We Honor Outstanding African-Americans
An Interview with Dr. Kwando M. Kinshasa, John Jay College
Education Update: How did you choose your career?
Dr. Kwando M. Kinshasa: I am confident that my chosen career as an educator was heavily influenced since early childhood by daily dinner table discussions with my parents on an array of topics. Born and raised during World War Two, the radio and local newspapers became my window on an outside world that I felt was dangerous and exciting. These radio programs opened up an entire world that was at the time beyond my physical reach. For example, programs such as the Lux Mystery theatre, the Shadow, The Thin Man, Walter Winchell and Edward R. Murrow news reports, the Jack Benny Program and the Lone Ranger were more than simple entertainment. They provided a basis for dinnertime discussions on the merits of what ever was “on the air”, i.e., the radio at that time. Our dinner hour was usually 6:30 in the evening and depending on the day of the week, specific programs would be on the air, and right on schedule my father would usually raise a series of controversial questions about the program that would set off a long discussion at the dinner table. More often than not, the debate centered on topics such as whether the Lone Ranger and his “faithful companion Tonto” were making the right decisions in their never-ending fight against the “Dalton Gang”, or some other group of bad guys.
However, since these events occurred during World War Two, very often my parents or visiting relatives discussed more serious issues pertaining to the on going war. A war that was made real by nightly “blackouts” where we had to make sure that our window shades were down thereby hiding the apartment lights while massive searchlights two blocks from where we lived search the sky for enemy planes that might be flying over New York City. During these years I remember very clearly trying to correlate in my mind a world that existed outside my Harlem neighborhood with that of radio dramas and the almost daily discussions about the war, race riots and the problem of buying food with ration coupons .
For instance, my father who was then a member of the famed 369th National Guard Regiment in Harlem made sure that I would be familiar with names such as Normandy, France, and a year later listen to the first test explosion of the atomic bomb on Bikini island in 1945. I believe he thought this was important because three of my uncles were soldiers in Europe and the Pacific. When the war was over and I had an opportunity to talk with my uncles about their experiences, the issue of race and the war became a constant theme, and of course I began to make a connection with racial riots in Harlem, the war and my father’s dedication to the all black 369th Infantry Regiment. However, with the end of the war, the question of race continued as a major concern in my family as well with my growing peer group.
When I became a teenager, I knew that there were a number of questions about the world, Harlem, my skin color that needed to be answered. I became acutely aware that a hostile environment awaited me beyond certain street and avenues throughout the city. However, I am quite sure that during these early teenage years I was very much aware of and fascinated by social and political conflict and as a result I was determined to find a way to become as knowledgeable as possible in this regard while still in High School. During my last year of High School I became interested in history and examining how individuals or groups functioned in society from an historical perspective. In this regard I sent a number of applications to southern African American Colleges and was accepted by my first choice. Unfortunately I could not attend due to my parent’s financial status. I can still see the pained look on their face when they informed me about our financial situation. Two years later I joined the U.S. Marine Corps and commenced upon a nine year learning period that deepened my understanding of social history and social group structures. I can truly state that my experiences in the military helped me to pull my previous years of intellectual curiosity into an academic discipline, Sociology with an interest in migration and social conflict.
EU: What was a turning point in your life?
KK: There have been many turning points, or adjustment factors in my life. However, an early turning point occurred during the early 1950’s when a neighbor’s nephew, Layton Brooks visited New York City from Richmond, Virginia. During these years much of the United States racially separated either by de jure or de facto segregation. In southern states such as Virginia where much of society was segregated, even a black person’s right to walk on the shady side of the street on a hot summer day was outlawed. In many southern states, if you were an African American you were required to step-off the sidewalk when approaching or passing a white person.
A friend of mind, Layton Brooks was raised in such an environment in Virginia and consequently when he arrived in 1953 to spend the summer with his relatives who lived nearby he was amazed by some of the differences in New York City.
I remember on a particular day when a group of my friends and I decided to take Layton to the movie theatre on Fordham Road in the Bronx, we walked up a steep hill towards the Theatre. Layton suddenly jumped into the street, not once, but several times as white people approached us. When I asked him why he was doing this, he explained that this was expected at ‘home’. We told him this was New York City, so forget all of that other racist nonsense.
As the summer went on Layton became more relaxed and truly began to enjoy himself. By summers end, Layton retuned to Virginia. Sometime that fall, my parents informed that Layton was murdered by lynching because he refused to abide by one of Virginia’s racist segregation codes. His murder and the subsequent murder of Emmett Till in 1955 symbolized for me then and now the reality of what it means to be an African American and the responsibility that I have to combat those who would attempt to curtail or limit me my right to exist and prosper.
EU: What achievements are you proudest of?
KK: There are a number of achievements that I am proud of, however receiving my doctorate in Sociology from New York University in 1983 is one that stands out. I was extremely fortunate to have a well-known social psychologist, Richard Sennett as the Chairman of my doctorate committee and mentors such as sociologist Irving Goffman, Edwin Schur and historian John Henrike Clarke as advisors on my dissertation committee. A few years later my dissertation, Emigration vs. Assimilation: The Debate in the African American Press, 1827-1861 was published and even now it is cited as a valuable contribution to our understanding of the African American newspaper’s impact on the question of black emigration or assimilation within the American social construct.
