Retired East Carolina University History Professor David Dennard is no stranger to history circles in New Bern.
Dennard mostrecently spoke at the dedication of the African American Heritage Trail during New Bern’s Juneteenth celebration.
More:New Bern’s African American Heritage Trail is unique, ‘heads above’ other cities in region
Previously, he and John Haley appeared at Tryon Palace to discuss the social, political and military aspects of the Civil War and the role of African-Americans in the establishment of “A New Birth of Freedom” for the nation.
He also gave an MLK Day talk in New Bern on what Martin Luther King Jr.’s message would be today.
More:Dennard’s message on Martin Luther King Jr.
The Sun Journal posed 10 questions for Dennard to give readers more insight into a powerful academic voice.
1. Give us your basic background and what influences shaped your path to be an educator.
I am a native of Georgia, attended legally segregated public schools, and was vigorously encouraged to get an education.
In the middle Georgia city of Hawkinsville, where I completed public school, all of my primary role models were educators-teachers and principals. From elementary school through high school, it was my teachers and principals that set for my standards of dress, deportment, and lifestyles that I quietly admired.
Additionally, they were the leaders who set the standards of appropriate interaction with persons in both my segregated community as well as in the larger world of Blacks and whites.
While my father and mother were deeply important figures in my life, they did not have the level of formal education or jobs comparable to those of my teachers and principals. Hence, it was perhaps owing to the overall subtle and collective influence of my early educators that would compel me to become an educator as well.
2. When did you become keenly aware of your race and how you were treated by society? Was there a lightbulb event?
Since the world into which I was born was cluttered with racial markers, signs designating the places for “whites” and “colored,” I became aware of race as soon as I ventured away from home and visited places in the larger white community.
When I was a small child, for example, my parents taught me the essentials of my racial identity and the basic tools for navigating the terrain of race as quickly as they could teach me about the danger of fire, poisonous snakes, plants and animals to avoid, places that were off-limits to Blacks, and the manner in which adult Blacks and whites should be addressed.
By the age of six, I knew that I was different from whites and that I lived in a predominantly Black community. I learned about my race and the rules of “Jim Crow” segregation from my parents and other Blacks in my community. The fact that Blacks and whites lived different lives and were treated differently was generally taught as the “normal order.”
I never recall having a “lightbulb event.”
3. How did you come to choose history as your focus and how do you see the presentation of history in terms of racial accuracy?
I earned a B.S. degree in Social Sciences at Fort Valley State University in 1969 and prepared to enter the public schools as a social science teacher. My focus on history occurred, however, during my matriculation as an undergraduate student. A pivotal development undergirded this shift.
After realizing that the curriculum included the history of Europe, China, India, Russia, etc., but nothing on Africa or African Americans, a successful effort was made by a few anonymous students to convince the faculty in the Social Sciences Department to offer a course in African American history. This development helped me to find my place in the broad field of American history and similarly stoked my interest to learn about the place of Blacks in world history.
I did not take a job as a social science teacher after graduation but instead made plans to enter graduate school at Atlanta University. In 1971, I earned an M.A. degree in Afro-American Studies-Social Sciences. Upon completion of this degree, I took a job at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois and taught history courses there from 1971-1974. I then enrolled in a doctoral program at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and earned a Ph.D. in American history in 1983. After my work at Parkland College, I have taught history; and this was the beginning of my formal and permanent shift from the Social Sciences to the field of history.
More:Dennard speaks at New Bern MLK event
Mainstream history texts have undergone some impressive revisions during the last five decades, but most narratives still lack adequate details on Africans or African Americans. As a result, separate courses are generally needed to supplement existing curricula offerings, both in secondary schools as well as in colleges and universities.
Presentation of history in terms of racial accuracy will require constant chipping away at a rather smothering and debilitating Eurocentric methodology. Where possible, of course, Africans and African Americans must be afforded increased opportunities to speak for themselves as well as for their own progeny.
4. How has history presentation changed over the years from when you were a youngster?
Some magnificent and fascinating changes have occurred in teaching history since I was first introduced to the subject. A major development is a fact that historians have broadened their craft to include ideas and tools used by other scholars in such fields as anthropology, folklore, sociology, archaeology, and linguistics.
By drawing on the varied insights of others who explore cultures, traditions, and material scraps of mankind, historians have had more success in piecing together the history of their subject than what could be uncovered from written material found in archives and other repositories of printed records.
