It’s never too late

I

Like many of you, we receive alumni publications from the academic institutions we’ve passed through in the course of our educations. They make excellent bathroom reading. I don’t say that to disparage them. They just lend themselves to quick takes, just right for the occasion.

Last week, I was looking through one such publication from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In the Recent Publications column there was a note about a new book by Thomas F. Pettigrew, a faculty member at Harvard who played a key role in defining the direction my life was to take. Google told me he was still alive and active at age 90 and had relocated from Harvard to the University of California at Santa Cruz more than forty years ago. It was on their website that I found his email address, and I wrote to him immediately. I want to tell you the story of why I was so excited to reconnect with him.                              

When I returned to Boston from a year-long clinical psychology internship in San Francisco, I still had a lot standing between me and my Ph.D. I had completed all my course work, but I had to present a proposal for my dissertation topic, then do the required research and, finally write the dissertation itself.  During my time at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, I had become intrigued by the workof a researcher named Paul Ekman who was doing pioneering research in the area of non-verbal behavior. I thought this might be an interesting path to pursue for my own doctoral study.

Since reading patients’ non-verbal cues can be a critical part of the therapy process, my question was: Can you train therapists to improve the accuracy of their reading their patients’ non-verbal cues? I won’t burden you with all the details of the work, but it involved filming interviews with subjects who faced stressful interviewing techniques of a kind that would not be allowed today under restrictions designed to protect subjects from potentially harmful procedures. Clips from these interviews were then shown to experimental subjects to see whether they could identify the clips where the interviewee was under stress.

Truth to tell, though this work was interesting and possibly of some practical significance, which is not always a given with dissertation research, my heart was elsewhere. My attention had been riveted to the events in the South since the first sit-ins in 1960, which was even more the case in 1963 as the voter registration work and the sit-ins escalated. In my first year at Harvard, I had taken a class with Dr. Gordon Allport whose book The Nature of Prejudice was focused on issues that were more central to my thinking than my own research and it was  that interest that I wanted to pursue.

When I returned from San Francisco, I heard about a course on Race Relations that was taught by Dr. Thomas Pettigrew, a disciple of both Allport and Kenneth Clark, the eminent African American psychologist with whom I had studied as an undergraduate at City College. I’m not sure how I managed to sell myself to Dr. Pettigrew – perhaps it was by waving my Kenneth Clark connections before him – but he took me on as a research assistant and later as his Teaching Assistant for the Race Relations class.

Although he was passionate about racial justice, he was otherwise a quiet, kind and gentle presence. He came from a lower middle-class family in Richmond, Virginia. In his own autobiographical recollections, he attributes his commitment to justice to his extraordinary Black housekeeper who schooled him about what Black people had to endure in the segregated South.  The research he was working on at this time was about the role of political leadership in the integration of various cities in the South. When the leadership was firm and clear that integration was going to happen peacefully, for the most part it did. The key to understanding prejudice in these instances was less about the authoritarian personalities of the population than the context in which these scenarios are playing out. What drives practices like segregation is conformity to prevailing norms.  He’s been true to those ideas right down to the present in his writings about the 2016 election.

In those days, “research” was primarily about encoding data on punch cards and feeding the decks of cards into gigantic sorters located in the basement of one of the Harvard buildings, which in turn spat out rolls of perforated paper on which the results of the sorting had been inscribed. We must have spent a lot of time discussing these results because they remain so clear in my mind after more than 60 years.

In my final year of graduate school, as I was wrapping up my dissertation research, Dr. Pettigrew asked me to be his teaching assistant for the Race Relations course he taught. For me, that lecture hall was epicenter of engagement at Harvard in 1964. I would guess that, for obvious reasons, there were more students of color in that class than any other on campus. Both they and the white students who enrolled were like me in their desire to be as close to the front lines as their confinement on a college campus would allow.  I learned so much from the passionate and well-written papers I read as part of my duties, as I did from the riveting lectures Dr. Pettigrew delivered. In his note to me last week, he said he remembers me as one of his brightest and best TAs.  Much as I would love to believe that, I attribute his compliment to extreme politeness, compounded by the fog of memory. The truth was that I was so green and knew so little about race or activism that I felt like I was barely holding my own.

The experience of working with Tom, as he prefers to be referred to, both on his research and in the hothouse of his classroom, solidified my desire to go south, where change was happening, not just discussed, so almost as soon as my dissertation work was completed, we headed to Mississippi and our new jobs at Tougaloo College. When I told Tom of our plans, I had the impression that he was proud of my decision. I may have read moreinto his reactions, but I was hungry for some validation, which certainly was not forthcoming from my own worried and skeptical parents.

When I wrote Tom to tell him of the birth of Adina in June of 1967, he sent a card and a baby gift for her, which touched us deeply. I’m so grateful to have found him again after these many years of silence, in time to express my thanks for the stamp he left on my life. It’s the kind of  expression of gratitude that I’ve cherished from my former students and it was time for me to pay my own debts.

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Marv Hoffman

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