MY FRIENDS CAN READ IT FOR FREE. (Excerpt #15 from THE HARVEST OF REASON). Winter term was already in full swing, but Maddie would never forget the first day of classes when she met the eccentric Dr. Ellison. READ MORE

(if you’re here for the first time look at Blogs 1 -14 in earlier posts )

Winter term was already in full swing, but Maddie would never forget the first day of classes when she met the eccentric Dr. Ellison. The students had been chatting quietly in the classroom in the old genetics building when he walked into class, plopped a bunch of books on the desk and greeted them all with a booming voice.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “you are about to embark on the most fascinating course of study you are ever liable to experience at this university, the study of cytogenetics!” He looked around the room as if expecting some unusual effect to follow his words.

“Have you ever heard of ring chromosomes?” he proceeded, leaving a pregnant pause and looking around the room, “Waltzing mice? Linkage dis-equilibrium?” Whether they had or not, no one was about to volunteer an answer. The man had a presence that was daunting. Maddie could not help but think of John Pitts and his rapport with professors. Perhaps he would have taken on Dr. Ellison. But he was not present this semester in any of her classes. Lisa had said that he was done with his coursework and studying for his prelim exams.

“Yessir, ladies and gentlemen,” Dr. Ellison was saying, as Maddie kicked herself for the distraction that had caused her to miss his last remarks, “we are going to study every genetic aberration ever discovered. Inversions, deficiencies, translations, …Can any of you smart young people tell me why we should study such things?” he looked around the room.

Maddie’s brain was working feverishly. For the same reason we study any mutation, she thought. Spurred by the enthusiasm Dr. Ellison was evincing for his subject and the clipped pace of his questions she involuntarily raised her hand. Immediately she regretted it. His eyes focused on her with full force.

“Yes. You!” he said, giving her permission to speak.

“Well… it’s from comparing the normal and abnormal that we determine the…function of genes…or their location on the chromosomes…”

“What is your name?” he asked abruptly. Maddie thought she would sink into the floor. Had she said something wrong? How could Lisa abide this man as her major professor? He was positively scary. Nevertheless, she answered with feigned confidence. “Maddie Hawkins, sir.”

“Ms. Hawkins, that is exactly right!” he said, and Maddie exhaled with caution.

“Now, can you tell me Ms. Hawkins,” he emphasized the Ms. with a painful smile, “we must remember to use the appropriate terminology for you young ladies these days,” he said, giving away the fact that he was plainly from the old school, “how many of these discoveries were made by women?!”

Maddie was stumped.

“Haven’t you ever heard of R.F. Grell?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“L.V. Morgan?” His eyes bore down on her.

Again, her head went from side to side. She felt stupid.

“Harriet Creighton?” At each pregnant pause he seemed to become more agitated. “Miss Hawkins, is it not important to you to know what women have accomplished in the field of science?”

Damn right it is! Maddie tried to keep her gaze steady. What hawkish eyes.

“You must have heard of Barbara McClintock?”

She nodded. This name she was familiar with. On second thought, she might have heard some of the other names too, but because of the first initials she had not known these were female. No one had ever pointed this out to her.

“Well, she is not the only woman to contribute to the science of cytogenetics. On your final exam,” he said, this time taking in the rest of the class, all of whom had been silent during Maddie’s one-woman ordeal, “I expect you to be able to answer that question!”

He proceeded to lecture for the next forty-five minutes, using the Socratic questioning method. His pace never flagged, and Maddie never once took her eyes off of him. First, because she was so enthralled with his method and his information. Second, because she was terrified he would focus the blaring searchlight on her again. No one could ever sleep in his class.

Every subsequent class he would come in with fresh anecdotes on the people involved in the genetic discoveries of the past century. He seemed to relish gossip and made the characters as well as the scientific information come alive. And he was not above sharing off-color information or making scathing remarks about the credit taken by early scientists for work done by their almost slave-like female assistants.

Despite the way last semester had ended, this one was turning out to be exciting. That day in December when she had left McDonalds to trudge back to the Department had been a very low point. When she got back to the Department she told Dr. Gates what had happened with her Quantitative Genetics grade. She was very honest about her feelings regarding Dr. Carothers’ grading policy.