Additionally, this approach has provided a more expansive view than what students would derive from the evidence left byeliteindividuaIs and families. All of this, moreover, pushed students of history to consider a “bott om’s up” approach to the study of history than a reliance exclusively on a “top-down” perspective. During the last 50 years. for example, it has been more fashionable for many students of history to flirt with the construction of a “people’s history” than remain loyal to the exclusive narrative of earlier periods. A particularly revealing and enlivening approach to the study of history since I was a youngster has been the increasing use of historical artifacts and the extensive use of primary documents. Today, for instance, the story of history in not simply told through a recitation of names, events, and dates, but also through an array or assortment of artifacts, primary sources, films/videos and oral records.
And finally, it is now possible to couple classroom presentations with visits to actual historic sites and trails. Today’s students of history can really have a buffet table type experience exploring local, state, and world history topics and developments.
5. Tell us about how and why you put together the African American studies program at East Carolina University. Has it met your expectations?
I began work on the development of an African and African American Studies Program at East Carolina University to satisfy a two-fold objective: (1) there was a need to address the concerns of students, some of whom had talked about the creation of such a program for many years, and others who had made some limited and unsuccessful efforts to get certain administrators to assist and guide them in developing a Black Studies program; and (2) East Carolina University was out of step with other institutions of comparable size and stature that had established Black Studies.
San Francisco led the way in establishing a Black Studies program in 1968 and many other colleges and universities followed a similar path. And by 2000, many large majority-white colleges and universities had created Black Studies programs, including institutions in North Carolina such as Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Beginning in 2005, therefore, I thought the time was right to launch an effort to establish a Black Studies program at ECU. With the support of the Organization of Black Faculty, the dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, and the provost and vice-chancellor for academic affairs, the first formal step was taken to begin a Black Studies program at ECU.
First, it was necessary to complete a year-long process to obtain authorization from The University of North Carolina’s general administration to plan a Black Studies program. The name of the program agreed upon by my group was African and African American Studies, and the year 2005 was spent making presentations to the various academic groups and committees to satisfy all of the requirements needed to complete the authorization phase of planning the program.
The authorization to plan the B.A. degree program was granted at the end of 2005 and 2006 was devoted to showing how the program would operate if established. Another year, 2006, was thus spent meeting all of the necessary requirements to establish the B.A. degree in African and African American Studies.
The effort was successful and on February 19, 2007, Chancellor Steve Ballard received the following letter from Dr. Harold L. Martin, senior vice president for academic affairs, The University of North Carolina, stating: “It is a pleasure to inform you that at its meeting on February 9, 2007 the Board of Governors approved the request to establish a Bachelor of Arts in African and African American Studies at East Carolina University, effective August 2007. This program will appear in the Academic Program Inventory ….”
The program was housed in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and began offering courses in the fall of 2007. I was selected as the program’s first director and served until 2015. Overall, the development of the program has been a major success story for ECU and its effort to promote and champion diversity. African American students in particular have found the program’s course offerings extremely appealing and popular.
The program itself, of course, is still in its infancy and has not yet garnered the support needed to make it a fully productive and mature program. Hence, in sum, while the program has greatly improved the curriculum infrastructure at ECU, it has not yet met all of my expectations.
6. What are your thoughts on the social and racial changes of the past year since the death of George Floyd?
The murder of George Floyd was a global and transracial replay of the domestic African American reaction to the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955.
While African Americans exhibited or displayed their horror and outrage at the lynching of the African American Till, there was no discernable rage exhibited at the time by whites in the United States or abroad. But what came as a surprise and perhaps shock to many Blacks and whites was the global eruption of Black and white protest to the murder of George Floyd.
This has become the most noted case available of the possible shift toward an international reckoning that seems to say that the problem of racial injustice is no longer an issue to be addressed largely and almost exclusively by Black families and Black friends of Black victims. And what was equally revealing about the reaction to the murder of George Floyd was the large numbers of young whites involved in both domestic and global protest activities.
While any current assessment on young whites’ reaction to the killing of George Floyd may be totally premature, it may nevertheless be a prescient warning that the present generation of whites may not be the uncritical inheritors and custodians of the racial mores and ideologies bequeathed to them by their mothers and fathers. Then what is similarly noteworthy as well about the murder of George Floyd is the judicial system’s conviction and sentencing of his killer, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Here, in sum, there may well be important clues that point to both important cracks in the blue wall of police silence and promising fissures in the old rock of white supremacy and white terror, historically the essential underpinnings of all Black-white relationships. Sadly, but fortunately, therefore, there may yet be an undergrowth of new hope springing up after the notoriously tragic and brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020.
7. Was the exposure of a lightning-rod event such as Floyd’s death inevitable in a digital age?
The digital age certainly improved the spread, flow and dissemination of critical information; and all of this made for easy comparative analysis of what seemed to be a rapid-fire trend of Black murders at the hands of white police officers.
Inevitable, of course, I believe that the brutal murder of George Floyd was simply the tipping point of an accumulation of Black abuse by white police officers and would have occurred in time without the use of digital technology.
