Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race

Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race

Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race

Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race


In Acting Black, Willie situates the personal stories of her own experience and those of her interviewees within a review of university policies regarding race and with suggestions for improvement for both white and black universities seeking to make their campuses truly multicultural. In the tradition of The Agony of Education, Willie captures the painful dilemmas and ugly realities African Americans face on campus.


We might have been one of the…last classes that had a lot of lower-middle-class black students coming in.

—Edward, Northwestern ’79

INTRODUCTION: competing narratives and ideal types

Many of the alumni I interviewed characterized their experience at either Howard or within the black community at Northwestern in Utopian terms: they were part of a social group, they remembered, in which they shared a vision of “harmony cooperation, and mutuality of interests” (Kanter 1972:1). When they did not describe the Utopian nature of the black community, their explanations seemed to describe archetypes.

Alumni of both institutions remember participating in the protests of the day. Northwestern alumni, however, remember feeling that the campus was continuing to lose urban, working-class, and radical students, and alumni who graduated over a twenty year span also made this comment. That sense of anxiety and loss is a regularly reiterated theme. “Urban, ” “working-class, ” and “radical” alchemize into a trope for the idealized black student with which many Wildcats identify. This parallels the trope of the light-skinned, arrogant, and wealthy student with whom many Bison fear their school is associated. Each school has an ideal type upon which loss or anxiety is projected. While there are surely students who fit these descriptions throughout the last thirty years on each campus, their presence in the narratives of alumni who do not resemble these types points to the fact that different challenges and anxieties face students who choose different kinds of schools. I have already discussed the archetype of the wealthy, light-skinned, and arrogant hbcu student in chapter 6. Below, I discuss the shift that so many Wildcats remember from the plethora of urban, working-class, and radical black students on Northwestern’s campus to their sense that there were fewer and fewer of them. I offer a few ideas about . . .

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