Without actually criticizing a fellow professor, Maddie got the distinct impression that Dr. Gates agreed with her. He said, however, that there was very little she could do about it except to move on. He simply advised her to take a carefully considered class load next semester that would enable her to pull her grades up. She was grateful that he was not making a big deal out of it.

What had happened to Jimmy had motivated Maddie to finally attend a Black Caucus meeting. This was a group made up of graduate students. She wanted to understand better what the prevailing situation was for incoming minority students. African Americans made up only two percent of the UW student population. A Black student going into any field of study was liable to be breaking new ground, and in the classroom, they were almost guaranteed to be a lonely black face in a sea of white faces.

She walked up Bascom Hill and down to the Student Union for an evening meeting and entered hesitantly through the door of a conference room on the second floor. There were already a number of students in the room and more were drifting in. She took an empty seat around the enormous conference table and waited for the proceedings to begin.

“Shit! You gotta be kidding me!” The hushed conversation of the group to her right drifted over. Three women had their heads together. Maddie had to listen in spite of herself.

“Girl, I’m telling you. I saw them walking down State Street just the other day. White bread all over his arm.”

The third voice was dejected, “Dagh! Why Black women always have to be on the losing end of the stick?”

“Well, if you ask me, he was always a little too good for the sisters, you know what I’m saying.”

“Uh-hum,” this time all the voices agreed.

“Stuck up on himself, you know? Talked fine but when it comes to real loyalty you know he’s turned his back on the race.”

At that moment a lone student drifted in the door and a perceptible hush seemed to come over the room. Maddie saw one of the women elbow the other and nod towards the door. The person who had entered was a tall, medium brown young man, with glasses. He had a sort of academic look. He greeted some of the guys; their response was subdued.

Immediately, there entered another male, who came up and greeted him warmly, with a soulful handshake and slap on the back. Maddie was startled to recognize the latest arrival as an old high school friend. Actually, Craig Berry had been more than a friend. He had taken her to the senior prom and was the closest she had ever come to having a boyfriend in high school.

Maddie had lost track of him, though, when he’d gone off to Yale for a physics degree. He was now calling the meeting to order. Apparently, he was the president.

“…and since we have a couple of new faces this semester, I’ll have us go around the room and introduce ourselves, tell what Department you’re in. But first, let me congratulate my main man Mon-ti-gew here,” he enunciated the syllables, “who just took the plunge this Christmas, yes sir, bit the bullet, and got himself married! Let’s congratulate the man!”

There was a general “Here, here” around the room, but Maddie was actually embarrassed by some of the lukewarm reactions. The three women to her right had downright frosty expressions, even though they mouthed the words.

Craig let them proceed with the other introductions, but before she could mention her own name he seemed to notice her for the first time and blurted out her name.

“Maddie Hawkins! Is that you? I’ll be!”

“Hey, Craig,” she smiled. The old friendship was still there.

The introductions continued with the three women Maddie had overheard. Teandra Jefferson, a sultry beauty with a patrician little nose, stood out in Maddie’s memory. Her eyes had fixed on Maddie with a curious up and down look.

After introductions, Craig put forward a grueling agenda, which he steered the group through. It included minority recruitment and retention efforts, and the summer youth study program, which took high school students through an orientation that helped inner city youth make a bridge to the high-speed academic environment at the university.

“Okay now, the next item on the agenda…we have a young brother here who is experiencing some difficulties in class. What’s your name?” He focused on an athletic looking young man sitting across from Maddie.

“Darrow…Cummings.”

“All right, Darrow. You want to tell us your story?”

“Well, I don’t know if you can do anything about this, but I got this teacher who gave me a C on the exam, and I looked at this friend of mine’s paper. He got the exact same answers, you know, but he got a B.”

“Okay. First of all, is your buddy white?” Craig asked.

“Yes.”

“And this exam, was it True or False, essay, what? What class is this?”

“It’s engineering dynamics. And the test is mostly problems, you know?”

