Professor Simon Balto: Learning African-American History Benefits All Students

Our Fall-Winter 2017-18 Ball State University Alumni Magazine includes a new department, “5 Questions,” featuring a Q & A with one of Ball State’s thought leaders. For the department’s launch, Assistant History Professor Simon Balto discussed his leadership in bringing the African-American studies minor back to Ball State, the program’s broad appeal, its relevance to current events and more.

The following “5 Questions” includes a bonus question Dr. Balto answered for our online readers.

Portrait of Simon BaltoDo you discuss current events such as the controversy over Confederate monuments in the history classes you teach?

Absolutely. One of the benefits — and, frankly, responsibilities — of teaching histories of the modern era is that it allows me to help students make their current world more intelligible. We live in an age in which so many different things are being contested politically and socially. But you can look at practically any hot-button issue right now and trace its historical lineage.

I often tell my students that I don’t really care what their politics are. I just want the politics they have to be well-informed and historically aware. People who are of college age right now are often driving the debates that roil our national politics, and it will certainly be people of that age that ultimately inherit them. Why not let the classroom be a space for them to think about these things?

Why should non-black students learn about African-American history?

My pitch to all of my students is that black history is American history. You cannot understand how the United States rose to economic preeminence without understanding the degree to which slavery allowed that rise to happen. You cannot understand the contours of American democracy without understanding how black people labored for generations to expand people’s access to the vote. You’re not just studying some “niche” aspect of U.S. history. You are deepening your understanding of your country as a whole — warts, triumphs and all.

Is there a practical benefit to having an African American Studies minor?

It’s a demonstrable fact that employers want to hire people who are knowledgeable about diversity and its role in American society. This is true across disciplines, from advertising to teaching. And it’s only going to be become more true over time, as the country continues to become more and more diverse.

What sparked your interest in history?

What got me hooked on history as a major was an introductory survey to African American history I took with Tim Tyson, who was teaching at the University of Wisconsin and is now at Duke. It was like a lightning bolt for me. When someone teaches African-American history well, I don’t know that there’s a more beautiful class a student can take. Because the core of the history is one of survival, resistance, persistence, struggle, achievement, love and, above all else, humanity.

Simon Balto joined Ball State’s history department in 2015 with a mission in mind: to bring back the University’s African-American Studies minor, which was last offered in 2010 and returned in the Fall of 2017. Read more about the returning minor and how it has been received by students and faculty.

Is there book you’ve read recently that you would recommend?

I’ve been reading a lot more fiction lately, and my two favorite novels that I’ve read recently have been Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer.” Both authors recently won MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ for their work, so I’m not exactly tilling the soil of originality by praising them. But they both resonated really deeply with me.

You have a new book coming out next year which will be the first major book-length history of racialized policing in urban America. What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching the book?

Anyone that’s studied black history for a long period of time can tell you that conflicts and tensions between black communities and police forces have been existent for a long time. Because of the explosion of publicity and protest over these issues in recent years, a lot of Americans tend to think of them as recent phenomena, but they’re not. I went into my research knowing that, but I wasn’t necessarily prepared for just how far back I was able to trace that history.

My book centers on Chicago, and begins at the end of the 1910s, when the city was first amassing a truly large black population. The core argument of my book is that much of the lineage of what we’re seeing today can be traced to that point in time. The post-World War II era then emerges as a particularly important turn in that history, where we begin to see the Chicago Police Department implementing things like stop-and-frisk, profiling, neighborhood saturation, and other policies and practices in racially specific ways. Many scholars have considered these things to be products of the 1980s War on Drugs, but what I found was that that just isn’t true.