A conversation with Clovis E. Semmes, Ph.D.
Did you always know you were going to be a professor?
I thought I was going to write books. My mother loved books, and she always had books around. We read a lot, and I thought about writing for a long time. Within my freshman year of college, I knew that I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a sociologist, an academic. Sociology was the way I could embrace the things in which I had an interest.
What led you to this research – African American Studies?
That also happened during that first year of college. I met people who later became very notable in the field. One was James Turner, who started the first Africana Studies program at Cornell, and John Bracey, an historian, who started the second Ph.D. program in African American Studies at University of Massachusetts. Through meeting these people and, of course while reading “Negro Digest: Black World,” I became fascinated. The summer of 1968 – when I taught my first African American History course – I read 25 books in the field to try to prepare myself. From that point on, I just began to study.
What types of students become totally immersed in African American Studies and pursue it as a career?
I have seen so many different types of students, who after approximately five years decide they will go to graduate school to pursue this. Many students want to know more; it’s just that their career trajectory may not put them in that path. However, they find a way to use the knowledge in different ways – within the context of their jobs, through volunteer work or writing about their families. They’re able to absorb what happens in the class and do a lot with it.
What made you come to UMKC?
The same thing that makes me do anything – I just felt it was right at the time. I was at the University of Illinois for 10 years and committed two or three years to Northwestern University to help to increase their minority enrollment. I went back to teaching, and somehow Eastern Michigan University kept coming up on my radar. I didn’t expect to be there for 20 years.
Then, UMKC – again it was a feeling, and the timing was right in terms of my children – they are all adults. Some things clicked in terms of possibilities for my own research. I met the people here and liked what they were trying to do.
What is your ultimate goal as it relates to your research?
I have a lot of books on the back burner. The last book took 10 years, and I don’t have that much time anymore. I want to get something out every two or three years.
What is your goal for your class this year?
I certainly want to motivate students to study for themselves. To say – “Let me just check out what he’s saying. Let me see if there’s more to it.” I want them to read on their own, to be the best, to experience the best.
Do you have a feel for what’s missing in schools today regarding teaching history or what’s been missing?
There is not enough real world history, not enough content on Africa that puts it in world history. There’s little on the Caribbean and the African American experience. It’s there during Black History Month, but little in the way of substance – the substance of the Civil Rights Movement or other social movements. People don’t know how racism works and how it has worked. There’s so much they are not exposed to at any level.
Students graduate from college, and they have little exposure to this history. You have to develop the field, present it holistically and at an early age over time. I think about what we could do at the college level if the foundation were there at the very beginning.
In your Introduction to African American Studies class, you talk about the historical imperative. What’s the value in learning Black history?
I think people can only come to the point where they can say “I get it” when they read – not only their history – but the history of other people. Then you find out how narrow our experiences have been, how narrow our education has been, and how knowledge impacts how we are able to look at and understand the world. It’s like putting together a puzzle.
When you have a puzzle before you, you don’t know what anything is, but there are a lot of little pieces. When you begin to put those pieces together – at some point – you begin to see an image.
At some point, things begin to make sense. The more pieces you put in there, the more concise, the more telling that picture becomes. That’s what studying history is about.
Is there something you would like to share?
I hope that when the Black Studies Program gets rolling, some scholars come out of it – not just traditional scholars – but those who want to use it to create it in any way they can. Kansas City is an important place for Blacks, the country and the world because of what went on here. People should recognize and acknowledge that.
Dr. Semmes – one of Eastern Michigan University’s 18th Annual Teaching Excellence honorees