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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Daniel Tatum family


January 10, 2002

As part of her campaign against personal clutter, Beverly Daniel Tatum's home office has no desk. The author, professor, and college administrator cradles a laptop computer in her lap as she sits cross-legged on a futon low to the ground. Next to her is a bookcase with personal journals on the bottom shelf. Above that are books and papers relating to her spiritual interests, and up high is her "work stuff."

Work these days (since Jan. 1) is a six-month stint as acting president of Mount Holyoke College while Joanne V. Creighton is on sabbatical. Tatum, a professor of psychology, became the dean in charge of student affairs at the women's college soon after her second book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race," was published by BasicBoooks in 1997.

She didn't necessarily aspire to be an administrator, but Tatum, who has devoted her career to understanding racial identity formation, saw a unique chance and she took it. "It seemed like an opportunity to put my own thinking about student development into practice," she said during an interview in her home in the Florence section of Northampton.

As parents, she and her husband, Travis, a professor of education at Westfield State College, have been putting their ideas about race and identity into practice for 20 years. While Tatum was pregnant with their first son, Jonathan, 19, she was interviewing black families in Santa Barbara, Calif., a college town that had a 2 percent black population. It was research for her dissertation, "Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community," which was recently rereleased in paperback (BasicBooks).

Since Jonathan was born, they have been working to create a home life that reflects an active response to their status as a black family living in a predominantly white neighborhood. Their second son, David, is 15.

The families she studied fell into three broad categories. In what she calls the "race-conscious" homes, parents went out of their way to embrace their blackness and their cultural heritage. "Race-neutral" families took a laissez-faire attitude toward that part of their identity and didn't talk about it much. "Race-avoidant" families shunned discussions about skin color altogether.

"One of the questions I had was what difference does it make in terms of how your children turn out," said Tatum, 47. As an expectant mother who had lived in predominantly white communities all her life, that interest was more than purely academic.

"The ones who were most well adjusted came from race-conscious families," she said.

When they moved to Western Massachusetts in 1983, the Tatums chose Northampton because it had the feel of a college town without being dominated by collegiate life as nearby Amherst is. The schools also had a better reputation than those in larger communities such as Springfield. They live three blocks from the public elementary school where they had planned to send their children, but they opted for private school so their sons wouldn't be the only blacks in their class.

They made conscious decisions to socialize with other black families, keep a rich mixture of books, music, and artwork depicting and celebrating African-American life in their home, and do things such as incorporate Kwanzaa into their holiday observances. The Tatums also joined the Martin Luther King Community Church in Springfield, where she and her children sang in the choir. They tried to make sure their children "could see themselves positively reflected in their environment," she said.

Tatum's parents still live in the Bridgewater home where she grew up. Until he retired, her father, Robert A. Daniel, was a professor at the state college there. Southerners educated in segregated schools, her parents had to struggle for access to equal opportunity.

"My children assume access," Tatum said, but she wants them to enjoy the benefits of biculturalism. "I feel comfortable in a white environment, and that has worked to my advantage, but it is important to feel comfortable in black communities as well." As a college student, she immersed herself in black culture, choosing to socialize almost exclusively with people of her own race. This was an important part of the emergence of her own racial identity.

Her family has experienced some of the "blues" she writes about in "Assimilation Blues," she said. "We never had to deal with harassment or name-calling," but social isolation has been an issue. "I think my children had to struggle with that."

The neighborhood in which she is raising them "is, in a lot of ways, very similar to the community I grew up in," said Tatum, and her childhood home was very much like the 1950s, three-bedroom ranch she lives in now.

In keeping with her desire for simplicity, Tatum, a fifth-generation professor, asks herself three questions about everything in her home: "Is it truly useful? Is it something I truly love? Does it give me positive energy?" Things that don't satisfy at least two out of those three criteria are clutter and should be gotten rid of. The "positive energy" question is often the trickiest. By that, she means that an object should affirm one of her identities. In no particular order, some of the important ones are: teacher, parent, traveler, person of faith, African-American, and member of the Daniel family.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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