Jennifer Baszile ’91 Teaches History Through Memoir
Jennifer Baszile ’91 came to Columbia with a deep interest in history and left with the intention of becoming a career historian. After graduating from the College, she received her Ph.D. from Princeton and joined the faculty at Yale. The first black woman to teach in the university’s history department, she also was an assistant professor of American and African-American studies. Despite her success, Baszile’s work made her aware of the fact that life as a professional academic could not fully satisfy her historical curiosity. “I realized that, as much as the questions I was asking were intellectual, they also were personal,” she says of her frustrations.
Baszile’s fascination with history had not diminished when, in 2007, she left her teaching position in order to devote more of her time to writing. Her decision arose from the realization that her professional and personal interests could be better explored outside of a classroom setting. “I was telling other people’s stories, but I wasn’t confronting or engaging with my own,” Baszile explains. “Writing full-time gave me the flexibility to teach in a different way.”
Two years after her departure from Yale, Baszile’s new approach to teaching history has taken the form of a memoir, The Black Girl Next Door: A Memoir (Princeton University Press, 2009). Baszile draws on her recollections of life in Southern California during the 1970s and ’80s — a period of transition, when integration had become part of America’s official legal policy, yet racial discrimination, both individual and institutionalized, persisted as a societal reality. As one of the only black children living in Palos Verdes Estates, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, Baszile was in a unique social position. From a historical standpoint, however, she stresses that, in some respects, her experience was shared with an entire generation. “The book is really about that period in American life when integration was made real by children, black and white,” she says.
In writing about her childhood, Baszile attempts to bring the integration experience, and the widespread historical phenomena that accompanied it, into clearer focus for her readers, avoiding textbook generalities and instead providing detailed examples drawn from her adolescent friendships, family trips and high school dates. She explains that an individual memoir can be a useful instructive tool because it allows readers to understand historical events from a new perspective and thus to relate to them in a new way. “I think that the power of personal history is that it creates a connection between the reader and the author’s experience,” Baszile says.
In accordance with her goal of illustrating history through individual relationships, Baszile devotes much of her memoir to describing how the combination of economic privilege and social backwardness that characterized life in Palos Verdes Estates affected her family’s experiences as well as her own. Her parents, she explains, felt an enormous burden to contribute to their daughter’s success, yet often were conflicted about how best to guide her, in part because her situation differed so much, in terms of both the struggles and the opportunities it presented, from what they had experienced while growing up. As a result, Baszile remembers getting mixed signals from her family about their expectations regarding how she should behave, including what friends she ought to have and which boys she was allowed to date. In one episode from the book, Baszile’s parents became upset with her while on a vacation cruise because she had not socialized with any black children on the ship. Baszile, who had never before been told to choose her friends based on race, was confused.
One parental message that Baszile received consistently was the necessity of academic diligence. She obeyed her family’s wishes, though she often felt stifled and exhausted by her efforts and, as a teenager, began to fantasize about moving as far as possible from her childhood home. It was this desire to experience life outside California, combined with her academic and extracurricular achievements, that led Baszile to apply to Columbia.
She remembers her time at the College as a period of profound change. “I chose the school because it was my best interview, and because I fell in love with the campus immediately,” Baszile recalls. Having gone from the claustrophobic world of Palos Verdes Estates to the enormity of Manhattan, she was determined to take full advantage of Columbia, the surrounding city and the opportunities presented by both. She was inspired by the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History Eric Foner ’63, ’69 GSAS and professor of history Barbara Fields, whose lecture course “History of the South” first made Baszile want to become a historian.
The impact of the College on Baszile’s life was so great, in fact, that she chose to conclude her memoir with her admission to the College. “My troubles with integration certainly didn’t end with Columbia,” she says, “but they shifted so radically that it felt like the right place to end the book.”
Grace Laidlaw ’11