Upending the Ivory Tower
Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League
Stefan M. Bradley
New York: University Press, 2018
Hardcover. xvi+465 p. ISBN 978-1479873999. $35
Reviewed by Anne Stefani
Université Toulouse 2
The history of the United States’ black liberation movement has been contested terrain for decades. In this challenging new book, Stefan Bradley contributes to the field by reinterpreting the scope and impact of Black Power from the standpoint of the most elitist and exclusive educational institutions of the nation: Ivy League colleges. Using the original concept of “Black Student Power,” he argues that Ivy League black students used “their privileged status as students and alumni, as well as their race, to win victories for the larger black freedom movement ”. His impressive research, covering the post-WWII era up to 1975, explores the various forms Black Power took on the eight Ivy League campuses. He examines how the few black students who attended these institutions responded to racism and discrimination on and off campus, how outside agents of change—whether Black Power activists or local neighborhood residents—shaped their identities and influenced their actions, and how they succeeded in transforming their alma maters for the better.
The book is organized in nine chapters. After the first one, devoted to the early generation of black students who embraced assimilationist strategies of survival to resist racial discrimination in the thick of the Jim Crow era, chapters II to IX chronicle the struggle of black students against racism and exclusion at the eight Ivies respectively: Princeton (II), Brown (III), Dartmouth (IV), Columbia (V), Penn (VI), Yale (VII), Harvard (VIII), and Cornell (IX). Each chapter progresses chronologically between the post-war period and 1975, with a major focus on the 1960s for all. In addition to sharing a common timeframe, all chapters hinge on the same four thematic threads, i.e. the evolution of admission policy, black students’ rejection of assimilation in favor of self-determination and separatism in the late 1960s, the struggle for space control that pitted students and black local residents against university administrators, and the emergence of Black Studies in those universities during the Black Power movement. All chapters deal with these underlying themes but vary in emphasis according to each institution’s specificities.
Drawing from recent scholarship in African American history, sociology, urban studies, and Critical Race Theory, the author builds on the latest developments of Black Power historiography to expand, correct, and nuance the traditional narrative of the black liberation movement. The originality of his contribution lies in his applying his peers’ interpretations of Black Power to an unexpected—and so far unchartered—territory: elite colleges. By focusing on Ivy League students, i.e. one of the most privileged sections of the population, during the Black Power era, Bradley redefines Black Power as a complex phenomenon, not necessarily violent, nor revolutionary, even less irrational—as the traditional narrative has it. In the case of Ivy black students, he argues, Black Power was a mostly peaceful, effective form of racial activism that ultimately benefited the black community as a whole. He convincingly demonstrates that although the Ivy black students who engaged in various forms of protest on their campuses in the 1960s were not revolutionaries, they belonged nonetheless in the “Black Freedom” movement . In highlighting the significance of their actions, he also provides further evidence that the so-called “Civil Rights Movement” was not limited to the South, thus insisting on “the need to situate northern struggles in the civil rights narrative” , as several scholars have done since the 2000s.
In keeping with his concern to counter the traditional historical narrative, Bradley relies in great part on oral interviews to capture the points of view of his main subjects, black students, as well as other agents of change long ignored by historians, such as black residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Doing so allows him to analyze the subjective experience of African American students in an environment built by and for the nation’s white elite, and in which they were not welcome. A significant part of the book actually deals with the emotional cost of the double marginalization those students suffered from: they found themselves first marginalized from their communities of origin as privileged students, and second from white students as members of a racial minority. Through the multiple testimonies of alumni, the author can analyze in depth the cultural implications of experiencing “otherness” and liberating oneself by developing a new black consciousness. In addition to the large number of institutional archives, local newspapers and magazines, and secondary sources used for the research, oral interviews participate in the construction of a balanced narrative of the Black Power movement at Ivy League institutions.
The book’s greatest contribution consists in studying the eight Ivies together in depth, an unprecedented endeavor. Bradley fills in important scholarly gaps in the history of higher education, some of these institutions having never been studied closely before. He also demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the secondary literature, not only on Black Power and the Ivy League, but also in the fields of urban history and Critical Race Theory. Another quality of this work lies in its author’s standpoint. Bradley achieves the challenge of combining solid scholarship with a personal commitment to social and racial justice. His book, starting with a preface asserting that “change, at least as it regards racial advancement, is difficult—even messy—but necessary” [xv], is indeed very personal, all the more so since he explicitly connects its contents to the Movement for Black Lives that was unfolding in the background when he wrote it. Yet, the scholar never falls into sacrificing scientific rigor to his stance, maintaining all along a remarkable critical distance with his subject, and engaging his peers in a highly stimulating discussion of key interpretive tools.
Because the study covers such a large scope in time and space (eight universities over several decades), it suffers from a few minor weaknesses related to its structure. If the organization of the book is very clear, the argumentation well constructed, and its logic explicitly exposed in the introduction, the choice of intertwining four thematic threads throughout the book while dealing with the same issues and timeframe in the eight separate chapters, inevitably incurs repetitions. This is especially true of some key aspects of the research such as the emotional cost of being an Ivy black student, or the emergence of a black consciousness. This, however, was probably inevitable owing to the number of universities studied. It may have made it impossible to deal with all of them conjointly and in depth when tackling a specific aspect common to all. That being said, the book’s thesis itself tends to be reasserted too often as the chapters develop whereas the demonstration was clear enough to do without it.
In the end, these very few critical remarks should not overshadow the many strengths of the work. This is a highly readable piece of scholarship that will interest scholars, students, and the general public, at a time when the knowledge of the past, and of the history of social movements in particular, have become crucial to understand the contemporary debates on the evolution of our world.
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