My earliest months of life were spent in a cotton sack, dragged along by my parents as they picked cotton in the fields of the large East Texas plantation where they toiled as sharecroppers in the 1940s. I learned from them that my life would continue to be shaped by the legacy of slavery, and knowing how to behave when encountering White people in our small hometown of Grapeland was essential to our survival.
I was not to speak “out of turn,” or in an “uppity” fashion; I had to step off the walkway when White people approached, for all space belonged to them; and I was not to assert my preferences — or my presence — in any way. My parents knew how to operate in a racist and segregated society supported by policies and social norms that upheld the notion that blacks, being inferior, were not entitled to full rights and protections as citizens.
Isaac and Fannie Stubblefield did their job well; all 12 of their children lived to adulthood by obeying the rules of an officially racist era.
When we moved to Houston in 1952, our lives changed — but not completely for the better. Walking down a street in my Fifth Ward neighborhood reminded me all too much of Grapeland. Our movements were still governed by a long list of places we could not access: department stores, restrooms, schools and colleges.
We traveled a defined number of city blocks, from Lyons Avenue to Liberty Road and from Eastex Freeway to Lockwood Drive — the 1.5 square miles of our neighborhood. But, no matter how familiar the route, with five girls, my father didn’t take any chances; whenever the walk became too treacherous, with racial epithets hurled from passing cars, he moved the family to safer zones.
Racism is, at its heart, a sentiment ungoverned by any principles of respectable behavior. Those who practice it can operate without constraints, other than those that society decides to impose. But the targets of their hatred must move through the world limited by sometimes invisible or unpredictable restrictions on their movements, their behavior and their words.
A campaign of hostility, denigration, exclusion and sometimes terror becomes the reality of a racist society. Determining how to live life openly and productively in the face of such attacks on one's existence is a lifelong task.
It pains me to see my students encounter the same types of behavior and wrestle with the same dilemmas that afflicted my generation. They experience the same hurled epithets, the same silencing of their voices, the same campaign of terror. I ask myself what we could have done to make more progress and alleviate the need to relive the discrimination and social upheaval of my generation.
At first, working within the system and abiding by the rules appeared to offer me a path to survival. But my mother taught her children to be proud of who we are, knowing that the rules that forced us to defer to the comfort of White Americans implicitly communicated that we were unworthy of the same freedom and opportunities.
Her message of pride eventually outweighed the restrictions of racism in my mind, and I began to question harmful systems I encountered as I rose through the ranks of academia.
In 1983, Princeton hired me to serve as director of studies. The problems there were quickly apparent: Blacks were frequently questioned about whether they belonged at Princeton; few minority faculty were promoted to tenure; women were completely absent in some departments. I didn’t see a way to keep quiet about what I saw.
Being outspoken about the need for change created discomfort between me and some of my colleagues. Fatigued by my messages of inclusion and calls for change, some avoided interacting with me.
Even though my field was French, the university approached me about serving as director of Afro-American Studies, an area I knew little about. Though I initially resisted the move, it offered a less obstructive path to the change I wanted to effect at Princeton. Among my first tasks was working to recruit a list of scholars of unimpeachably excellent work to add to the ranks of senior tenured faculty: Toni Morrison, Cornel West and Nell Painter among them. Their impact was immediate and students embraced them. Princeton later promoted me to the dean of faculty’s office on the basis of our work in Afro-American Studies, which became known as one of the strongest such programs in the country.
Following the rules in a society governed by discrimination may allow members of excluded groups to survive, but it also limits our society’s ability to address problems such as racism. To make the country more equitable and hospitable for all, we must find constructive ways to challenge the rules, push our communities to reform and overturn norms that prop up corrupt practices. Seeing where we are today on the path to equality and justice, I wish my generation had not adhered so well to the conventions imposed by segregation.
Following the recent violence against blacks, Latinos, and others seeking justice, I also have concluded that education as a sector has not done enough to teach Americans about the causes of systemic racism and to prepare us for its consequences. In the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans last summer, the latest wake-up call has come. Will we heed it this time, or will we pass on to the next generations the endless succession of wake-up calls we have encountered in our own lifetimes?
The week after Floyd’s death, I wrote a letter to our community at Prairie View A&M University detailing a plan to explore the role of racism and bias in our curriculum and making its eradication more central to our mission as an institution. Numerous individuals and companies have volunteered support for the creation of a Center for Race and Justice. As I wrote on June 1, “Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest callings. ”
At Prairie View, we will work toward educating all students and our community on how to understand and combat discrimination. I had to learn this over a span of seven decades; young people today should not have to wait so long to discover the lessons of our history as a nation.
Ruth Simmons was president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012, the first African American to serve in that role at an Ivy League university. She is now president of Prairie View A&M University.