A few years later I was introduced to Mr. Clarence Norris, the last living defendant in the infamous Scottsboro, Alabama Rape Case of 1931. After a few conversations he agreed to a taped-interview about his experiences growing up as the oldest sibling of a sharecropping family in Georgia during the 1920’s. Our interview eventually discussed those circumstances that led to his involvement in the alleged rape of two white indigent females, i.e., hoboes in March, 1931 by nine black male hoboes on a freight train traveling through Alabama and the subsequent infamous Scottsboro, Alabama rape trial.
Though all of the defendants were eventually pardoned or acquitted of the charges some 17 years later, Clarence Norris jumped parole in 1946 and live under an assumed name until he was eventually pardoned in 1976 by the then governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Mr. Norris’s recollections were so inspiring that I put them in to a biography entitled, The Man from Scottsboro: Clarence Norris and the Infamous 1931 Alabama Rape Trial, In His Own Words. Recording Mr. Norris’s historic recollections of the trial and his life in Georgia and Alabama as a youth was for me an important achievement due to the uniqueness as the data and the fact that these video tapes are the only detailed recollection by a Scottsboro defendant.
Due to my familiarity with the Scottsboro case and Clarence Norris, I was asked six years ago to participate as an advisor in the making of a television documentary entitled, Scottsboro, An American Tragedy. The documentary won a major award at the Sundance Film Festival as the top documentary of 2001 in its category. During the 2001 Academy Awards in Los Angeles, California, this documentary was nominated as one of the top five documentaries of the year and in the final vote came in second. Being a part of the advisory board for this production was a gratifying experience and a major achievement.
In the spring of 2006 I completed two books, Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan in the Wake of Civil War and African American Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic, both of which were published in the fall. During this time span I also fulfill my responsibilities as Chairperson of the African American Studies Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. In the fall I also co- coordinated a major national symposium on the Scottsboro case at John Jay College that to all accounts was successful and significant in advancing our understanding of racism and capital punishment. In December I was promoted to Full Professor. The enormous pressure to complete these two publications, while functioning as an administrator, symposium coordinator and being promoted to full professor was indeed for me one of my proudest achievements.
EU: What were the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
KK: A major challenge for me was overcoming the notion that as an older student returning to Hunter College in New York City I would be somewhat out of place. However, once in the classroom I quickly realized that my ten years of worldly experience in the military had prepared me to make deeper associations between classroom theoretical information and what I experienced or witnessed as a young Marine. Even still, my very first semester was almost disastrous. In fact, one administrator even advised me “to continue driving a cab.” I promised her that I would make her eat those words, and four years later, with my undergraduate degree in hand I sought her out. Unfortunately she was no longer working at Hunter College. Throughout this process I do remember every semester saying to myself, “there are only eight, semesters left”, then, “there are only seven semesters left,” then, six and so on. In this manner I could see and feel the progress that I was making.
I also recall that I was very cognizant that there would be numerous challenges, pitfalls and obstacles that somehow I would have to find a way around, over or through them. For example, in Graduate school it became blatantly clear that two semesters of statistics would be the most challenging course for me. Individually the task was brutal, so I decided that group study was the best tactic if I was going to understand the important elements of statistical analysis, and of course for most of my classmates this assessment was also practical. Keep in mind; this was during the day of IBM computer cards, where any slight mistake on your part was absolutely devastating to solving a statistical problem. We formed study groups in which those of us who were proficient in one area of statistics would be paired with another group that wasn’t that proficient. It worked for most of us. However was my determination that in twelve years I would have a doctorate degree in sociology or social historical analysis. After twelve years of study I accumulated an undergraduate degree, two masters degrees and a PhD in sociology.
EU: Who were your mentors?
KK: I had several mentors at Hunter College, CUNY. From a social historical perspective, Dr. John Henrike Clarke and Dr. Tilden LeMelle were extremely important to me. They followed each other as Chairpersons of the Black Studies Department when I was an undergraduate student, and in this regard exposed the students to different ways of viewing history, particularly from the African American perspective. From Dr. Clarke I learned the importance of critical historical analysis and from Dr. LeMelle the significance of social structure; conflict and hierarchy. I had a Communications Professor, Dr. Ruth Ramsay who vigorously pushed me to improve my writing and overall communications skills. Without a doubt, Dr. Ramsay efforts are apparent in my recent publication, Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan that in fact has its nexus in my first Master’s thesis under Dr. Ramsay’s mentorship.
In the doctoral program at New York University I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Richard Sennett, a noted social psychologist, as well as Dr. Edwin Schur and Irving Goffman. Their writings and classroom discussions help me to fine tune my thoughts on migration and social conflict within the American context.
EU: What is your advice to young people today?
KK: My advice to young people is not to limit a desire to understand their immediate environment. Secondly do not rely solely upon a media orientated or so-called virtual reality interpretation of the world or their environment. Being there in body, spirit and intellect helps the young social scientist to really ‘understand’ the importance of what sociologist Max Weber often stressed as the “ritual regimentation of life” and the creation of the “cultural community.” In this regard, I not only advise students to assert themselves as much as possible into understanding our most pressing social issues of the day but to also seek a more critical insight about the evolutionary aspects of the most pressing issues of the day. Therein, they will become committed to better understanding social conflict and change. In this regard, I also believe that mentorship is extremely important in encouraging students to travel with me or with groups to social settings where social political change is occurring. This is particularly important for students of African heritage who have a dire need to better understand the social political displacement that created the African diaspora and the on-going evolutionary changes that are occurring within that realty.#
Kwando M Kinshasa, Ph.D., is Chairperson of the African American Studies Dept. at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.