Rethinking Race: Marybeth Gasman’s Colloquium ☆

On November 2, Horace Mann 140 filled with students and faculty eager to hear Visiting Professor Marybeth Gasman’s colloquium, entitled Perceptions of Black College Presidents: Black College Presidents’ Perceptions of Self. Marybeth, an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, captivated the audience with a rich historiography of the depiction of black presidents over multiple decades.

Marybeth’s interest in this area grew out of her examinations of black colleges from before the Civil War up to the present day. Particularly while writing her book Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro Fund, she “came across all of these presidents who had to defend African American education in a segregated society.” Through her research, she began to notice that depictions of these black college presidents were predominantly negative and lacked nuance. This led Marybeth to question the source and perpetuation of these perspectives and the presidents’ views of themselves.

Using historiography, prosopography, and contextual secondary sources, Marybeth has been investigating these questions and presented some of her findings to the colloquium audience, beginning with characterizations of black presidents from scholars and intellectuals, including Ralph Ellison, the historian Carter G. Woodson, and the sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riseman. This was followed by representations of black college presidents in media, which tend to be extremely critical. Finally, Marybeth presented an overview of six contemporary scholars in the field, including Michael Bieze, with whom Marybeth recently authored a book, Reading Booker T. Washington, coming out this spring from John Hopkins University Press.

The impact of Marybeth’s work is far-reaching. Her aim is to “show complicated individuals, avoid simplistic tropes, stop perpetuating stereotypes, and craft portraits in full, creating parity.” Considering the audience’s overwhelmingly positive response, it appears that this message resonates. Ultimately, Marybeth hopes that her research “brings some fairness to the depictions of black presidents. I want to give voice to black college presidents because their voices are rarely represented in literature. I hope that it will lead to a better understanding of African American literature.”

We look forward to continuing to follow Marybeth’s research, and we thank her for an excellent colloquium!