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Too Much to Ask: Black Women in the Era of Integration
     

Too Much to Ask: Black Women in the Era of Integration

by Elizabeth Higginbotham
 

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In the 1960s, increasing numbers of African American students entered predominantly White colleges and universities in the northern and western United States. Too Much to Ask focuses on the women of this pioneering generation, examining their educational strategies and experiences and exploring how social class, family upbringing, and expectations—their

Overview

In the 1960s, increasing numbers of African American students entered predominantly White colleges and universities in the northern and western United States. Too Much to Ask focuses on the women of this pioneering generation, examining their educational strategies and experiences and exploring how social class, family upbringing, and expectations—their own and others'—prepared them to achieve in an often hostile setting.

Drawing on extensive questionnaires and in-depth interviews with Black women graduates, sociologist Elizabeth Higginbotham sketches the patterns that connected and divided the women who integrated American higher education before the era of affirmative action. Although they shared educational goals, for example, family resources to help achieve those goals varied widely according to their social class. Across class lines, however, both the middle- and working-class women Higginbotham studied noted the importance of personal initiative and perseverance in helping them to combat the institutionalized racism of elite institutions and to succeed.

Highlighting the actions Black women took to secure their own futures as well as the challenges they faced in achieving their goals, Too Much to Ask provides a new perspective for understanding the complexity of racial interactions in the post-civil rights era.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
In this engaging and important book, Higginbotham provides historical context and vivid personal testimonies to the legacy of Black women's struggles for education and respect in the United States. (Bonnie Thornton Dill, University of Maryland at College Park )

Too Much to Ask makes a tremendous contribution to the field of black women's history. Higginbotham's careful analysis avoids over-generalization about black women, and her attention to the meanings of social and economic class is particularly valuable. (Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University)

Bonnie Thornton Dill
In this engaging and important book, Higginbotham provides historical context and vivid personal testimonies to the legacy of Black women's struggles for education and respect in the United States.
Nell Irvin Painter
Too Much to Ask makes a tremendous contribution to the field of black women's history. Higginbotham's careful analysis avoids over-generalization about black women, and her attention to the meanings of social and economic class is particularly valuable.
Women's Review of Books
Too Much to Ask is a blueprint for the construction of the African American baby boomer generation.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807849897
Publisher:
The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
11/26/2001
Series:
Gender and American Culture Series
Edition description:
1
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The experience of Black women in colleges and universities during the era of integration presents a complex, rich, and varied history. It is a history of racial pioneers. It is also my own history. Beginning graduate school in the fall of 1971 was a significant experience for me. I was crossing boundaries that few of my friends from City College of New York attempted. While most friends who had recently graduated from college were working in jobs as teachers and caseworkers in New York City, I was preparing to continue my education at a private university in Massachusetts. Living in Boston with middle-class White people was part of that boundary crossing. At Brandeis University, I was the only African American in my cohort. Attending graduate school with students from privileged backgrounds was a challenge.

I was somewhat overwhelmed with the many changes in my life and by the everyday details involved in attempting the next educational level. Much of my energy that first year was devoted to mastering a new environment and sorting out my own place within it. I was different from my cohort in terms of race, social class, and urban residence, which meant I had not had the "privileged college experience" of most of my fellow students. Most had lived on a campus and devoted the majority of their time to studying and socializing with peers.

A commuter student in college, I integrated course work and studying with much paid employment. While in college, I tutored elementary school students at a community agency, tutored Upward Bound students in high schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, and worked in after-school programs in community centers for elementary school children. In addition to regular part-time employment, for two years I worked for a CBS News polling operation that conducted national surveys for elections and other news-related programming. Those experiences did not count in this new environment where how much one had read and the ability to discuss these books were prized instead. In time I learned to value my experiences and look at my new peers with my own eyes. Many in my cohort with limited work experiences had a vision of the world that was shaped by books. While I was initially intimidated, I learned over the course of that year to trust my life experiences, especially in terms of what scholars had to say about the people I knew. Much of the 1960s scholarship on White working-class people did not capture the experiences of many of the people whom I knew growing up, yet my classmates were willing to grant legitimacy to such portrayals because they were published in books. It took years to formulate a position that reflected my perspective as a Black person raised in the working class negotiating a predominantly White academic world.

A month into my second year of graduate study, I had my first meaningful discussion with Elizabeth, another Black woman who had just entered the program. The daughter of professionals, Elizabeth talked about her background and began to complain bitterly about how little Brandeis University had done to help her solve her many relocation problems. In contrast, I had felt privileged to be in this space where people recognized me and where I could conduct business without giving my social security number. As Elizabeth complained, I asked, "What made you think that Brandeis would do these things for you?" Apparently, her elite college had made many such accommodations. However, I am sure that the college was pushed into such activities by people who felt entitled to them, just as Elizabeth had attempted to push for services at Brandeis.

