I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. After 30 years of marriage, we wrote together Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which was published in 2009. In it, my husband described the effect of racism upon his home country, comparing it with his experiences in America’s racism and white distrust of black achievement. Below is an excerpt from that book in his words:
White Distrust of Black Achievement – His Credentials Questioned
During the 1960s, at Ohio University, I was elected to the chairmanship of the sociology department. I took over from an old white man who had chaired the department for the past twenty-seven years. Bill had no filing system because he didn’t trust even his secretaries. The year before, a Chinese sociology professor had taken over. Bill harassed him so much, he left the university. Two white sociologists begged me to take over. They said if they took over, it would be another disaster. So I became the chairman “guinea pig.”
Bill immediately sent for my transcript from Michigan State University. When he saw a “D/F” on my transcript, he called a department meeting, which included several deans. He told me in front of the group, “In my entire academic career, I’ve never seen a D/F. This grade must be either a D or an F. Will you explain this please?”
I was taken by surprise. I asked, “Have you spoken with the people in my department at MSU? Or the president of the university?”
“No. Your transcript tells more than anyone can tell me.”
Having to Explain
“Gentlemen, D/F stands for deferred grade. I had a final paper to turn in. Graduate students who teach at MSU can defer a paper for a quarter because of the pressures they face. I turned in the paper the next quarter. That’s why there’s an “A” after the D/F. If any of you don’t believe me, you can call the university.” I was so angry I walked out. I wanted to go back to MSU.
That evening, one of the white sociologists who was a good friend, called and told me he had called MSU and I was right. He requested it in writing to present it to Bill. My friend presented the information during the next faculty meeting. I asked Bill, “Do you have any more questions about my qualifications?” He never answered. He couldn’t look me in the face. He just got up and left. My friend later told me this was the first time anyone had put Bill in his place.
During the 1980s, at the University of Michigan-Flint, white students never assumed I was a professor. When they came to see me in the sociology department, they sat and waited if I was out. They remained seated when I walked in and went into my office marked, “Dr. Dennis/Sociology.” Lynn, the secretary, would have to say, “Weren’t you waiting for Dr. Dennis? He just walked in.” She would open my door and say, “Dr. Dennis, some people are here to see you.” As I greeted them, their jaws dropped. Some tried to save face by saying they were expecting someone older. It hurt even more when I got the same reaction from black students.
When I was the Executive Assistant to the Chancellor for Minority Programs, I was downstairs getting a drink, when three white businessmen came down the hallway. Although I was dressed in a suit and tie, one of them pointed to some candy wrappers on the floor and said, “You missed that!”
A while later, I came out of my office, just as Dick Wise, the registrar, was coming down the hall with the businessmen. He said, “Dr. Dennis! I’d like you to meet some people. Mr. Campbell here is interested in having his boy come to our school.”
Their eyes widened. Dick told them, “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet the man in charge of minority programs here. He has a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology and he teaches in both areas.” They dropped their eyes as I extended my hand and said, “I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Campbell. This is a good school. We’ll be happy to do what we can for your son.”
Gold’s Gym in Florida
At Gold’s gym in Ft. Myers, I was recently standing in the hall near three white retirees who were talking with each other. Chris, the young white manager of the gym, walked by and said, “Good morning, Dr. Dennis!”
The men stopped their conversation and stared at me. One of them looked at me sternly and said, “Aren’t you the guy from Africa? You’re a doctor? What kinda doctor are ya?
At this point, a young white girl who worked there walked by and said, “Don’t you know? This man is a retired college professor. He has so many degrees I can’t even count ‘em.”
The man said to me, “Where’d ya get all those degrees? In Africa?”
“No, I got them in the United States from a number of universities.”
“Black people here can’t even do this and you did it? I had a hard time finishin’ high school. Most black people can’t even graduate. And you got all those degrees? That’s mind-boggling.” They continued staring as I left.
Black People have had to face white distrust of black achievement many times. My husband wasn’t the only one.
Our Love Story
When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.