“I see…” Craig held his chin in his hand, pensive. “What I’m trying to determine is, were there any subjective reasons for the grade difference?”

Monty spoke up at this point, “Craig, I can take a look at the exams. Do you have copies?” he asked the young man.

“Yeah, they’re right here.”

“Okay, thanks Monty,” Craig said, then looking at Darrow again. “Do you have any reason to believe this man is racist?”

“No, man. As a matter of fact he’s kind of crazy. Like, every time I walk into class he makes a big fuss over me. Asks me how the team did over the weekend, what the score was. I told him I wasn’t on any team, but he keeps doing it anyway.”

There was some scoffing around the table and some murmurs of “Been there.” Craig directed his eyes to another graduate student.

“Tyrone? You got a take on this?”

“Yeah, man. This is the sincerest form of racism. This teacher thinks the brother here is nothing but a jock. So he doesn’t think he needs anything more than a passing grade. And that’s all he’s gonna give him.”

Nods went around the table like the ripple of a telephone game. Everyone seemed to know the context now.

“Any other experiences you can think of?” Craig asked Darrow.

“Aw…well, this one time was actually kind of embarrassing. He asked the class if we knew who had left their car keys and lifted them up, like this, to show them. I said…I said I did, you know, ’cause they belonged to my buddy Keith, and that I’d take them to him ’cause I knew where he was gonna be later on in the day. He asked the class again did they know whose keys they were. So I spoke up louder because I thought he hadn’t heard me.”

He paused at this moment, swallowed, as if remembering the acute embarrassment of being invisible. “The man then said he’d have the keys in his office if anyone was looking for them…I thought, dagh, what’s he think I’m gonna do, break into the car?”

Darrow’s smile faded. Maddie sensed an open wound there, and saw his confidence being eroded.

Someone spoke from the other end of the table. “Wait, man. There’s another way of looking at this. If one of my students left his keys I wouldn’t be giving it out to anyone either. So…you know, I’m not sure you could say that’s ‘cause of discrimination.”

Darrow looked like he was considering it. “Yeah, okay. I see what you’re saying. But I don’t know. It was like, the way he did it. You know what I’m saying? He acted like I wasn’t even there. Like I…I was a fly or something.”

Maddie thought of Jimmy, and wondered how many of these experiences he’d had. This young man seemed barely aware of the whole picture. He had only a slight intuition of the mind games he was up against with this professor. Had Jimmy been similarly unable to verbalize what was happening to him?

“I think he’s got a case,” Monty said across the table to Craig, after a cursory look at the exams. The consultation then proceeded along the lines of what steps to take in order to assist Darrow with his situation. Monty and another largish woman by the name of Josette McKendrick volunteered to accompany Darrow on an interview with his professor and with the department head, if necessary.

Proceeding with the agenda, Craig said, “I just got a call from Bessie Doris the other day. She tells me she’s got a long list of kids asking for tutors and not enough people to do the job. Now c’mon folks, everybody here should be tutoring somebody. Talk to your friends, get everybody you can involved.”

“Excuse me, Craig,” a man down at the other end spoke up. “A lot of the brothers and the sisters are busy trying to survive themselves. So, what I’m saying is, no pressure, okay!”

“Yoh! Whatever happened to let’s give a little back to the community?” someone piped in.

“It’s tough, you know! Not everybody can hack it.” The first speaker raised his hands in protest.

Craig was conciliatory. “Hey, no matter how hard it is for us graduate students, at least we made it through our undergrads, man. Now we’ve got to ensure that others make it too. We can’t afford to lose a single one of these kids!”

Craig’s passionate appeal held everyone’s attention, but looking at him, Maddie couldn’t imagine what subject could have been hard for him. In high school he was always at the top of the class. He’d been the valedictorian at Evanston High.

Picking up on Craig’s thread, Josette McKendrick spoke up. “If we think it’s hard to give back now, then we’ll never do it. I remember my parents working in the church, in the N.A.A.C.P., all of my life, from when I was that high,” she held out a hand. “Black people always have to be involved in more than just themselves. There’s no escaping it. It’s just part of being Black.”

