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Black Experience in America: Randall Westbrook

In light of Black History Month, we had a sit down with Randall Westbrook, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Rutgers University. We talked all about his experience in education, Black history, and how we can respond to our current society.

Jamie: Would you like to introduce yourself and what you do?

Prof. Westbrook: I am Dr. Randall Westbrook, and I am a faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the School of Education. I also teach courses at Rutgers University.

Jamie: What first got you interested in teaching courses like Black Experience in America?

Prof. Westbrook: Well, I’ve always been interested primarily in two different things. One is the processes of education and how people go about getting educated. As a child growing up in the late 1960s and the 1970s at a time when so-called Black Pride was a big thing, that was a major part of my childhood, so being able to look at that allows me to be able to connect both of those very important aspects of my life.

Jamie: Speaking of Black Pride, that reminds me of a story you once told of you writing a symbol in your textbook. Can you recount that for me?

Prof. Westbrook: Yes, I forget exactly what grade I was in, I want to say I was probably sixth grade. I had drawn a symbol—I believe it was a peace symbol—and I put “Black Power” underneath it, and the librarian who was a white woman noticed it on my notebook. She bowed her head sadly and said, “Oh my, I thought you were a good boy, I didn’t realize that you were one of those kids.”

I thought it was kind of strange because I didn’t think that acknowledging my power and drawing a peace sign made me a bad kid. But it was an instructive lesson for me to know that people view symbols differently. And later on in my life, as I started taking classes in sociology and philosophy, I understood that symbols mean so many different things to different people. To me, there was no political message implied. It was just that I liked the way the peace symbol looked, and I liked the phrase “Black Power,” but to her, it was a threat.

Jamie: How have your personal and professional experiences shaped the way you view current issues?

Prof. Westbrook: You know, I see the current issues one very interesting way and one way that’s sort of ordinary, if you will. I think that a lot of times when people engage in social movements and protests, they’ll harken back to an earlier time, and they look at those times as being simplistic—almost naive in some respects. And I think that that’s a natural phenomenon. We tend to think that when we do it in our generation, or in our iteration of it, it’s more powerful or relevant. It’s only more relevant because of the manner in which we’re looking at it.

Photo of Slient Parade of 1917

That’s why a lot of times in classes, when I’m teaching students and they look at things that happened 200, 300, 500 years ago, my goal is to try to get them to think about why it was so life-changing in the 1800s, why it was so life-changing in the 1900s, why it’s so life-changing now. I talk about the Silent Parade of 1917 that Dubois led where there were 30,000 Black men, women, and children walking down the street, silent. They only carried signs, and how that scared people. 100 years later, we have people walking down the middle of the street relatively silent, holding signs, and it’s still scaring people.

But 100 years ago, 50 years removed from slavery, it was scary for one reason, and 100 years later in 2019, it’s scary for another reason, so it’s all a continuation. The good news is it’s a continuation. The sad news is it’s a continuation because you would think that 150 years removed from enslavement, we shouldn’t even have to have a march to say to people, “Stop feeling so free to kill me in the middle of the street because of how I look.”

Jamie: Right, that speaks to why Black History Month and the classes you teach are so important. As an Asian-American, I am constantly learning that there is so much to this topic I didn’t know before.

Prof. Westbrook: I think most people would be surprised at how much they don’t know about their own culture. People from New Jersey don’t know a whole lot of stuff about New Jersey. Let’s take it from the point of view of Black history. Most people don’t realize that New Jersey was two votes away from becoming a part of the Confederacy on three separate occasions. Most people don’t realize that New Jersey had the strictest laws in favor of slavery of any northern state. Most people don’t know that New Jersey has the third-largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan today. Most people don’t know that New Jersey has the most segregated school systems in the United States and always has since emancipation. And that’s people who live in New Jersey, Black people who live in New Jersey. Because we don’t tend to learn stuff unless we honestly believe that it directly impacts us. You can have a conversation with someone from your community, and they will tell you something, and you say, “Oh my God, I never knew that.” Because it may not be necessary to know until something happens that requires us to know it.

So one of the things that I tried to do in teaching my class, in doing Black History Month presentations, and as a practice of life is to tell people, “Don’t worry about this stuff that you don’t know.” Because you don’t know that you don’t know until someone tells you, right? Just consume it and enjoy it and put it in the context of all the other stuff. “It’s got to be out there, but I just haven’t seen it yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing it”—that’s the perspective that we should be taking about our own cultural history and the cultural history of others.

Jamie: Knowing everything we’ve covered, is there any advice you would give to young people living in today’s society?

Prof. Westbrook: I think it’s always important to learn things. I think it’s always important to seek new information. Because when we seek new information, we don’t throw out the old information, we add to what we know, and we contextualize the new with the old. And it might be new to you, but it’s not new to someone else, and something else that you’ve known forever, you share that with someone else who told you the new stuff. I got 50 cents worth of old stuff. You got 50 cents worth of old stuff. Now you got 50 cents worth of new stuff, I got 50 cents worth of new stuff. We get smart together.

I think it’s always important to seek new information. Because when we seek new information, we don’t throw out the old information, we add to what we know, and we contextualize the new with the old.

The philosopher Paulo Freire talks about how we have to avoid teaching the banking concept, which is to say, “I as the teacher know everything, and you as a student know nothing.” We should walk into the classroom as teachers. We should interact with each other in this way, whether we’re teachers or friends or enemies. What do I need to know about you and your experiences that can help me with me and my experiences? Being a scholar in my late 50s encountering college students in their late teens and early 20s, I’m going to learn something every day from them as I’m giving them stuff. So, something that they may have taught me, even just a phrase, makes me cooler, makes me smarter. All of a sudden I’m making a cultural reference, and the class who didn’t know that a student and I talked about this are going, “Oh my god, how did you know about that? You’re old.” And then their older friends are going to say to them, “Oh my god, how did you know about this? You’re so young.” If we go into it like that, that will make us be like, “I don’t have time to hate you because I’m learning stuff from you.”

So my advice to not just the newer generation but my generation is that we need to learn more stuff from them so that we can figure out how to be cool and so we can figure out how to recharge their batteries, and they need to learn stuff from us so that they can understand how to use that battery in ways that they haven’t learned how to yet. So that’s my advice to everybody: Learn so that you can love. When you learn so that you can love, you don’t have any time or space for hate.

Randall Westbrook is a faculty member at the School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He was also guest editor and contributor to The Journal of Negro Education and authored “Elusive Quest: Reflecting on Bell and Brown” for the Harvard Law School Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice.


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