Sunday, December 6, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 4

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 3).

In what way is `Busy Dying’ different or similar to Professor Stefan Bradley's recently-published book,` Harlem vs. Columbia University’, from both political and literary point-of-view?

Hilton Obenzinger: Stefan Bradley’s book is not at all fictionalized, and it’s not memoir like Mark Rudd’s book; the book is history, based on interviews and archives, and projects a historian’s analysis of events, strategies, and motivations.

The book provides a needed revision of the distorted accounts of 1968, situating members of the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and other black students, along with Harlem, as central players in how events unfolded. This is wonderful, as well as Bradley’s extension of his analysis of other black student-community eruptions at that time in elite universities, such as at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, and the struggle for African American Studies at Columbia and other universities.

Professor Bradley’s work was also well-served by the April 2008 conference. I have some disagreements with his account, particularly his account of the white students, but that does not take away from the book as a major accomplishment.

There’s still more to do: I hope Ray Brown, Jr., Cicero Wilson, and the other leaders of the black students in Hamilton Hall write their accounts of the occupation and strike; and there’s certainly room for other historians to explore Columbia 1968, pulling together an account and analysis of all the threads of the story.

In 1968 many white Columbia and Barnard students protested against the Columbia University Administration's attempt to grab a few acres of Harlem parkland in order to build a new gym for Columbia students. Yet at a 40th anniversary reunion of '68 student protesters in 2008 there didn't seem to be that much discussion about Columbia's current attempt to grab 17 acres of West Harlem land, north of West 125th Street, for its latest campus expansion project. In what ways do you think people who participated in the 1968 Columbia protests have generally changed politically and philosophically since 1968? And in what ways do you think U.S. universities like Columbia University have changed or not changed since 1968?

Hilton Obenzinger: For the conference in 2008, the ad-hoc organizing committee assessed the situation of Columbia’s expansion, talking with a number of people involved, including Manning Marable, who heads up Columbia’s African American studies program.

We reached the conclusion that we--the conference organizers and the attendees--had no basis as an organization--if you could call it an organization!--to take a position on the decades of controversy surrounding Columbia’s plans. But we also decided to encourage everyone’s positions and discussion, and it was distressing to see Columbia President Lee Bollinger leave one panel he participated in just when questions were opened from the floor.

When we had our initial meeting with Pres. Bollinger, we pointed out that there were parallels between 1968 and today – Vietnam/Iraq, Gym/Manhattanville – and he said that Columbia is different today, and in terms of expansion, they were working with the community, with Harlem leaders. I’m sure that many would dispute that.

I had not followed the controversies and felt ill prepared to take a position, and I didn’t want to take a knee-jerk position that everything Columbia does is evil, tempting as that may be. Others I spoke with thought it was too late to stop the project, that gentrification involves a lot more players than Columbia and the community needed to pressure Columbia to win concessions (such as housing and jobs), while others thought it was a betrayal of 1968 to invite Bollinger to the conference when Columbia was once again engaging in what many consider a land grab.

Our goals for the conference – one of which was to insist that 1968 be accepted as part of the university’s history with our active involvement and not have our role erased or distorted – meant that we welcomed a tactical relationship with the university (which helped us with space and the participation of many sympathetic faculty) while encouraging a wide range of views on the current situation. I think we were successful in this regard.

Bollinger ended up getting attacked by a right-wing columnist in the Daily News who was outraged that the university president would participate in “an all-Bolshevik affair.” Hilarious.

I don’t think I can talk of how all the people involved in 1968 have changed politically. About 400 people were involved in the conference, but there were thousands of people involved in the anti-war, anti-gym side of the conflict (not counting those against us or in the middle), and they have probably gone in many directions.

A great many who came to the conference or who signed up on our on-line discussion group have continued their progressive political stances, although most do not adhere to radical views popular in the 60s. Quite a few shaped their lives to a great degree around their commitments to change in whatever career they took up – people who are academics in women’s studies and African American studies and other fields, union and community organizers, activists in social movements such as the women’s, environmental, anti-war, anti-racist movements, writers with left politics, lawyers and physicians for change, and more.

It’s probably safe to say that the majority opposed the war in Iraq (if not at the outset, at least by the time of the conference). As a generation at Columbia in 1968, I would say that, as far as the people I know and those who participated in the conference, we have been mainly true to our roots.

Universities have changed enormously as a result of Columbia and the whole student movement of the 60s. Universities now have ethnic studies, women’s studies, GLBT studies as separate programs emerged, and a lot more social consciousness in teaching and research. Not enough, but things are very different. Ivy League schools are now co-ed, students are regularly invited to contribute to university deliberations.

A lot has changed, but elite universities like Columbia are still instruments of the ruling elite, and particularly when it comes to military research, most are as deeply involved as ever, if not more.