The first guy wasn’t ready to concede his point. “Well, what I’m saying is, it’s just squeezing blood out of a turnip. The pool we’re tapping into is already really small and more pressure to some people is just gonna be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

“Excuse me,” Maddie spoke up tentatively, since it was her first time, “I was thinking that…well, that this problem could be solved by tapping into the wider community to get our tutors.”

“What do you mean, ‘the wider community?'” Teandra asked suspiciously.

“Well, I mean why can’t we get some of our white friends involved in the minority tutoring?”

There was a clearly perceptible pause. Then, there were murmurs. “Good luck!” “Yeah, right!” and something about “take care of our own.” Craig brought things back to order by saying simply, “Okay, well, that’s a good idea. Let’s work on that.”

He went on to the next item on the agenda and Maddie was left to digest what had just taken place. Had she said something that was politically incorrect? Was her suggestion so outlandish? How come nobody wanted to go there? It was like they had shut their ears when she had said that.

She noticed one or two looks in her direction and began to feel self-conscious; as if she were being weighed in a balance. Was she Black enough? She knew the black community was very strict in its expectations of uniformity. Anyone venturing outside of the comfort zone of black thinking was suspect. There was a price to non-conformity.

Craig moved on with the agenda, “Okay, now let’s talk about the job fair that’s coming up. Teandra, did you have some updates on the corporate sponsors?”

When the meeting ended Maddie took a deep breath. She was feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues faced by the Caucus. She was also feeling a bit guilty for not having looked into it sooner. But she wondered how she was going to be able to take on any more responsibility than she already had.

“Maddie!” Craig called her as people were slowly dispersing. They gave each other a big hug. “Oh, Maddie. Baby, just look at you!”

“How’ve you been, Craig? Man, this is a surprise, I thought you’d gone off to Europe or the moon or something.”

“Well, you’re not far off,” he replied, laughing. “I did go to Europe for a bit. You know my mom wouldn’t let me get off on that one. And I am majoring in, guess what? Astrophysics!! But that’s enough about me, what are you doing here?” he asked. He wasn’t satisfied until Maddie had rattled off her history since high school.

They were interrupted by a shy voice. “Take care, Craig.” Maddie looked up to see Monty.

“Maddie, this is Monty,” Craig introduced.

“Congratulations, Monty, on your marriage,” she said. The expression on his face was shy, but genuinely grateful. Maddie felt impelled to continue.

“Is your wife a graduate student, too?”

“No, she’s looking for a job. She was a schoolteacher in Boston. We’re hoping she can get something around here, but its not easy.”

“Well, good luck with that.”

“All right, thanks. Nice meeting you, Maddie. Craig, I’ll let you know what the Dean says about that proposal.” They shook hands and then Craig turned his whole attention on Maddie.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, I don’t know Craig, it’s late,” she teased.

“Late? Late? Damn right it’s late. Six years late.” He looked at his watch and then pleaded, “It’s only ten-thirty. C’mon, Maddie, for old times sake. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

Maddie relented, as she knew she would from the outset, and they agreed to walk down to the Ovens of Brittany for some desert. Craig seemed to remember Maddie’s penchant for gourmet fare and used it against her.

As they walked out of the room, Maddie had an uncomfortable feeling that someone was staring at her back. She glanced behind quickly, and met Teandra’s dark eyes.


Hey! I’m really interested in your comments.*  Please join this global bookclub discussion by leaving a comment below (in the comments box)

QUESTION 15: What does it mean to be “black enough” or “not black enough?”

*(feel free to post your own question for group discussion)

*(you can also post your comment on facebook and start your own discussion with friends)

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I’LL POST SOME MORE OF “THE HARVEST OF REASON” TOMORROW. IF YOU CAN’T WAIT THAT LONG TO FIND OUT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN YOU CAN   Buy it here

About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, chastity, college students, equality, female professors, genetic engineering, genetics, global discussion, graduate school, interracial marriage, John Pitts, Maddie Hawkins, national discussion, plant breeding, race on campus, Uncategorized, University of Wisconsin-Madison, women in science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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