Photo by Andrew Campbell
In many ways it's not surprising that 21-year-old Michael Chanin would find his home in the African American studies program.
"I was always fascinated by genealogy, people's history, where they come from and the stories behind it," says Chanin, a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in American studies and history and minoring in African American studies.
While he was a high school student at the Stratford Academy college preparatory school in Macon, Ga., Chanin won first place in the school's reporter-at-large essay contest for an essay on Benny Allan Scott, the first African American locomotive engineer for the Southern Railway System. (The essay, "Making a Difference," was published in the summer 2002 Stratford Magazine.)
"Every Thursday night for a couple of months, I'd go and have dinner with him," Chanin recalls in an interview at the Unicorn Café in downtown Evanston. "Not to downplay the importance of his being the first black engineer, but I found so many other fascinating things he had done — marching with Medgar Evers ... and integrating restaurants in Macon."
Scott talked with Chanin about how trains played an important role in his life — first delivering him to Macon from the fields of Berner, Ga., as a 5-year-old child, then later educating him about the way of Jim Crow when Scott returned home after World War II.
Chanin says the Scott story, along with other events in his life, helped to shape his academic focus: "What is it that has created this lack of integration of African Americans in some of the rural communities where I grew up?"
Being one of a few Jewish students at Stratford helped Chanin to relate to what it feels like to be different from the majority culture, he says. In addition, his parents "really pushed the idea that it's important to meet other people and have other experiences."
Acknowledging that "it seems like a simplistic question," Chanin says, "I really don't understand why inequality exists and I don't understand why people treat other people differently."
Chanin says the African American studies program has helped him begin to address his initial question while at the same time sparking his curiosity in ways he hadn't anticipated.
"I came into the program focused solely on race, and what I realized is that it's much more complex than that," Chanin says. "The fact that it deals with racial issues is really just the starting point."
It's one thing for a university to tout diversity, but "you've got to back it up," Chanin says. He thinks the University's commitment to African American studies and related programming is a way of doing that.
Most of Chanin's African American studies classes are racially balanced or have a majority of African Americans. "I think it's important that we all bring our experiences to the table," he says. "When you talk about racial dynamics or when one brings up ideas of discrimination or redlining, it's a lot more real."
Students in class may refer to how they felt when being called a racial slur, while other students may talk about hearing racial slurs made about others in their presence, Chanin says. "We learn from each other." — C.L.