Columbia and Race: In the Right and in the Wrong
School of the Arts 1981
After three years of living, working, and studying in Japan and three months of backpacking on the way home to New York, I enrolled in the School of the Arts Writing Program in Fiction. It was 1979 and I was glad to be able to continue learning Japanese while working on my writing.
We had fine teachers in the writing program. My favorites were Richard Yates (a warm person and fine mentor), Sam Rafelson (he helped me write my first play), Ted Solotaroff (he believed in my work), and Manuel Puig.
I especially remember one day in Puig's workshop in which we had one page to capture a character's voice. As we were reading and critiquing each other's sketches, Puig made a comment that struck me: a woman on whom he had based a fictional character was, he believed, too good to be true, so he gave her fictional counterpart flaws to make her believable.
I have had one short story published nationally, one play produced. I am currently attempting to get a short story collection that I began in the writing program published. In addition, I am now working full-time on writing my mother's biography: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Woman. Columbia University's School of the Arts Writing Program was invaluable to me as a writer.
My one regret about my fine time of learning and discovery at Columbia is the knowledge that other African Americans who later went on to become movers and shakers in the world were turned away from the university. Columbia, like most institutions, reflected the racism of the times.
Langston Hughes, accepted at Columbia University in the early twenties, was denied a room in the dormitory because he was black. He lived in the Harlem YMCA, spent much of his time exploring the cultural attractions of Harlem, and dropped out after only a year at Columbia. He eventually graduated from Lincoln, a black college in Pennsylvania. By 1926, he had published his first volume of poetry. The rest is history.
In 1929 Dorothy Height, after having been accepted (she went to an integrated school and it was not clear from her application that she was black), was told by the admissions office that Barnard already had one black student when she arrived on campus.
Crestfallen, but with encouragement from her sister, Height went downtown to New York University that very day. She was accepted on the spot based on the strength of her transcript alone.
Height received both her undergraduate and her graduate degrees (in Social Work) from NYU and went on to become a civil rights activist and head of the National Council of Negro Women.
These stories, too, must be part of Columbia's history. I am sure there were also Jewish, Latin, Asian, Native American, and female students who were similarly treated. Columbia University, like our country, has come a long way, but still has work to do in overcoming prejudice in our multiracial and multicultural society.