The University of California is not the center of Woke, one of the California fantasies held by eastern columnists, whose views are formed by their living within about six or seven Manhattan subway stops. After retirement from teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in 2005, I returned to teach for a semester in 2019. The room was packed with students who wanted to take the class on the first day. But interest dropped when I announced that one of the texts I would use was historian Josephus’s view of Pontius Pilate, which counters the scriptures’ Pilate.
For Josephus, Pilate was an unreasonable tyrant.
During my thirty-five years at Cal., ninety-five percent of my students were suburban whites. Long before Andrew Hacker* and Charles Murray,** I learned that “a tangle of pathologies” was occurring in the suburbs, while Hollywood, Television, and Think Tank intellectuals and columnists were profiting by blaming social problems on Black personal behavior. I’m not surprised that life expectancy among whites is diminishing because of Opioid addiction. Heroin epidemics were occurring in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the late nineties; the epidemics were hidden in the back pages. They didn’t want to embarrass those who supported their advertisers. While the press divided races between powder cocaine and crack cocaine users, the typical crack addict was white. Jonathan Capehart says he just found that out. I wrote about white crack addiction ten years ago.* Even as the drug crisis among white Americans is spreading, the media represents the distribution of drugs and their consumption as Black.
Clues about the suburban condition came to me in poems and stories written by my white students. Outstanding was one by Jody Peterson, who wrote about debutantes sniffing cocaine from toilet seats. His setting wasn’t Chicago. He was writing about La Jolla, one of the country’s whitest and wealthiest communities. I included it in my anthology of American poetry, “From Totems to Hip Hop.”
These students lived in towns with few Black residents. They learned about Blacks from television and movies. I would run into a racist incident once in a while. A clique of Junior racists tried to provoke the Black students and me with racist stories during one semester. I told them they could write all the racist stories they desired as long as they were fresh and original. That ended it. The ringleader came to my office and told me that I reminded him of his father.
There was an incident that taught both the perpetrator and me. I came into class one day, and someone had written on the blackboard, “Dinner with Professor Reed. Bring Your Own Watermelon.” I knew the identity of the student who wrote the message. But I didn’t let on. I told the class that if I found out who wrote this insult, I’d report them to the dean, and they’d be expelled. It was just before a quarter break, and I wanted the student to mull over this warning before returning to school. Upon returning, he came to my office and confessed. I told him that I could report him to the dean, or he could work with playwright Ed Bullins at The Black Repertory Theater for ten weeks. He accepted the assignment. The Black Repertory Theater is run by Dr. Mona Vaughn Scott and her son Sean, a former player for the Dallas Cowboys, who retired to help his mother Mona and grandmother Nora Vaughn manage the theater. Because of their persistence, the Black Rep. received the longevity award from the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They have received praise from Woodie King, Jr, dean of American Black theatre.
In a forthcoming article published by the California magazine, Alta, published by William R. Hearst, III, I write about how Nora Vaughn and her husband Birel L.Vaughn struggled to bring Black theater to Vicksburg, Mississippi, only to be harassed by the Ku Klux Klan. After the Klan fired into their home, nearly injuring their daughter Mona, then an infant, in 1940, they migrated to Berkeley.
Since they began operating the theater in Berkeley in 1986, they’ve been harassed by the progressive City of Berkeley, which grovels before The Berkeley Repertory Theater, supporting that theater with millions of dollars.
Another fantasy held by Manhattan columnists is that Berkeley is a mecca for radical misfits.
Berkeley is among the whitest cities in Alameda county. Racial profiling is rife. Due to high rents, there has been an exodus of Blacks and Browns from the city. Both novelist Judy Juanita and I have been profiled in Berkeley. Once each at the Berkeley Rep.
In July 1988, I attended the premiere of three plays directed by Ed Bullins, including one of mine called “Savage Wilds.” The student who thought the Watermelon joke funny was initially assigned to the crew. To my surprise, Ed had given him a role in the play.
Ed was backstage wearing his usual poker face. Here was one of the country’s most celebrated playwrights, but he had taken the time to tutor a student about the Black experience. Not every white student is that lucky. Most rely on stereotypes when judging Black, Brown, and Native American culture, which is why strife and sometimes violence occur at learning centers. For those whose opinions reach millions yet complain about Cancel Culture, I challenge them to pick six college or university catalogs at random. They have nothing to worry about. Something Americans call Western Civilization (does that include Algebra?) is still in charge.
I don’t know what became of that student, but wherever he is, I’m sure he will never forget his experience working with Ed, Mona, and Sean at the Black Repertory Group.
Like most Black writers whose work has some kick, the late Ed Bullins was considered “Controversial.” But he wasn’t that to his grassroots audiences. He wrote about their experiences.
I remember attending a Manhattan performance of one of his plays. It was clear that for some attendees this was the first play they’d seen. When the lights were dimmed, a signal that the show was about to begin, some members of the audience shouted, “Hey, what happened to the lights?”
Ishmael Reed’s new play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” about the destruction of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, is now running at the Theater For The New City, 155 1st Ave., New York. Also Live-Streaming on Thurs., Fri., & Sat. at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Info at theaterforthenewcity.net
* Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal by Andrew Hacker | May 19, 2003
** Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition by Charles Murray (Author)