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Dispatches Skin Deep 101

3 minute read
Massimo Calabresi/New York City

At Harlem’s City College, day one of Professor Leonard Jeffries’ spring semester class, African Heritage 101, begins meekly — no sign of the brouhaha that surrounded Jeffries’ dismissal in 1992 from his post as chairman of the college’s Black Studies department for having allegedly made anti-Semitic statements; no sign of the uproar that greeted Jeffries’ court-ordered reinstatement (and $400,000 damages award) last August; no sign of the outraged editorials that have made Jeffries a national figure. And no sign of Jeffries. Forty-five minutes after class was scheduled to start in a windowless, first-floor lecture hall, he still has not arrived. Several of the 40 or so young students (all black but for one Asian) are sprawled face down on their blue Formica fold-out desks. Every few minutes, someone tires of waiting, gets up and leaves.

When Jeffries finally does arrive, fully an hour late, he is apologetic and cheerful, with a grin on his angular face. After greeting the class enthusiastically in ancient Egyptian — “Hautep!” — and receiving a decidedly lukewarm “Hautep” back, he explains that he has been trying to retrieve his clothes from the laundry, but it has burned down.

According to Jeffries, the class will focus on African contributions to world civilization that have been ignored by Eurocentric scholars. He begins by scribbling a chalkboard chart featuring “the sun people” (i.e., people of color) at one corner of a triangle and “the ice people” (i.e., not people of color) at another. Next to the latter he jots down a few salient attributes: “individualist,” “competitive,” “exploitative.” Jeffries explains that his chart “gives us a paradigm for looking at the world. We’re not talking about superiority and inferiority, but we’re talking about the important factor of melanin.” Blacks have more melanin — a skin pigment — than whites; Jeffries asserts, “It allows us to negotiate the vibrations of the universe and to deal with the ultraviolet rays of the sun.” He draws a smaller triangle with “RNA” and “DNA” at the corners and “melanin” on top. Another paradigm?

Returning to the large triangle, he offers a synthesis: “((This is)) the aspect of internal-external, the aspect of systems analysis the aspect of various bodies of knowledge that you have to master in order to quote this material and do what? Critically think,” he answers decisively. “The idea is to get you to be critical thinkers.”

As class breaks up, students gather around the professor and ask questions. Most are interested in how many papers they will have to write. A reporter asks for a clarification of the DNA-RNA-melanin triangle. “Well, for one thing,” Jeffries replies, “you want to have the duality-polarity in life.” Two or three students glance about nervously. “There’s a mix,” he says, and adds, his voice getting softer, “a mix of DNA, RNA, and there’s a not-too- understood question of melanin, the organized molecule, in the beginning. And this is the relationship that produces the processes of life, the multiplicity of cells ” Now several students are shooting embarrassed glances at one another. “So what we’re trying to say is that there are deep things in biology, in psychology, in geometry, in philosophy, in theology, we don’t understand.” Uh-huh.

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