The lesson Prof. Coleman taught me


From the Feb.5, 2017 Register-Guard

Nothing puts life into context like death. And so it was that while at Edwin Coleman’s memorial service last Tuesday, I was reminded why, in 1974, the former University of Oregon English professor put such a timely, and significant, piece in my life puzzle.

The reason was rooted in a mugging. My own.

Like a tagged trout, I had, as a high school sophomore, just been released by my folks into the shallow waters of freedom; for the first time, I was being allowed to attend the state basketball tournament in Portland without parental accompaniment. I would stay with family friends, who would keep track of my comings and goings.

I was stoked; my alma matter, Corvallis High, was undefeated and favored to win it all.
I was free; walking through those Memorial Coliseum turnstiles was like a passage to the brave new world of adulthood.

I was distraught. Moments after I entered the arena to watch the Corvallis-Jefferson opening game, a handful of young men shoved me into a lobby nook, ripped a back pocket off my jeans, stole my wallet — I had about $100 in it — and fled.

They were black.

In terms of life trauma, the incident — after my initial shock — didn’t weigh on me heavily. Nor, at the time, did I suppose it clouded my perceptions of black people in general. And yet, with the passing of time, I was reminded that bias often works the night shift, hidden where those who need to see it most, can’t, or won’t, recognize it in the darkness.

In hindsight, I wonder if the incident shaded how, two years later, I wrote a story for our high school paper about a Jefferson High-Corvallis High student exchange that triggered angry responses from some at the predominantly black Portland school. They claimed it was tinged with an anti-black bias.

My adviser, my colleagues, my friends — virtually everyone at lily white Corvallis High — defended me to the hilt; the Jefferson folks, we concluded, were just “overly sensitive.”

In the fall, I left for the University of Oregon School of Journalism. I opened the door to my dorm room, a moment that proved to be another “turnstile passage” of sorts.
There sat two black students. In my room. Twin brothers, it turned out, who lived right across the hall. It was an awkward moment, but an awakening one, as well.
We forged a friendship mortared with humor, me chiding them for their incessant playing of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” they laughing at me for dressing like a “hippie farmer.”

As the school year deepened, I became intrigued enough about their culture that, beginning fall term 1973, I took a year of African-American History and two classes by Coleman: Black Poetry and Introduction to Black Literature.

If three terms of history enlightened me on the black experience, Coleman’s poetry and literature classes engaged me at an emotional level, which, for me, always has been the better teacher. For the first time, I came to understand life through the eyes of people whose experiences were far different from my “Wonder Years” upbringing in Corvallis.

I read authors who chiseled words out of oppression — true oppression, not the “why-can’t-I-get-a-10-speed?” variety I had known. Oppression that sounded like the crack of a whip and smelled like the burning flesh of a branded slave.

I discussed the poems of Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and others with classmates.

I listened as Coleman, in his gravely voice, read poems as if he’d written the words himself. He might as well have. As an African-American, he’d lived much of what the writers had lived. Knew what it was like to be refused service at a restaurant or not be trusted enough to have a check cashed — discrimination amortized daily.

In short, those 20 weeks with Dr. Coleman changed me. For the first time, I realized that when I subtly mocked those Jefferson High kids for dancing wildly to Michael Jackson on their lunch hour, it was because instead of trying to understand their world I was subconsciously measuring them by my own, a dangerous premise in a diverse society.

They weren’t being overly sensitive; I wasn’t being sensitive enough.

To confront my skewed vision wasn’t to feel guilty for a comfortable middle-class upbringing that I’d been born into; instead, it was to understand why time and experience and a willingness to get beyond ourselves can make us see the world more clearly.

As the saying goes: “If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 — and it hasn’t changed, then that man has wasted 30 years of his life.”

