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A WASEDA Miscellany

James M. Vardaman

Discovering African America

James M. Vardaman
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Growing up in the Deep South, which consists of the states between Georgia on the Atlantic Ocean and Louisiana on the Mississippi River, my world was composed of black folks and white folks. These two groups were divided by the train line that passed through Laurel, Mississippi, where I was raised. The black folks came across the tracks to work for the white folks during the day and then drifted back across “their side of the tracks” at the end of the day. The only exception to this was the Mexican man who sold tamales. He set up his stand in the early evening along the white side of the tracks, so that white folk could buy his tamales on their own side and black folk could briefly cross the tracks, make their purchases and then retreat to the black side of town.

When I began college in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1965, the implicit and explicit boundaries between white and black were beginning to break up. The Civil Rights Movement was challenging Jim Crow laws and customs one city at a time, one school at a time, and one person at a time. Black folks and some white folks hoped that progress would continue steadily and peacefully until some day in the future everyone would have the same opportunities and receive the same respect. The assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 in the city where I was studying seriously rocked those hopes.

While attending graduate school in the North, I was often asked to explain what the South was like and why it seemed such a backward place. This was the first time I seriously thought about the subject that I currently teach. Midway through graduate studies, quite out of the blue I had an opportunity to come to Japan for eighteen months as an English instructor. I knew absolutely nothing about the country, but it sounded like an adventure, so I came. During that year and a half, I spent most of my time outside the classroom trying to learn Japanese and everything possible about Japanese culture, while trying to explain in the classroom what America was like.

After returning to the U.S. completely fascinated with Japan, I entered a masters program dealing with every aspect of Japanese history, literature, society and culture. Upon graduation, I returned to Japan with a deeper curiosity about Japanese people and their culture. While traveling around virtually every part of Japan seeing as much as I could during university vacations, I taught about America, and increasingly taught Southern literature and culture. It struck me as ironic that I had returned determined to absorb as much as possible about Japan but had ended up studying with equal energy the American South and particularly African Americans and their cultural history.

What now motivates me to encourage students to learn about the South is that an understanding of it helps them become aware just how complex America is, historically, socially and culturally. My motivation for helping students learn about African Americans is to help them discover just how important a role these people have played in the development of the U.S., from the days of slavery to the present day. Discovering how blacks were brought as slaves to America, how they literally built America, how they fought for their freedom, how they supported one another against white oppression and how they identify themselves today broadens one’s views of America as a whole.

With the 2008 election of the son of a white woman and an exchange student from Africa, many people assumed that finally America had attained the dream Dr. King so eloquently expressed. But as President Obama himself has pointed out, his election has not signaled the achievement of racial equality. The white-black gap in wages, educational levels, occupational advancement and social acceptance remains, and it is made even more complicated by competition from the Hispanics of various national origins. In short, understanding the struggles and the achievements of African Americans to date is absolutely essential for comprehending American culture.in all of its colors.

Medallions issued to slaves sent to work for other people in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1800s.


Born in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Received the M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and the M.A. degree in Japanese Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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