For the next two months, each Wednesday we’ll profile a character from Studs Terkel’s 1992 oral history, Race. Twenty years after Studs’ book was published, we want to see how these characters' thoughts and feelings on race have changed…or not changed.
As part of our series “Race: Out Loud,” we’re asking people to read – or re-read – Studs’ book and to speak up about what feelings the book stirs up in them. We invite you to follow along and to join the discussion at www.WBEZ.org/raceoutloud.
Dr. Marvin Jackson, 47, is in Race under the pseudonym William Freeman. When Studs interviewed him for the book, Jackson was 24 years old and a second-year medical school student at UCLA.
Today Dr. Jackson lives in the Lakeview neighborhood and works as a flight surgeon for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is responsible for ensuring that air traffic controllers in the Great Lakes region are fit to perform their duties.
When he spoke with Studs for the book, Jackson described his experiences as a black student at majority-white schools like St. Ignatius College Prep and Stanford University.
He told Studs, “There’s a struggle at a white school because you feel every day you’re in an environment not geared toward your success. It would not be uncommon that I’d be the only black student in the class. You can tell among your white colleagues that they don’t really respect black students a great deal. You can see it in their eyes.”
Jackson’s relationship with Terkel began in utero. His grandmother, Lucille Dickerson (aka Lucy Jefferson) met Studs in 1964, when she was protesting the expansion of UIC into Little Italy. Studs interviewed her as well as Jackson’s mom, who was pregnant with him at the time.
(Jackson’s uncle Julian Marvin Dickerson is also included in Race.)
Jackson’s grandma helped raise him and, he says, exposed him to great works of art and literature. He told Studs, “She read more than any person I’ve ever known. She only had a grade school education but she had a book or newspaper or magazine in her hands constantly.”
One thing his grandmother constantly talked about was the progression of her life from a small town in Mississippi to the war years and how black people moved to large urban areas like Chicago in order to make more money.
“She had to carry history with her and correct history, and release me from the burden,” Jackson told Studs of his grandmother.
Jackson’s family did not have much money but his mom, uncle and grandma made big sacrifices to pay for him to attend private Catholic schools. They felt that public schools didn’t enable black kids to succeed.
At St. Ignatius – a prestigious Jesuit high school on the Near West Side [Full disclosure: I also attended St. Ignatius] – Jackson got his first exposure to the double standard he felt many black students faced.
In his connection with white society, he didn’t feel threatened but instead was taught that you never knew who was working with you and who was working against you. He believed that “White friends may indeed be white friends but for how long and in what circumstances?”
He talked of always being on guard, and always being tested to see if he was as smart or as capable as his white peers. These were hurdles he believes white students did not have to have meet. These feelings still plague him today in his work as a doctor.
Jackson’s grandma, Lucille Dickerson, died in 1984. Next Wednesday we’ll talk with Jackson’s mother, Carol Jackson, who is in Race under the pseudonym Carol Freeman.
**Rob Wildeboer contributed to this report.