I graduated and left Eugene in 1976. When I returned more than a decade later, Coleman and I no longer were professor and student, but friends. Lunch at Rennie’s Landing. A wild search at his house for an old “Afro Duck” decal from the ’70s. Sitting together while his son and daughter-in-law sang the blues on this 80th birthday at Café 440.

I once told him I’d gotten rid of almost all my books from college, but I couldn’t part with “I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by African Americans.”

Still, I wish I’d taken the time to tell him more. Wish I’d told him what I’ve just told you. Wish I’d thanked him for a gift that’s valuable but rare in these days when we so seldom dare to confront the biases that silently enslave us.

The gift of new perspective.

5 Responses

  1. Lee I.

    Thank you for your insights
    Professor Coleman altered my landscape
    As well . And my heart!
    I really love Callan & his gentle ways,
    Learned at his father’s knee.
    The music, the spirit !!
    It lives in in us!

  2. Jeanette Bishop

    Bob, This is so good. Your writing about Ed Coleman and your experience of being assaulted by a group of black kids. Getting educated about the black culture, recognizing and getting rid of your subtle biases.

    It reminds me of some contacts with Ed Coleman. He was a friend of the tenants who lived next door to me. They told me he liked my bumper sticker. I don’t know what it said now after all these years. But it was something favorable to the mix of cultures. In college, my son John, who you heard at the Jazz Station, played with him in several performances when Ed was in the music school’s educator’s combo.

    The assault you suffered also reminds me of my husband’s experience when he was a kid in Long Beach, California, and was attacked and knocked down by a group of black boys. He somehow held no avarice against black people. Similarly my kids all seem to have no awareness of differences in skin color. Todd, when he was in high school or early college drum student, played in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks with a group that I didn’t know. The female singer was picking on him, and he got it worked out by confronting her about it. I didn’t know that the whole group, except Todd, was black until he got home and showed me pictures.

    I always admired Ed Coleman. Just a few years ago, when son John was in town, we saw and talked to Ed and his wife in the Wild Duck restaurant.

    I don’t know what I’m writing this for. But I just love this writing of yours, and you offered a place to comment.

    I didn’t know Ed Coleman well obviously, but wish I’d taken some of his classes.

  3. Nina Chordas

    I was a doctoral graduate student at the University of Oregon in the mid-90s. Though I never took a class with Professor Coleman, I remember him as the oasis in a tense and devastating oral exam during which it seemed I couldn’t remember anything I knew…until Ed Coleman asked me about the Harlem Renaissance. Then he and I had a brief but strangely reassuring conversation about Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. I barely passed the exam because Professor Coleman vouched for me. I’ve just moved back to Eugene after 16 1/2 years of teaching literature and writing at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Suzanne Penegor, from whom I took a business seminar a couple of weeks ago, mentioned your name, which is how I found your tribute to Professor Edwin Coleman. Thank you for bringing back my own warm memory of him.

  4. Jeanette Bishop

    Bob, I read this story before, when you shared it. It is perfect. In content and the writing of it. Maybe I’m repeating myself from the last time.

    I didn’t have the pleasure of a class with Ed Coleman. Doubt if he was teaching at Oregon when I was in school. But I did meet him a couple of times.

    My son John played the drums for a while with the faculty ensemble including Coleman, when Littlejohn was in school. I saw enough of him to know he was a good guy. Once he visited my neighbor, who told me that he liked my bumper sticker, which said something supporting blacks. I don’t know what now, but I think it was pretty clever, and it was a pleasure to know he appreciated it.

    Then once when John was in Eugene, we ran into Ed and his wife, not so long before he died, at The Wild Duck and reintroduced ourselves to them. He of course didn’t remember either of us, but we remembered him.

    My husband told me that something happened to him when he was in high school in California, similar to your experience. A group of black kids jumped on him in the street, knocking him down. I’m sure that was an unpleasant experience, but he never held any bigotry toward anybody about it. He may have experienced something similar to what you did. Learned.

    I wish I could write something with a message as powerful as yours in this short story.

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