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Stony Brook professor's biracial heritage has lessons for life, classroom

Stony Brook University Assistant Professor Zebulon Miletsky holds

Stony Brook University Assistant Professor Zebulon Miletsky holds a photo of his parents, Marc and Veronica Miletsky. Miletsky draws on his own biracial past to delve into conversations about race in America. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A week and a half ago, Zebulon Vance Miletsky, who will be leading a talk on African Americans and the right to vote on Feb. 27 at the Brentwood Public Library, was zipping through a PowerPoint presentation in his “Themes in the Black Experience” class at Stony Brook University.

He got to a slide with bullet points on the renowned black historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Miletsky, an assistant professor in Africana Studies and History, went off-script. He shared an anecdote with his students about the time a young Du Bois offered a white girl a valentine and she turned him down flat. Because he was black. It left a mark.

Du Bois went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard. “Childhood things shape you,” the professor added.

Miletsky, 45, speaks from experience.

Born in Berkeley, California, to a white Jewish father with family in Elmont, Long Island, and a black Episcopalian mother with deep roots in Boston, where the family would settle when Zebulon was 3, Miletsky’s blended heritage and a pale complexion that sometimes gets him mistaken as white has informed each move of his life. That means personally — he’s now married (his wife, Karla, is Latina) with two young sons and lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn — and professionally. The ever-echoing theme: That dividing line between black and white.

It’s there in his academic research on interracial marriage and biracial identity. It’s in his writing (his book, “Before Busing: Boston’s Long Freedom Movement in the ‘Cradle of Liberty,’” is due out February 2021 from University of North Carolina Press). It’s in his classes at Stony Brook, where he’s also teaching “The Black Power Movement.”

“When I walk in to teach black studies, some students aren’t sure I’m the professor,” he says. “I get it. It’s about expectations.”

It’s in his family history. “There was a lot of tension in my family about race, to put it mildly,” he says. “My dad’s family had a hard time accepting my mother as being part of their family. I don’t fault them for this. But until I came along, my father had sort of divorced from his family. I was sort of a bridge.

“My name is Zebulon, which, of course, is a Jewish name,” he continues. “Ironically — and I have a lot of ironies in my life, including that on the spectrum of blackness, I’m just a few shades from being white — I’m named after an African American man, my mother’s great uncle, Zebulon Vance Cooper.”

It’s in everyday encounters that warp into soul-bruising wake-up calls. “I’ve had many awkward situations in which people have said something racist to me because they believe I’m white,” Miletsky says.

That’s the way of the world for this man, who recalls in a TED talk how, upon his birth, his mother, Veronica, was told that her son would “have a hard time proving he’s a ‘brother.’ ” (Like Barack Obama, who is of mixed race and could have checked more than one box on the 2010 census but only filled in one, Miletsky identifies as black.)

African Americans and the Vote

And, on Thursday, the line between black and white will be among the talking points at Miletsky’s Brentwood library discussion alongside Stony Brook advanced-degree students about the history of African Americans and the vote. That’s the overarching theme of this year’s Black History Month, which is run by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Miletsky has a long association with the group and is on its board.

2020 is an election year, and the Pew Research Center estimates that there are 30 million eligible black voters. So the library talk is obviously timely. Moreover, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870, and the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

At the same time, history shows the passage of legislation doesn’t automatically equal access to the right to vote.

“It comes down to how laws or amendments are enforced,” Miletsky says. “What happens is that laws are made and passed, but there’s a long tradition of skirting around them and making it harder for people to vote.” That includes poll taxes and literacy tests, both of which historically suppressed turnout, and voter ID laws that some argue have been used to block voting. And there’s the issue of felony disenfranchisement, which some states are making moves to reform.

“What’s going on now is that people are reaching into the playbook of the past to see what worked to keep African Americans from moving forward — and not just African Americans,” Miletsky says. “In order to be effective and push back, we must look into the past to see what worked, then to counter these things.”

Panelist Mia Brett, a Ph.D. candidate in American Legal History at Stony Brook and a co-founder of the intersectional feminist think tank All Women's Progress, adds that “an underexplored aspect of voter suppression is the way in which it targets women. According to the Brennan Center of Justice, up to a third of women in strict voter-ID states don't have the proper documentation to get an ID. Domestic violence and women changing their names when they get married contribute to the lack of proper documentation.”

Panelist William Johnson Jr., a master’s candidate in Africana Studies, has theories about who he expects to win the White House race — and why. (Go to the talk to find out.) He believes that it’s essential to “understand why and how you’re voting.” Libraries, community centers and grassroots movements like knocking on doors are ways to educate voters. “Vote not on emotion but on information,” Johnson says.

