Campbell on Race

Nov. 2, 2010, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford professor James Campbell discusses the events that led to his interest in African-American race relations

Campbell on Race
Courtesy of James Campbell

With his comfortable ebony pullover and his silver hair, James Campbell Ph.D. ’89 looks the part of a typical modern academic. Turns out he transcends the ordinary professor–he is one of Stanford University’s gems.

“Jim’s a chill dude,” said Lantana resident Lauren Gokey ’13.

“He’s really friendly, inviting and relatable,” Helena Cross ’13 said.

In addition to serving with his wife as a Lantana resident fellow, Campbell–director of the Research Institute for Comparative Studies and Race and Ethnicity, co-chair of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) committee, history professor and family man–has had a long career of research and teaching that has taken him far and wide, from his humble roots in Morrison, Ill., to Yale, Stanford, South Africa and back to the Farm again.

Campbell commented on the fact that he developed a passion for African-American race relations despite growing up in a small town in the Midwest with a sparse African-American population.

“I often pondered that myself,” Campbell said, describing two primary influences. The first, he said, was growing up in the 1960s.

“Issues of race entered my consciousness through television, mostly,” he said, recalling the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots of them ’60s.

Campbell recalled landing in Detroit in the winter of 1960 and seeing the physical damage that resulted from the social conflict.

“I still have an image in my mind of seeing square miles of city blocks that had been burned out,” he said.

Challenges of the civil rights movement and inquiries about what it means to be an American became part of Campbell’s consciousness despite his growing up in what he described as a rural, “white world.” Issues of race became part of his identity.

Campbell recalls discovering an interest in race relations as a child when he went to a local bookstore that had a display table with books about race and African-American history.

“I remember reading ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ when I was 10 or 12,” he said. “A lot of the books I use in my classes now, I read as a kid.”

Campbell began to see African-American history as essential to the discussion of what it means to be American. He saw the stories of African-Americans as part of the culture and history of every American.

Although Campbell studied history at Yale as an undergraduate, he didn’t specialize in African-American history until he was a graduate student at Stanford.

“Coming out of the 1970s, African-American history and the study of slavery was really one of the most exciting fields in U.S. history,” he said.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME Church, which established missions in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became the subject of Campbell’s dissertation and first book. Campbell made his first trip to South Africa doing research on the topic.

He described living in South Africa as “transforming.”

“For one thing, I met my wife there,” he said. “She was, at the time, also doing a graduate degree in South African history. But also, it was an extraordinarily dynamic and challenging time.”

In particular, the end of apartheid and the South African government’s self-declared state of emergency left an impression on Campbell.

There was a fair amount of violence, he said, but also a lot of hope that this “crusty, reactionary racial regime was cracking….it was a time where history felt relevant.”

While in South Africa, Campbell developed a deeper awareness of political power and race. When he came back to the United States, he found that his experience in South Africa conditioned him to look at the United States differently.

“South Africa offers a very stark example of the ways in which political power is deployed to establish and perpetuate racial advantage,” he said. “And I think much the same thing is true in the United States; but for a variety of reasons it is much harder for us to see.”

“In a way South Africa is a sort of Braille version of a racialized economy, a version that even the blind can see,” he added.

In the classroom, Campbell uses South Africa as a case study to help students better understand United States history, the economy and the United States’ relations with the rest of the world.

After Campbell finished his doctorate in 1989, he taught at Northwestern, Brown and Wits University in Johannesburg. Two years ago, he got an offer to come back to the Farm, which he said he was delighted to accept. Campbell said he embraced the fact that he “teaches in a department where the people who are now my colleagues were the people who 20 years ago were my teachers.”

Beyond the classroom, Campbell contributes to University life in other ways. This year, he and his wife took positions as resident fellows in Lantana. Like many other Stanford parents, Campbell and his wife recently became empty nesters.

“The youngest of our three children went off to school,” he said, “and we filled the empty nest with 108 Stanford students.”

Although Campbell has devoted much of his life to his passion for race relations and African-American studies, his role as a resident fellow reflects an outside interest in promoting the well-being of his students.

“It’s funny when you’re a professor how much you don’t know about what’s actually going on in your university,” he said. “It’s interesting to see at least one more facet about what Stanford students’ lives are like.”

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