"Jeffrey B. Perry: Freethinker, Historian, Educator" by Karen F. Mranarevic in "Pascack Valley Community Life" (Westood, NJ), February 4, 2009 at HERE
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
It takes a lot of guts to challenge outdated, institutionalized modes of thinking, to hold a magnifying glass to the American past, and question how its events are recorded and interpreted. Jeff Perry, of Westwood, is a man who is unafraid of shaking things up, and he has made it the focus of his professional career to clear away the cobwebs that occlude the truth about the history of race relations in our country. His eventual objective is to convince the great minds of the future that things can and will change in America. But first we must acknowledge our weaknesses, and identify the ills we have committed, lest we be doomed to repeat them.
In November, Columbia University Press published the first volume of Perry's two-volume biography of Hubert Harrison, a black orator, writer, and activist whom Perry calls one of the most important 20th century thinkers in race and class in America. Harrison has been largely forgotten since his death in 1927 in part because he was ahead of his time. The book, "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918," is the culmination of decades of research, traveling, blood, sweat and tears. Perry says, "It is meant to be a tool and a weapon" in the study of race and class and social reform. Below, Perry discusses where he is coming from, the origins of his passion, and what he hopes to accomplish.
How long have you lived in Westwood?
Since 1990. But I grew up in Paramus.
What is your profession?
Iconoclast and activist:
I worked as a journalist at "The Record" for a while... My job title was "wire room boy," but I had problems when [the wire] came in and said "Black Rhodesian terrorists," and I would change it to, "Zimbabwe Liberation fighters." "I started working at the Post Office in 1974 in Jersey City. I wound up being a postal worker for 33 years. I was selected the head of the union for that facility for a while. We had strikes against the Post Office in 1978 - you're not allowed to strike against the Post Office in this country - and several hundred people were fired.
Graduayed Paramus High School in 1964. Graduated from Princeton University in 1968. Went to Harvard Graduate School of Education, and withdrew because we were studying education at the time, and the Coleman Report of the 1960s seemed very clearly to suggest to me that test scores and attitudinal values were significantly determined by socioe-conomic factors. So I left graduate school and traveled throughout the Americas. That experience helped to open my eyes, exposed me to a lot more of the world... I went back to Rutgers in the mid-'70s and got a Masters in labor studies. When I finished that, I went to Columbia University and I got a Masters in philosophy in American history and then a Ph.D. in American history. And along the way I became influenced by Theodore W. Allen - one . of the most important writers on class and race in America.
Did you always want to be a historian/writer?
Well, no. When I was growing up it was the high period for athletics in Paramus. We won county and state championships in just about every sport. And my world kind of revolved around that. That's how I got to go to school. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and ended up going to Princeton - I was recruited. At Princeton I started going through a lot of changes. I had been brought up and was pretty devoutly Catholic and learning theory and psychology courses caused me to rethink a lot of that. To go back to Karl Marx - the criticism of religion was the foundation of all criticism because the religious view is a worldview.
What motivates you to do what you do?
For the last 40 years, wherever I was living, it was interracial, in that there were people of color involved. And when you have normal contact you learn a lot. I did learn a lot through my personal experiences, through my writing. And what I became convinced me of is the following: in the United States, white supremacy is central to capitalist rule. It's the principal retardant to significant social change - that's what those "red states" were about. People don't want to hear that oftentimes in Bergen County, but that's what it's about. And significant social change can be effected if we challenge white supremacy in the context of making a better society. That's what my writing's about, and Harrison, of course, foresaw that. When I study education it points to this. When I work in the labor movement I see it. I have the antennas up and I know what I am seeing.
What historical figure do you most admire and why?
I like Hubert Harrison -- he was not perfect. In the biography I consciously try and portray him, warts and all, because I think that's how we learn. But he seems to me, as I understand him, to be a very nice human being, and his concerns were concerns that I have. And also Theodore W. Allen. The people I write about, I do because I think they said very important things, but I also like them as people.
If you could choose an era to have lived during, what era would it be?
I like when I live. I grew up in the '60s - a very exciting period. And I would like to see certain aspects of that period alive again. There was a lot of good spirit. When the civil rights movement was very active, you would go to meetings and people would have generally a very positive collective spirit - and it's that spirit of people pitching and trying to make a better world - and there was an openness to ideas and music and art.
What would you say is your greatest professional achievement?
I'm working on my greatest achievement, which is making the writings of Harrison and Theodore W. Allen available on a much wider basis. And that's what I hope to do if I stay healthy for another 25 or 30 more years.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of the growing interest in Hubert Harrison. There's a younger generation of scholars who are now picking up on this.
What scares you?
That the powers that be will somehow remain ascendant and keep people throughout the world, and including people in this country, suffering and largely ignorant, at war needlessly with one another for reasons of profit and greed. And I don't hold Obama as any God or anything - we all put our pants on one leg at a time - but I do fear that something will happen to him, because in this country we do have a history of talented black leaders being removed.
What makes you laugh?
People make me laugh. I genuinely enjoy people. And I often laugh at when we hold up some of the things we do to a second look with a sense of humor. I often laugh just when greeted by people who are pleasant and welcoming and smiling. I will sometimes laugh by myself, but I enjoy sharing with others. Sometimes it's that intuitive spark that makes me laugh and the enjoyment of the intuitive experience.
What are your plans for the future?
For the immediate future, I am speaking and writing on Harrison. I will finish the second volume of the biography and try to get his writings up online at Columbia, and share what I can about him. I would also like to be more active in broader social issues. For more information about Jeff Perry visit www.jeffreybperry.net.