic choice for me.
By the 1980s, willy-nilly, I had become totally identified with this field. A decade later, in the 1990s, the professional study of African American literature finally arrived, full-force in the American academy, and, rather unexpectedly, I arrived with it, in ways that I had never imagined. Of the 10 scholars who conceived and created the landmark Norton Anthology of African American Literature, published to great acclaim in 1997 and revised 6 years later, I was the only one on the team who was – and still is – white. The same was true of the 870-page Oxford Companion to African American Literature published by Oxford University Press the same year as the Norton Anthology. My involvement with so many black intellectual undertakings has led to my receiving on two occasions requests to submit my biography to Who’s Who in Black America. I told my wife, Charron, maybe they know something I don’t know. People who invited me to come to their university to lecture would meet me at the airport with a slightly surprised look, and confess, in so many words: “we thought, from reading your academic biography, that you were black.”
My experience in the academy has given me a long education in a peculiar version of what W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness. I have lived and worked virtually all my adult life as a white man in a predominantly black field. That has given me inexpressibly rich experiences and opportunities for growth that I never imagined possible. It’s also been a bit tough at times. For the most part, however, my own peculiar and limited experience of double consciousness, that is, of seeing myself and America through the eyes I was born with and through the perspective that black literature has given me, has been central to whatever good I have managed to do as a scholar, writer, teacher, and editor.
As I look back on my life I can see that African American literature schooled me in the form of double consciousness that has molded and directed my own teaching and scholarly career ever since. My initial exposure to African American literature as a student began at UNC-Chapel Hill in graduate school, not at Davidson during my undergraduate years. Yet in reflecting on my four years at Davidson, from 1964 to 1968, I can see that this institution played an important role in preparing me for the unlikely direction my graduate studies took, even though I doubt that I read more than one or two African American writers in all my course work as an English major at Davidson.
Let me explore for just a few more minutes the role that Davidson played in preparing me to hear the peculiar calling and blessing that I have received from African American literature.
First, I’ll pay tribute to the intellectual education I received here. I am the beneficiary of Davidson’s grand experiment, the Humanities program, which was hugely influential in setting my understanding of the world, even though I don’t recall race ever being discussed in any text or lecture I had in my first two years at Davidson. I also gratefully pay my respects and acknowledge my debt to teachers I had, such as Gill Holland and George Labban, among many dedicated faculty who tried to teach me. I confess that I’ve forgotten most of what they said in their lectures. What I retain, however, is their shining example, the model they set for how to pursue with conviction and passion the discipline of study wherever the ideas and evidence take us, especially if what they reveal to us is not what we thought we knew or wanted to hear.
Davidson taught me even as a freshman that scholarly inquiry and research can and should address questions that aren’t merely academic. My first year in college didn’t challenge my complacency about race, but it did challenge other notions of entitlement that I had. In my second semester of Humanities, George Labban had the ineffable temerity to award me – me, of all people – a C - - on my first paper. I walked into his office prepared to set him straight, ready to recount, chapter and verse, all the praise my high school English teachers had heaped upon me. I skulked out of his office, an interminable hour later, after listening to him recount, chapter and verse, all that was wrong with my paper. I recall thanking him profusely for having awarded my miserable performance a grade far higher than it manifestly deserved. That was my first lesson in how to read my own work with genuine self-criticism. I would need to develop intellectual humility big-time before I could read African American literature with any degree of comprehension.
|William Andrews told members of the senior class and others that he learned to take intellectual risks as an undergraduate at Davidson.|
The end of my first year at Davidson, I took another big step under Dr. Labban’s guidance. I wrote my semester research paper on “The Influence of Greek Mystery Religions on Early Christianity,” a topic I chose for myself. On that paper I got a B+, which was, in my eyes, the intellectual equivalent of almost getting to the pinnacle of Mount Everest. At the same time, that paper led me to become an agnostic, unable to accept the pieties I had hitherto lived by and far too unsophisticated to imagine an alternative to them. What I learned from that paper was that true and committed study, research, and scholarship rarely confirm what you already think. The discipline of scholarship requires following the evidence to its logical and necessary conclusions, whether you want to go there or not. I didn’t really want to find out how profoundly pagan sacraments had influenced early Christian ideas of baptism and communion, but Davidson taught me that once the question had been broached – and it was a question that Davidson had opened up in my mind – there was nothing to do, if one was to be intellectually honest, but to take the intellectual risk of following the evidence and asking, to the best of my ability, what it meant.