I am inclined to consider the reaction to Floyd’s murder in context of the question posed by the African American poet Langston Hughes, who asked in a poem published in 1951, titled “Harlem,” “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Orfesterlike asore-And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
In the absence of digital technology, for example, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott appeared to grow out of a series of developments related to Black abuse on city busses across the South that apparently pushed Blacks to the breaking point by the time Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955.
Still, I shudder to think about what might have happened in the case of George Floyd had not the 17-year-old Darnella Frazier produced her own video that documented the murder of Floyd while he was in the custody of Derek Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers. Indeed, had we not been living through the present digital age, we might well be lento pondering this particularly uncertain and absolutely distressing question: Would the explosion of protest have occurred when it did—in 2020— or perhaps sometime later?
Or, on the other hand, as Hughes’ poem also suggest, maybe the outrage of Blacks and their pent-up frustration could very well have continued to “fester like a sore” or even simply dried up “like a raisin in the sun.”
8. How much has social media and digital communication helped and hurt the Civil Rights Movement?
One could list many little flaws and annoying side effects of social media and digital communication, such as those that come with medical prescriptions.
Nevertheless, as physicians explain to their patients, the side effects often pale in comparison to the medication’s benefits in the treatment of a particular illness or disease.
Similarly, I am inclined to view the preponderance of good benefits that have resulted from social media and digital communication as totally revolutionary in the distribution of critically important information. Even when allowing for some inaccurate information, incidents of hacking, and electronic scams, social media and digital communication, like the computer in general, have all contributed to our unprecedented democratization of information.
Television had an explosive impact on the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and ’60s; and now through the use of social media and digital communication, the revolutionary trend has continued and made much of the world an electronic network of informed citizens in their respective global villages. And the speed with which information can now be shared both domestically and globally is absolutely astounding.
Probably the most problematic “hurt” for the Civil Rights Movement is that it must now compete with so many other different causes and movements that also seek publicity through the same social medial platforms and popularly used forms of digital communication.
9. What are some solutions to race relations you think are needed from all sides of the social table?
The fundamental solution to race relations must be a reversal of the process that began after1619 with the devaluation of African Americans and the inflated value and worth of whites through ideas of white superiority and white supremacy.
This can only occur through broad and deep systems of education that place equal value upon all human beings. In the main, both Blacks and whites have been and continue to be miseducated about each other.
Hence, there can never be a society of healthy race relations as long as one racial group is taught that it is superior to the other, especially when the evidence on the idea of white supremacy has been historically contrived and maintained through brutal and violent formulations.
Some pivotal questions that must be addressed are these: What impact did the slave trade and slavery have on the warping or changing in profound ways the humanity of both Blacks and whites? What was the human cost of 100 years of “Jim Crow”? Why is it necessary to wage continued and protracted struggles for Blacks’ civil rights? What rights have Blacks had in the United States that whites were “bound” to respect? What is the Black image in the white mind? What is the white image in the Black mind? From the perspective of whites, do Black lives really matter?
We have the evidence to address forthrightly these and other questions, but Americans in positions of power seem content to keep kicking the can of systemic Black devaluation and white supremacy down the road. Quick fixes and band-aids will not repair the infrastructure of our minds and help us to see our neighbors as ourselves. Not until we grapple seriously with the truths and falsehoods of our history and ideals can we change the badly aligned trajectory of current race relations in our country. The ultimate solution for our problem is education.
10. What is your reaction and thoughts on the Monte Miller, an ECU professor that resigned after posting a comment in opposition to Juneteenth using profanity?
It was truly unsettling and quite shocking to me that an associate professor in the ECU school of social work would pen such a disparaging remark as “How about F…K Juneteenth” on his Facebook post.
Juneteenth is not only intrinsically linked to African Americans’ struggle for freedom from chattel slavery, but it is also a day recently made a national holiday with a unanimous vote from U.S. Senators and the signature of president Joe Biden. What social work professor worthy of his or her credentials could be this tone-deaf, intellectually irresponsible, and bold to assume that you have the freedom to stomp on the dream and history of an entire racial group of Americans without consequences?
And how dare you tempt in this way the protective cloak and garb or academic freedom or freedom of speech? Frankly, and realistically, East Carolina University cannot be true to her diversity claims or objectives if professors, administrators, or staff members can slander or demean, without accountability, the history and life of approximately 16 percent of her student population.
In fundamental terms, the case of Professor Monte Miller is simply that his miseducation (Eurocentric perspective) did not prepare him to consider the life and history of others as he has been taught to regard the value of his own. In the current instance, therefore, separation of professor Miller from his duties in the school of social work, and presumably from East Carolina University as well, was probably the most practical solution possible to a rather unfortunate and insensitive professor-contrived calamity.
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