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How Did You Get Here? Mel Schnapper, PhD

10 Apr 2021 7:50 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Each of us has a backstory that explains how we came to do the Intercultural and DEI work that we do. We are starting a series of these stories and invite you to send us the story of what brought you to the Intercultural and DEI fields. The first in our series is by Mel Schnapper, Ph.D. and a co-founder of SIETAR. 

The History of a White Man
Mel Schnapper, PhD

I am a white native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Howard University (1964, B.A., English Literature). I was editor of the student newspaper, The Hilltop, and member of a fraternity (Alpha Phi Omega). Though not the complete student activist of the 1960's, I supported the Howard chapter of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) by letting them use The Hilltop office and did occasional civil rights activity of a public protest or investigative nature. One example was to find out that segregated construction unions were building the new campus gymnasium.

For those of you who remember or have read about the 60's in your history books, during the mid-sixties there was the first organized attempt by Mississippi Blacks to unseat the white controlled Democratic delegation to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1962. That was a movement by The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) composed of SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, etc.  and other local and national civil rights groups. I was there.

I spent a brief time in Jackson, Miss. I arrived there the morning Medgar Evers, a local civil rights activist, was assassinated in his driveway. I stayed with Stokely Carmichael's (who changed his name to Kwame Touré) girlfriend’s family. We all slept in the back of the house. There had been occasional bombings and shootings from cars driving through the Black neighborhood of Jackson. In fact, the main street was Race St. because it was on the way to a racetrack, perhaps not what you were thinking!

I was also arrested during a street demonstration. When the NAACP bailed me out, I met Dick Gregory (first Black comedian to make jokes about racism) and William Kunstler (maybe best known for defending the "Chicago Seven") in the lawyer's office. And during a later street demonstration, I was found hiding in the closet of a local dentist by the same cop who had arrested me several days before! He was ready to do me in, but I promised I'd catch the next bus to Memphis if he let me go. He did, after threatening me with various kinds of fates if he should catch me again. So, I was gone within hours.

After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Nigeria teaching English and becoming fluent in Yoruba. I then went to Northwestern University to get a Ph.D. in African Linguistics and had plans to teach in African Studies departments in the U.S., Africa and elsewhere. After finishing my Master's in Linguistics, I spent the next year training other Peace Corps Volunteers for African countries, eSwatini, Somalia and Ethiopia. I even wrote the first siSwati language course ever for Peace Corps.

While on St. Croix), I met a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who already had a child fathered by an Eritrean. When we married a year later, I adopted him as my own. He has since met his Eritrean father and even traveled to Eritrea to meet his paternal grandparents, cousins, etc.

As a Peace Corps trainer. I was at the founding meeting of what began as SITAR, exclusively for Peace Corps trainers. After some years of dormancy, it was revived as SIETAR to include the academics who were later involved.  I was at both meetings.

More recently I have worked in 26 countries, mostly Africa. My most intense intercultural experience was working for a USAID project to train senior Palestinian managers for an eventual independent state of Palestine. I not only worked in Gaza then occupied by Israel with a few Israeli settlements. Traveling from Gaza City, where I also lived, to East Jerusalem where the AMIDEAST office was, my employer, I would pass a forest and, if with a Palestinian colleague, he would point to the forest and tell me that is where his father’s village used to be before the Israelis levelled it and planted the trees to obliterate any vestiges. If passing the same forest with an Israeli, he would point to the same forest and tell me that before, that same area had nothing, until, thanks to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) helped to plant trees in what had been barren land which was now yielding lumber from the trees.

This was one of many encounters with two totally different realities as Palestinians and Israelis can look at the same thing and have totally different narratives about its significance.

Learning about Racism

My first racial memory is standing on a street corner (in about 1946) waiting for a taxi with my mother in Washington, D.C. I must have been about 4. I saw one coming and was excited to experience the power of stopping a car by holding out my hand. I held out my hand at the first cab in sight and my mother said "put your hand down, it's a colored taxi" I understood what she meant but questioned the sense of it. I kept my hand up. The taxi stopped and we got in.

My neighborhood, Petworth, in D.C. which was all white changed to mostly black in about 5 years.

With most of the neighborhood kids now black, I was warned not to play with "them" they were "rough" different and wouldn't hesitate to fight with me. I was especially warned not to go into anyone's home. Who knew what I might get fed! When I finally went to Howard, my grandparents, with whom I lived, would ask me why I had to socialize and get involved. Just get your education. My grandmother was quite liberal for her time, being a Russian immigrant.

