Allen, Robert L. 1942–
Robert L. Allen 1942–
Educator, author, editor, activist
Sometimes a person cannot be defined in customary terms. This is the case with the many words that might be used to identify Robert Lee Allen. None fully describe who he is or what he has chosen to do with his life. He is a distinguished teacher, author, and editor. He has taken part in protests against segregation and worked selflessly on behalf of the civil rights movement. In truth, however, it is the union of all these talents that best defines Allen and what he has accomplished. He has combined his many talents and has worked toward fulfilling the social obligation that individuals owe to their communities, and which so few people succeed in performing.
Robert Lee Allen was born on May 29, 1942, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, also Robert Allen, was a mechanic, and his mother, Sadie (Sims) Allen, was a teacher. Education was important in the Allen home and young Robert and his three sisters were encouraged to do well in school and to set high goals for achievement. This was often difficult for the Allen family however, for when Robert was a child Atlanta was still heavily segregated. The Jim Crow laws restricted black Americans from many types of employment, most available housing, many public and private buildings, public transportation, and even from medical care. But one of the harshest aspects of the Jim Crow segregation laws was the excuse they often provided for racially motivated violence. Even with the danger that this atmosphere presented, Allen has maintained that he knew his neighbors, and that as a small child he felt safe. In an interview with Contemprary Black Biography (CBB), Allen stated that “although discriminated against, segregated, and exploited, the black community was a warm and protective environment for a small child.”
This feeling of safety changed as Allen grew older, and by the time he was a teenager, he understood only too well the dangers that he faced being a young black man. Allen told CBB that the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 15-year-old black youth who was brutalized and lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, “made an indelible impression on me.” Allen recalled, “I remember looking at a picture of his disfigured face
At a Glance…
Born on May 29, 1942, in Atlanta, Georgia; married; first wife, Pamela Parker (divorced); second wife, Janet Carter; children: (first marriage) Casey Douglass Allen. Education: University of Vienna, 1961-1962; Morehouse College, B.S., 1963; Columbia University, graduate study, 1963; New School For Social Research, M.A., 1976; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D., 1983.
Career: San Jose State University, asst. prof., New College and Afro-American Studies Dept., 1969-72; Mills College, Oakland, CA, lecturer (part-time), Ethnic Studies Dept, 1973-82, head, Ethnic Studies Dept, 1981-84; Colorado College, Colorado Springs, visiting prof. of sociology, 1983; University of California at Berkeley, visiting asst. prof. in African American studies and ethnic studies, 1993-. Various editorial posts (now senior editor) with Black Scholar, 1972- Author of works including: Black Awakening in Capitalist America, 1969; The Port Chicago Disaster and Its Aftermath, 1983; and Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas vs. Hill, 1992.
Memberships: Numerous memberships, including board member and volunteer, Oakland Men’s Project, 1986-96; advisory board, Family Violence Prevention Fund, 1998-; advisory board, San Francisco Writers’ Corps, 1999-; member, advisory comm., African American Faculty Oral History Project, UC Berkeley, 2002-.
Awards: Numerous awards and fellowships, including Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1963; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1977; Emmy Award (Northern California) for Port Chicago Mutiny television documentary, 1991; American Book Award for Brotherman, 1995.
Address: Home —1034 Vallejo Street, San Francisco, CA 94133.
in Jet magazine and realizing that he was only a couple of years older than me.” The Till murder shook the country and helped to create a new wave of demands for racial equality and an end to such violence. By the time he entered college, Allen was ready to step forward and join the growing movement demanding civil rights for all African Americans.
In 1958 Allen enrolled in Morehouse College. He spent a year abroad at the University of Vienna, but soon returned to Atlanta, and in 1963 he earned a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College. While at Morehouse Allen became involved in the fledgling civil rights movement. He was one of thousands of young men and women who took an active part in demonstrations on college campuses. But for Allen, these protests were not just a momentary college diversion. Instead, they sparked a lifelong interest in learning about the social problems, especially racism, that defined American society in the middle of the twentieth century. After graduating from Morehouse, Allen began graduate work at Columbia University in New York City. In time he found himself at the New School for Social Research, also in New York City. With its emphasis on education in the social sciences as one way to create equality and peace, the graduate program at the New School proved especially attractive to Allen, who completed a master’s degree in sociology in 1967. During this same period, Allen became a part of the anti-Vietnam War protests that were beginning to erupt across the nation. Allen told CBB that he saw the war as “unjust and racist.” Significant numbers of young African-American males were being drafted and were subsequently dying in Vietnam in numbers that far exceeded the percentage of black males in the American population. For Allen, knowledge of the war’s racism marked another movement in his growth as a social activist.
