by Cecil Brown
Open letter to incoming class at Stanford University and UC Berkeley
The most impressive image of the Alabama Brawl was the one of the 16-year-old swimming to the aid of the Black man being beaten by the whites.
This young man, Aaren Rudolph, has been dubbed by some in the media as Aquaman, but the real identification is “Shine” from the toast ballad “Titanic.” In this folk ballad, a Black man swims from the sinking Titanic to save himself. Although there was no record of Black people on the sinking Titanic, legend has it that Jack Johnson was denied passage on the maiden voyage. Folksinger Leadbelly sang that it was a good thing that a Black man was not on the sinking ship.
Back in the early ‘60s, my Uncle Lindsay would begin the oral narrative in the shade at the end of the tobacco fields (God bless him): “As the old folks say, it was 12th of May 1910, when the Titanic went down …”
On a beautiful day in the merry month of May, the great Titanic sailed away.
The captain and lieutenant were having some words
When the great Titanic hit that mighty iceberg.
Shine was in the boiler room eating some peas
When the water came damn near up to his knees.
By the time he eats bread, the water came up to his head.
So Shine ran up on the deck. Shine is a Black man, a stoker. Black American folk culture invented him to reflect the true function of this urban epic, just as Homer invented the Odyssey to express the soul of the ancient Greek people. Shine was a hero to Black men from the moment it was composed, within a week after the historic incident took place.
But Aaron Rudolph is not a product of our imagination; yet the meaning of his action connects us with the mythic imagination of our ancestors. In his collection of African-American folklore, “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me” (Harvard University Press, 1974), folklorist Bruce Jackson claimed that boxer Jack Johnson was denied passage on the Titanic. This may or may not have been true, but the focus of the Black imagination is to have white women coming out on the deck of the Titanic with their “drawers around their neck,” begging, “Shine, Shine, save poor me,” and “I will give you more p—— than a blind man can see.” Shine replied, “Get your ass in the water and swim like me!”
The Alabama Brawl video of young Black Aaren, swimming to the aid of another Black man, has reminded African-Americans that it is still necessary for Black people to come to the aid of other Blacks who are in trouble. The incident is full of historical ironies.
First, it took place in the harbor where African Americans were sold off as slaves. Second, it took place in Montgomery, where Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white person, thus igniting the Civil Rights Movement. Third, on March 7, 1965, then 25-year-old activist John Lewis led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and faced brutal attacks by oncoming state troopers.
Because these incidents took place in Alabama, we naturally assume that the racism is contained in the South. But we have James Baldwin to remind us that racism is not contained in the South, but it is all over America, even on the West Coast, where we assume whites are more liberal.
I am writing this to inform and encourage African-American students at Stanford University, UC Berkeley and other universities who are affected by the Supreme Court decision against affirmative action to use this image as an example of coming to the aid of those of us who work in institutions that are still racist.
In Urban Studies at Stanford University, where I teach a course on gentrification, I put James Baldwin’s essay “The Harlem Ghetto” on my reading list. I was told by the department chair, who is white, and another white professor who was listening that I should not teach this book by James Baldwin. Why not? I asked.
Because, they both explained to me, Baldwin implied that whites had taken money out of Harlem and thereby had created the “Harlem Ghetto.” I was told that “new research” shows that this was not true. I was forced to take the book off of the reading list. In my gentrification class, I take my students on a field trip to Oakland.
This quarter 2023, the same professor refused to list my class and instead teaches the class himself. After I complained to the provost, nothing was done. There was no Black student or colleague who, like young Rudolph, jumped in the water to save me.
When I saw that a professor in a program that teaches race and ethnicity called CSRE (Comparative Studies In Race and Ethnicity) was an “expert on Toni Morrison,” I made an appointment to meet with her.
Since I was a friend of Ms. Morrison and published an interview with her, I thought she would be interested in reading – and hearing – what I had to say about Ms. Morrison. I made an appointment to meet her and drove 40 miles from Berkeley to Palo Alto in anticipation of a discussion of an important African-American writer.
My disappointment began when I arrived for the interview to be told by her secretary that she had “forgotten” our appointment. After making another interview appointment, I finally met her only to find that she was not at all interested in Toni Morrison and had not even read the interview I sent to her.
When I learned that the Stanford English Department had hired a Black man as chair, I made an appointment to meet with him. When he finally arrived to the meeting, he was accompanied by two white female professors. It did not seem to matter that he was an hour late, but I was still excited to see a Black man who had become the chair of the department that never had taught a class by an African American.
I also gave him a copy of the Toni Morrison interview, but he looked at it dismissively and said in a clear voice that I had to put my name on “the same list that his students used to make an appointment with him.”