In addition to how people vote, how many people vote is another factor in any election. The challenge ahead may be to make sure black turnout doesn’t continue on what’s shaping up as a downward trend since 2012, when turnout of black voters exceeded white voters for the first time, according to Pew. Then, 66.6% of eligible black voters showed up to reelect Barack Obama, America's first black president. In 2016, national turnout dropped to 59.6% black voters, according to Pew. 

Nevertheless, according to a national survey of 1,200 black voters and nonvoters conducted by Third Way (a D.C.-based think tank) and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (also based in D.C.) about “attitudes, priorities and values” whose results were published in December, a majority of black Americans are more interested in voting in the 2020 presidential election than they were in 2016. While figures and findings are derived from polls around Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit, and not Long Island, they give some context.

The survey concluded that “Black people are politically engaged ahead of the 2020 election.” There is a diversity of views. “Among all respondents, 45% are more interested in voting in 2020 than they were last time around,” the research found, “while 40% have the same interest, and 5% are less interested.” Asked what the best motivator to vote is, the top three reasons included beating President Donald Trump (40%), voting is the best way to make your voice heard (21%), and protecting hard-fought right to vote (15%).

Fighting disaffection, apathy

Miletsky has no crystal ball about the engagement of black voters in 2020 but knows that it is vital and challenging. “If we’re not careful, we may be going back to that kind of disaffected feeling and apathy about the political voting process which is a familiar feeling because African Americans spent more time feeling that than being involved,” he says.

At the Brentwood library, which has collaborated with Miletsky before, the intention is to “showcase topics relating to the African American experience, both during the celebration of Black History Month, and also throughout the year,” director Thomas Tarantowicz says. “The diversity of our programming is reflective of the diversity of our community.”

Miletsky, who is being honored by the Brookhaven NAACP on Feb. 29, sees value in local presentations like the one in Brentwood. He shrugs off long-running critiques that Black History Month comes during the shortest month and the coldest month of the year.

“There’s a reason why it’s in February,” he says. “It coincides with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.”

The purposes of Black History Month, which was begun as Negro History Week in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, were, says Miletsky, “to prove the humanity of African-Americans and to show the contributions they made in building this country. The thought was that if people could be shown the facts, that might change views. But facts don’t change hearts.

“Still, for me, it’s an uplifting, celebratory time. It’s a chance for people to experience something they might not usually get to.”

For Miletsky, who did his undergraduate work at Boston College and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at UMass Amherst, being back on Long Island is a fulfilling experience. “Growing up, Elmont was the only place I knew of where my father’s family lived and were from,” Miletsky says. “My dad [Marc], who had two sisters, spent his high school years there. I used to look forward to visiting.”

Now his career has brought him back to Long Island, following teaching positions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Case Western in Ohio. “My life came full circle and tied up with a bow,” he says.

Back in his “Themes in the Black Experience” class, a discussion arose about presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, owning slaves. “Abraham Lincoln had slaves, too,” a student asserted. “I heard that. He had to have had them. Everyone else did.”

Miletsky listened, intrigued. “Lincoln is a complicated figure, one who is totally worth asking questions about.” He added that he’d never read that Lincoln personally owned slaves. To back up his argument, the student would need to do research to find the evidence. Miletsky put it in popular parlance: “Show me the receipts.”

That request got a few laughs. But the professor meant it. Facts, just like votes, matter. Every one of them.

AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE VOTE

Assistant Professor Zebulon Miletsky will be leading a panel discussion on the history of African Americans and the right to vote, 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Brentwood Library, 34 Second Ave.; free, register; 631-273-7883, brentwoodnylibrary.org.

What's your black history IQ?

On his visits to classes to speak about African American history, Zebulon Vance Miletsky, an assistant professor in Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University, likes to start with a quiz. See how many you can answer correctly in this shortened version of his true-or-false quiz.

  1. Slavery existed in the New England colonies for more than 150 years.
  2. Some of the Africans who eventually became slaves were sold into slavery by other Africans.
  3. The first war in which African Americans were allowed to fight was World War II, in which they distinguished themselves with bravery and valor.
  4. In one of the most imaginative methods of escape from slavery, Henry Brown mailed himself to freedom from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia in 1856.
  5. Black History Month was started originally as "Negro History Week" in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson.
  6. Africans bound for slavery on the Spanish ship Amistad revolted and gained control of the vessel, then sailed to their eventual freedom in 1839.
  7. To explain what caused slaves to run away, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a leading physician of his time, discovered a new disease, "Drapetomania, or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away."
  8. Some of America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington included, were themselves slave owners.
  9. All of the Africans brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 were not brought as slaves, but as servants along with several whites who occupied the same status.
  10. By the nineteenth century, 38 states had miscegenation laws, or laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

(Answers: 1-True; 2-True; 3-False – African Americans also fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; 4-True; 5-True; 6-True; 7-True; 8-True; 9-True; 10-True.)

Source: Zebulon Miletsky

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