The encounter haunted me. Elizabeth was a Black woman, close in age, but I was struck by our very different expectations of what the world owed us. I was clearly working class and she was middle class. I was prepared to enter this educational environment, just as I had entered others, by fending for myself. After this discussion, I began to think more systematically about social class background, particularly how it "stamps" individuals, including people who are members of an oppressed racial group. I questioned how the intersections of race and social class would influence how Black people operate within predominantly White spheres and within their own communities. This core investigation (and the many related questions it spawned) culminated in the study here, which examines the race, social class, and gender constraints on fifty-six Black women who graduated from predominantly White colleges in the late 1960s. Developing, conducting, and analyzing this research was a twenty-year project. In 1980, when I completed my dissertation, "Educated Black Women: An Exploration into Life Chances and Choices," based on my initial investigation, my advisor said there were a hundred ideas in the work. Over the years since then, I have thought about the many themes in the data and have crafted a book that seeks to highlight the negotiations that achieving educational success requires and the different resources that women bring to the task.

In 1980 much research on Black Americans, men and women, was viewed as occurring within a cultural framework, and the findings were considered unique to the Black population and marginal for the rest of U.S. society. Many scholars now recognize that race is both a social construction and a key feature of the stratification system in the United States (McKee 1993; Omi and Winant 1994). Scholars focus on the power dimensions of race rather than limiting themselves to a language of racial differences. These changes have helped to make race and social class, as well as gender, central analytic categories in the social sciences. Thus insights from scholarship on Black women now have a more profound impact on the state of general knowledge. I have also come to a greater appreciation of the significance of this cohort's experiences. These fifty-six Black women, who all attended colleges in a single city, were among the first major wave of Black students in predominantly White colleges in the mid-1960s. Other Black women encountered similar situations in other northern cities during this era of integration. We can learn much from them that can help us understand the shifting issues that face Black students in predominantly White settings.

The lives related in this book are complex and intricate. These women came from different regions as well as different social classes. There were Black women from the South who graduated from segregated high schools as well as women who grew up in the North in overwhelmingly White suburban communities. There were women from working-class communities who struggled in comprehensive high schools where their talents were unrewarded and who then found more support and encouragement in colleges, and there were others who found college to offer experiences similar to their previous schooling. There were middle-class women from highly ranked high schools where they were encouraged to attend college, but not prestigious ones. The nuances in the interactions these women had in educational settings structured the varied paths and patterns of their lives. There is no easy way to present the findings. As a sociologist, my task was to examine these complex lives and develop a perspective that can help readers ask a series of questions to better understand the alternatives these women faced and to examine how people move within varying social structures.

What did being a Black person in a time of shifting racial dynamics mean for the course of these women's lives? What was it like to be a pioneer in a predominantly White college as the college attempted to change how it operated? What obstacles and supports did social class differences create for the women in their journeys through childhood, into college, and into their early adult lives? How did gender impact Black women raised with certain expectations within the Black community and exposed to different expectations in predominantly White colleges? The answers will vary for women who traveled along different educational paths. There are no charts that map out a neat course. However, we know that race is central. Membership in a disadvantaged racial group shaped aspects of these women's lives, especially as they struggled to scale barriers. Social class was always an issue in terms of the women's own expectations for their lives, the material resources available to surmount racial barriers, and their reception by people in mainstream institutions. Gender also played a critical role, especially since their parents' gender expectations shaped how they reared their daughters. Further, as the women interacted with mainstream institutions, they found conflicting visions of their futures based on others' views of oppressed racial groups as inferior. Social class shaped these images of their futures; some Black women coming of age at this time were expected to be schoolteachers and social workers, while others were expected to be service and clerical workers. But these women shared the common experience of being outsiders, looking for a way through the institutional and interpersonal obstacles to their successful passage through the educational system.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Higginbotham provides a compelling portrait of these women, their families, their struggles during the early years of integration, and their fights to achieve success in a racist, sexist, and elitist society.—Journal of American History

Too Much to Ask is a blueprint for the construction of the African American baby boomer generation.—Women's Review of Books

Too Much to Ask could prove to be an excellent introductory text for first year education, sociology, or history students.—Contemporary Sociology

An exemplary study into the early politics of race in higher education.—QBR

Slightly more than three decades have passed since the women who are central to Elizabeth Higginbotham's study graduated from college, and yet the ways that racism, class background, and gender affected their strategies for achieving a higher education are hauntingly familiar today. In this engaging and important book, Higginbotham provides historical context and vivid personal testimonies to the legacy of Black women's struggles for education and respect in the United States. She demonstrates convincingly that although the price of higher education for Black women has been 'too much to ask,' these women and their families did whatever was necessary to pay it, and did so with pride and dignity.—Bonnie Thornton Dill, University of Maryland at College Park

Too Much to Ask makes a tremendous contribution to the field of black women's history. Higginbotham's careful analysis avoids over-generalization about black women, and her attention to the meanings of social and economic class is particularly valuable.—Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University

At its heart, Too Much to Ask is poignant and compelling as it explores how social class, family practices and expectations prepared and influenced the lives and educational outcomes of Black women in the 1960s.—Educational Review

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Higginbotham is Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is coeditor of Women and Work: Exploring Race, Ethnicity, and Class.

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