Jason Neuenschwander said most people usually view him in one of three ways: a pleasant anamoly, an aberration, or an interloper, and that it’s not difficult to understand why.
“If you understand the politics of white people’s — and particularly white men’s — involvement in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, then you understand why there is always a level of curiosity,” Neuenschwander said.
Neuenschwander is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor in Temple’s department of African American Studies.
Some view him as a curiosity in that department because he is not African American.
Neuenschwander grew up in the “Mayberry-esque” town of Parkersburg, W.Va. His experiences living there helped spark his interest in African American studies.
“I tell people geographically it’s a nice place but culturally, it’s historically been a little oppressive,” Neuenschwander said.
“I couldn’t understand why a town that was around 90 percent white had such utter disdain and disregard for an entire group of people that a majority of the population were never in contact with.”
Neuenschwander said he grew up with a “heightened sense” of racial issues.
“I basically grew up in a house where the problems of the world — the problems of society at large — were viewed as being caused by priviledged white men,” he said.
He credits his mother with helping instill in him a “sense of justice” and with asking him not to become “part of the problem.”
Looking to get out of West Virginia, Neuenschwander came to Temple in 1988 to study the history of racial politics in America.
His original intention was to study political science, but soon discovered that the department did not offer the range of classes he was looking for.
At the same time, Temple had just set up their Ph.D. program in AAS and was receiving national attention.
Neuenschwander’s mother suggested he might find more of the type of classes he was looking for in AAS rather than in political science.
He soon became a dual major is AAS and political science.
“What I didn’t get from one I got from the other,” Neuenschwander said.
Neuenschwander began teaching AAS in 1994. He became involved in teaching AAS because he doesn’t feel the potentiality of AAS as a discipline had been met yet.
“My reasons for getting involved and my reasons for teaching African American Studies are probably almost the same as a great number of [my students’] reasons for taking the class or getting involved,” he said.
Neuenschwander quoted Arturo A. Schonburg saying: “African history is simply the missing pages of world history.”
“People cannot have a complete and total understanding of American history if they don’t know about African American history because the two are inextricably bound to one another,” Neuenschwander said.
Neuenschwander said that he thinks most of his students, black or white, find AAS not only exciting, but also painful on a number of different levels.
“Studying the history of racial oppression, while it’s enlightening, it’s also sad,” he said.
“Generally speaking, I think when a lot of students first encounter this material, while they may have heard about things like lynching, for them to see it up close is another thing. At the same time, they have also been denied this history and I think that’s equally as painful.”
Neuenschwander said that after finishing his Ph.D. he wants to continue to teach and do research.
He also hopes to contribute to keeping AAS committed to its original goals and objectives of “academic excellence and community responsibility.”
“African American Studies forces folks to not just question who they are and what they are, and where they are, but more importantly, what are they doing, where are they going,” Neuenschwander said.
“I tell my students we study the past in order to make sense out of the present so that we make a lasting, positive impact on the future.”
Carrie Tolerico can be reached at email@example.com.