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The Shedding of Masks, 1968

In one of Ken's journal entries of 1968, he writes of an experience that became a very real turning point in his life, one which would effect his interrelationships with students and colleagues in the years ahead. It was the beginning of what he refers to as a shedding of "masks." The experience occurred during Ken's tenure at Mississippi State, while teaching a course on the sociology of small groups.

THE SHEDDING OF MASKS BEGINS (1968)

It [the course] was for a group of school teachers who were being brought in for one year under a grant somebody in education had swung from the federal government.

The group would be bi-racial . . .

Twenty students showed up for the first day of the class, ten black, ten white, mostly in their thirties. All the whites on one side of the room, blacks on the other. About evenly divided by sex. They all had copies of Cartwright and Zander's Group Dynamics, the big dry reader out of experimental social psychology I had been using as a text since taking Cartwright's course myself at Michigan. They seemed to look sincere about being there, ready to lap it up. That was fine with me. I was ready to lay it out. So I introduced the course and launched into a lecture on the history of science, and they all wrote it down furiously. By the time I got to the part about how the study of small groups can really tell us the story, they looked about as exhausted and bored as most groups asked to receive a wagon bed of shit on the first day out. After class a few stayed around to chat with me about things I had said; I was anxious to get back to my office.

[The next day,] The students were ready again. Pencils poised. Books in laps. Smiles. Ready. The bell rang, and I moved off the desk in the corner where I had been sitting, smoking, to the lectern in the middle. I opened the folder, found my blue mark where I had stopped before and looked up. Panicked for a moment then plunged right in. "Okay then." My pause was okay for a few seconds, then people began to shift in their seats. A few more seconds . . . "There's something I want to ask you," I heard myself saying. Precise, clear, good volume; but I was completely without knowledge of what I would ask and frightened by the possibility that I could not produce a credible question. Pause. "Uh." Pause. "Why is it, that all the people on that side," I waved more vigorously than I should have, "are black, and all the people on that side," I waved the other way, "are white?"

I was horrified though blankly curious from the outside, according to the not-so-secret watcher within me. Everybody seemed to shift and cough in unison. I was completely alert and able now. I was exhilarated. I have never before asked such a personal question of a class. But immediately I was afraid I had pushed too hard.

"Wanna talk about that?" I asked, very meekly, still blank.

The fattest black woman in the class dropped her pen and leaned forward to get it. The group began to differentiate before me. I saw faces, a few eyes. One glaring, hurt. One scared. One grinning. I saw flesh moving beneath skin and forearms above rough hands, soft, long hands. I saw the inside of a black palm, shadings and wrinkles distant, foreign to me, though I had been around, as they say, colored people all my life. I saw sweat. Above their heads, I saw a great mass of curving intertwining lines, like string or wire, each covered with haze, the hazes overlapped, with colors, red, blue, orange, piercing through the haze in sheets. Thoughts, feelings, life, there all the time. Never noticed that before. I wanted to rush around the room embracing everyone. But no one spoke.

After a while, Charles Morten, a powerful looking, very gentle black man from Lake Village, who later came to tell me he was an alcoholic and to share with me the feelings of pain he had had in mostly white AA groups, spoke, softly, but commandingly.

"It's a shame," he said.

 

    Immediately the room was full of talk.

    "It just happened, it doesn't mean anything."

    "That's what you think. It means pu-lenty."

    "I just sat by someone I know."

      "Let's all move around, maybe we could number off. What do you think?"

    "Yeah, you tell us. You're the professor."


 I didn't say anything. Everybody looked at me. I didn't know anything else to say, so after awhile I said, "Let's get acquainted." I walked to the closest person, put out my hand, looked her as directly in the eyes as I could and said, "I'm Ken Wilkinson, and I'd like to know you."

 She was startled, but after a few seconds, she stood and said, "I'm Mille Carpenter." I caught her eyes just as she stopped talking, and smiled. She smiled back, and sat back down.

 I moved to another and then another. Everyone was quiet, watching. Then Billie Joe Harold said, "I'd like to join you." And he started shaking hands. Then everyone was up.

 I met some twice and remembered each time. We laughed and put our hands on each other's shoulders. "Hey I know you. How ya doin, Gladys?"

 It was one hell of an hour. When it ended, we were all on the floor, black and white mixed in a circle. I stayed an hour and a half after. When there were only two, Billie Joe and me.