My paper on the influence of Greek mystery religions on early Christianity represented by far the biggest intellectual risk I had ever taken. Although my research deconstructed the flimsy sand castle that had been my religious faith, that same research taught me the value of intellectual risk-taking. Much is lost in taking such risks. But after clearing away the debris of unsustainable notions, we often discover that it is possible, indeed much more likely, to find something authentic in ourselves with which to build ideas and ideals that are much more lasting. I realized this in a dramatically different way at the end of my second year at Davidson, when I took the biggest risk I would ever take during my four years of college. I resigned from the fraternity I had joined. At that time, in 1966, social life at Davidson revolved around the fraternity houses on Patterson court. There was the College Union, and there was a small percentage of students who either wouldn’t join a fraternity or couldn’t get one to accept them. But these GDI’s – goddamned independents – were, for the most part, the social untouchables on the campus when I got to Davidson.
Wanting desperately to be accepted, to be thought cool and confident, I pledged one of the two fraternities that offered me membership. But from the get-go I felt out of synch, like I was two people, the person who tried on the outside to fit this image of the fraternity guy, and the person on the inside who kept sabotaging my role-playing. Talk about double consciousness – this was double consciousness with a vengeance. I was a very good actor at Davidson – by my senior year I was president of the drama club. But I was a pathetic failure in my attempt to pass myself off as a cool fraternity guy. After a year of full-fledged membership I realized I was never going to be happy in this role. But at Davidson in the mid-1960s, resigning from a fraternity meant committing social hari-kari. What would I do, where would I go, what friends would I have? No one resigned from his fraternity. It just wasn’t done.
Nevertheless, I did it. I signed some form from the national fraternity swearing on the graves of my forbears that I would never reveal the secret handshake or any of the other profound mysteries that I had been vouchsafed to me when I’d been initiated into the brotherhood. It wasn’t hard to promise that – I’d already forgotten all that stuff anyway. What was hard was to think about the person I wanted to be once I didn’t have the fraternity or the entire fraternity system to tell me who I was.
Resigning from my fraternity gave me, initially, a huge sense of relief. No longer did I have to play a role that I felt was, for me, both inauthentic and self-alienating. But having freed myself from a phony role, I now had no one but myself to blame for whatever I did or failed to do in my last two years at Davidson. Would I be an authentic person? I’m sure I didn’t phrase that question to myself in that way. But I know that the pursuit of personal authenticity became, willy-nilly, a big challenge for me. Paradoxically, Davidson College, a bastion of upper-middle-class southern white male conformity, pushed me to become a campus gadfly.
President Vagt may remember some of my antics at Davidson. It was his fraternity that eventually offered me, the campus outcast, an invitation to affiliate socially with their house, to the annoyance of some of the membership and to the delight of others. I ate some meals at the house and went to their parties and enjoyed friendships with a number of guys in the fraternity. What I insisted on was the freedom, wherever and whenever, to question the pieties of fraternity life, even to the pledges of the fraternity. What I insisted on was the right to laugh at what I thought was silly, pretentious, or hypocritical. And I’m sure some of the members of the fraternity laughed at me.
In my senior year the editor of the Davidsonian surprised me with an invitation to write editorials for the newspaper. I don’t remember that I wrote anything very daring, but for me, and what I wrote about involved pushing a few people’s buttons. I editorialized against the war in Vietnam my senior year at Davidson. I got in trouble by questioning whether Davidson should have been giving scholarships for Division I football, which was not a popular challenge to issue since in the late 1960s most of my fellow students still had visions of being a power in Southern Conference football. From my little perch in the Davidsonian I complained about any number of things that Davidson did that I didn’t like, but I’m thankful to say I can’t remember what they were, and I’m sure the college administration gracefully ignored them all.
I do know, however, that a year after I resigned from my fraternity the star shooting guard on Davidson’s nationally ranked basketball team resigned from his fraternity. Now that was big news. That showed that the times, they really were a-changin’. Within a few months Bobby Lane and I had been picked to serve on a faculty committee to re-evaluate the entire fraternity system. Before Bobby and I graduated our committee made a series of recommendations that reformed Davidson’s fraternity system in a way that made it possible, for the first time, for every student to have a place at the table on Patterson court, whether he looked or acted cool enough to get a bid to join a social fraternity. When I graduated in June of 1968 I was proud of having been tapped into Phi Beta Kappa and of having been inducted into ODK at Davidson, but my greatest source of pride still is that I had a part in changing for the better student community life at Davidson. This came about because Davidson taught me how to take a risk, a risk for the sake of personal authenticity that led to the opening up for me of a much broader and more humane sense of community.
I don’t know how much Davidson intended to force me to take these risks that have changed me in such lasting ways, but this much I do know. I am grateful that my mother wanted me to come here, that my father thought it was worth it to send me here, and that so many teachers and friends here have let me return to this beautiful campus for this occasion today.
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