He glanced at the two white female professors, as if to say that he was not going to give me any more advantages simply because I was a Black man like him. He is an Oxford graduate who wanted to make sure that my being a Black professor and African American author made no difference to him. He wanted to make sure that his green card was well earned.
When the English Department decided to teach one course on James Baldwin, it was James Baldwin as a “queer.” This is because James Baldwin as “a queer” reflects the interest of whites – professors and students – but James Baldwin who wrote about his experience as an inhabitant of the Harlem ghetto is not acceptable.
Zora Hurston is an important scholar of African-American folklore – and a novelist as well – but despite my publishing on Hurston and despite doing research in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, I was not even able to get an interview in the English Department.
Because she ended up being a maid for white women who didn’t even know she was a published author, Ms. Hurston wrote that she did not want whites to profit from her research. Yet, if any Black student wants to take a course that is taught in the English Department at Stanford this fall, they will have to take a white female professor. How different is this from the racist ideas that come out of the mouth of the governor of Florida?
It is not only that Blacks are denied their true history, but when it is offered, it is to serve the interest of whites – whether it is James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston or African American hip-hop.
After I had taught a class in the Classics Department at Stanford on Homer and Hip-hop, I suggested a zoom conference with Too Short, the Oakland rapper, but the chair of the department objected to it. It was then that I began to see the problem at Stanford and other universities: African-American culture studies have been appropriated by other minorities who are not part of the Afro-American community.
When the university decided to hire a professor to teach hip-hop, they chose not an African American but an Asian. The point is that minorities who are not part of Afro-American vernacular English (AAVE) are given control over African American culture. In order to save some of our culture, African-American students must do what Aaron Rudolph did; they must jump in the water and swim to aid academics. They must “get their ass in the water and swim like me.”
The final straw occurred yesterday when I went into CESTA (Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis) to set a date for a demonstration of my project on George Moses Horton, the slave poet. The new manager told me that there was no place in the schedule for my presentation. I have already worked 10 years at CESTA developing the project.
The young white manager felt so entitled that he said that he “did not want to waste my time”
after I had explained to him that I had a contract with the department to develop and show my project, which is related to AI. When I asked to speak with the chair, he said:, “She can’t be disturbed. She’s working on her book.”
I was supposed to be embarrassed as he spoke without any empathy for what I had created about a Black American poet. But I am determined to show what I have created even if I have to march on that department.
Encouraged by the Supreme Court decision, universities such as Stanford and UC Berkeley have continued to ignore Black people and their struggle. They have continued to ignore those of us who are denied all jobs. They must come to the aid of Black men and women and the institutions that have integrated Blacks into academic institutions.
Stanford and UC Berkeley have left us exposed to the racism perpetuated by other minorities, who are not part of our culture and are useful in appropriating our culture, even as they are separate from those values that produced our culture.
At these institutions, courses that should be taught by African Americans themselves are instead taught by graduate students who generally do not have or have not earned PhDs or have not written any significant publications; often they are hired simply because of their entitled privilege.
Where are our Aaron Rudolphs? And where are the Shines of the ballads? African American students must realize that our culture is useful to whites when it serves the interests of whites. African American students should be proud of the Greensboro sit-in in 1960, which then dismantled segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. (See YouTube “We Want Some Coffee, Please.”) Yet when I presented a syllabus for a class about this incident, I was told by the chair of the “Immersive Cinema” program at Stanford that I was not qualified. I noticed that the only people teaching immersive films are Europeans.
Comedian Rudy Ray Moore had Shine say: “Captain, you got a lot of nerve when you deliberately ran this big motherfucker [Titanic] into that iceberg! Your shittin is good and your shitten is fine, but this is one time you white folks ain’t going to shit on Shine.”
Jumping overboard, Shine swims away with powerful strokes. The ship’s plight now becomes apparent to the whites, who place several temptations in Shine’s way. The captain cries out, “Shine, Shine, save poor me. I’ll give you more money than a Black man can see.” But Shine understands the emptiness of material awards in his present situation. “Money is good on land. Take off your shirt and swim like me.”
Rudy Ray Moore has Shine tell “a big man from Wall Street, ‘You don’t like my color and you down on my race. Get your ass overboard and give the sharks a chase.’”
You students should begin the new school year by jumping in the water and swimming your asses off – just like Aaren Rudolph did. God bless you!
Novelist and educator Cecil Brown, UC Berkeley professor and director of the George Moses Horton Project at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) at Stanford University, is also known as the close friend, screenwriter and biographer of Richard Pryor and as the author of “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger,” “Stagolee Shot Billy” and most recently “Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor: Kiss My Rich Happy Black Ass.” Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.