During high school, I was just barely aware from TV and the newspapers about the “Freedom Riders' "CORE",” Sit-ins" and the desegregation struggle in the South. As graduation approached, I was undecided about a career or college though my yearbook states " Mel will pursue a degree in International Relations at the School of International Studies at American University." I wasn't that committed especially as my grandparents warned me that being a Jew and in the State Department were mutually exclusive. Those were the days before Kissinger.

I chose to attend Howard University (an HBCU: Historically Black College or University). In no way did my decision have to do with rebellion, social awareness, or an attempt to be different. These were to come after I got there.

The culture shock at Howard was more than I expected. I felt like a neon light on campus. My whiteness was a constant part of my consciousness. I talked to students from all over the country—mostly the South. There were huge sections for remedial math and English because of Howard's commitment to give Black students another chance. It is also Howard's commitment to be a University stressing excellence.  I was assaulted by accents, styles of language, and social norms that were different.                  

The first semester was mostly one of scholarship and social isolation. I did venture out into the campus social world—international student week, plays, lectures, some concerts, but no real contact beyond the few whites in pharmacy. I hung out with whites I didn't even like. Looking at the next semester with no real commitment to my pharmacy major, I started to explore what Howard had to offer. I found that the responses to me were friendly and self-conscious, maybe accommodating.

In my second year, now a liberal-arts major, I took the "History of the Negro to 1865"—there were no Black Studies then. These were started at white institutions. I also found that the integration movement and my campus life were coming together. I'd read about SNCC, CORE, Freedom Rides and arrests in the Maryland, Virginia areas over civil rights picketing. Some of the politically active students were in my classes. That is, when they were there and not spending time in jail or organizing rallies. Some had been on the original freedom rides with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Some were late to class or not in class because they were in a Baltimore jail for trying to integrate a recreation park. I was not yet politicized through the awareness was growing.

Though Howard was a Black institution, it was a conservative institution. Even though James Nabrit was President and along with Thurgood Marshall had won the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision, his basic appeal was to challenge segregation though the courts, not the streets.

My teachers at Howard were there to teach. I have gone to the University of Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Whittier College, UCLA, and George Washington and now fully appreciate that some of the best teachers I ever had were at Howard. I had Sterling Brown, Arthur P. Davis, Owen Dodson, William Banner, and others—people of superior intellect and committed to giving Black students an excellent education. And in much of their teaching, I was able to get not just the basic material, but a perspective as well. For example, studying Faulkner we discussed the issue of the Black character as seen from a Black perspective.

ROTC at Howard was compulsory and so I took it for two years. Besides learning that the Revolutionary War was won by sheer luck and British incompetence, I learned how racist the US Army was from our instructor who had served in WW II and Korea. I learned about no "colored" officers in Korea, Black recruits confined to KP (kitchen duty) and afterwards, less than full combat conditions.

In other words, I learned the Black sociology of military history. Black involvement in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW I and WW II. Howard was the venue for colored officer training, etc.  As was Tuskegee, for the first "colored" Army air pilots. Blacks had to fight for the right to die for America.

What's a Nice Jewish Boy Doing in Jail?

After 3 years of being at Howard meeting kids who had been beaten up for straying into the white part of town, who'd grown up in segregated neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, etc. I decided I had to see the "deep South" for myself. I knew the SNCC kids Stokely Carmichael now Kwame Touré, Courtland Cox, Stan Wise, and got the names of SNCC contacts in Montgomery and Selma, AL and Jackson, MS. I also decided to hitchhike as a way to meet people on a more intimate level.

However, other philosophies prevailed, and with heightened precautions by the DC Police, National Guard, the “1963 March for Freedom and Jobs” was carried out nearly perfectly. It’s also amazing to me that almost 60 years have passed since then and how my own life has mirrored some significant social and political events in U.S. history, e.g. I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi the morning Medgar Evers was assassinated, and (though white) I stayed in the Black neighborhoods where I felt safer.

I participated in church rallies, street demonstrations and I was arrested in the melee. Being naïve, if not stupid, I thought, “If I run, I’ll get clubbed” So I stood in place and calmly watched the police run past me and then come back to arrest me and take me to jail in Jackson. And that’s how I met Dick Gregory, Bill Kunstler and local NAACP leadership as the local NAACP chapter bailed me out.

That’s how it all started for me. What’s your story?

Mel Schnapper, Ph.D. completed a self-designed Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh in 1970. His dissertation entitled “Experiential Intercultural Training for International Operations” described his consultant trainer role to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). More of his intercultural publications are available at mel@schnapper.com

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