After completing his master’s degree, Allen moved to California where he began teaching and published his first book, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, a study of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, in 1969. The year that his book was published, Allen was invited to teach at San Jose State College in California, where he became an assistant professor in the New College and Afro-American Studies Department until 1972. The following year he began teaching ethnic studies at Mills College in Oakland, California, as a part-time lecturer. In 1974 he published his second book, Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements, an examination of the impact that racism has had on various social movements in the United States. By 1981 Allen had become the head of the department of ethnic studies at Mills College and around this time he began pursuing a doctorate at the University of California at San Francisco. In 1983 he was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology and his dissertation, The Port Chicago Disaster and Its Aftermath: A Study of Collective Stress, would eventually become his third published book.
With The Port Chicago Mutiny, Allen achieved more than career success; he achieved a notoriety not often afforded in the field of academic publishing. The events at Port Chicago, California, in 1944 involved an explosion of munitions that destroyed two cargo ships, a pier and most of the naval ammunition depot, and killed 320 men, of which 202 were black sailors assigned to load ammunition. Because of critically unsafe working conditions, black sailors refused to continue loading ammunition and were subsequently charged with mutiny. Allen’s book was meticulously researched and contained valuable historical interviews with some of the survivors of the event. Allen’s book generated extensive news coverage. An Emmy award-winning documentary based on the book was produced for KRON-TV, a San Francisco, California, NBC affiliate. And the book also spawned a fictional television movie for the NBC Network and a second documentary for The Learning Channel. As a result of Allen’s work, other social activists were inspired to try and correct the injustices of these events. More than 50 years after the Port Chicago events, some of the surviving men were honored by a group of California State Assemblymen during Black History Month in February of 1998. Their story also caused President Bill Clinton to issue a pardon for one of the men involved. Allen told CBB that the Port Chicago disaster “is of historical significance as a major example of the struggle against racism in the Navy.” Because of Allen’s efforts, this disaster and the injustice that resulted have led to an increased awareness of the racism that black Navy servicemen were forced to endure even as they came to their country’s defense during a time of war.
Allen left Mills College in 1984 to go on a lecture circuit and to focus on other aspects of his life, but he continued to serve as an editor for the Black Scholar, a journal that focuses on black studies and research. A member of the Black Scholar’s editorial staff since 1972, he served in several capacities for the journal, working his way up to senior editor by the late eighties. Allen’s influence over the years on the journal’s content was evident in the push towards more stories on the issues of sexism and racism in American society. Allen also promoted the journal as a source of history and perspective on these issues for the general public. One example of this came during the fall of 1991, when millions of Americans were transfixed by the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The following year, in his function as senior editor of The Black Scholar, Allen coedited and published, with the journal’s editor-in-chief, a number of essays on the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill ordeal by various historians and African American scholars. These essays were later compiled and published as Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas vs. Hill, in 1992.
1993 saw Allen return to teaching as a visiting assistant professor in African American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. During the ten-year period when he was away from teaching, Allen became focused on community service. Much of his efforts had been focused on the Oakland Men’s Project, a community violence prevention program whose mission is to eliminate men’s violence against women. Allen served on the board of directors for the Oakland Men’s Project and actively volunteered his time and knowledge to help break the cycle of abuse. He has also served as a board member of several other local organizations, including the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the San Francisco Book Council, the San Francisco Writers’ Corps, and the African American Faculty Oral History Project.
In 1995 Allen coedited Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America, an anthology of essays, poems, short stories, and excerpts from books, contributed by more than 150 men, which gives voice to the African-American male’s world. In a review of the anthology published in Crisis, Malik Chaka maintained that “academicians, politicians, and public analysts should read this book before making their oft-times ridiculous pronouncements on the African American male.” Four years later he contributed the historical and contextual material for Strong in the Struggle: My Life as a Militant Trade Unionist, cowritten with Lee Brown. In 2003 he published Honoring Sergeant Carter: Redeeming a Black World War II Hero’s Legacy. It is the story of Carter’s heroism in battle, the allegations of Communism that denied him a career, and the efforts by his daughter-in-law that ultimately cleared his name and resulted in a posthumous Medal of Honor award.
Allen spent his career championing the fight against treating people differently based on history, ignorance, or fear. To Allen, it is not a fight that can be won by standing on the sidelines and refereeing, it is a subject that all people should be willing to plunge into wholeheartedly to change the world around them. Allen knows that there are many issues to face when it comes to racism and inequality, but as he told Bonnie Eslinger in Making the Peace, it is every person’s job to “try and connect these issues … not only from a personal standpoint, but also from a social perspective … and work for some kind of change.”
Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Doubleday, 1969.
Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements, Howard University Press, 1974.
The Port Chicago Disaster and Its Aftermath, University of California Press, 1983; reissued as The Port Chicago Mutiny, Amistad, 1989.
Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas vs. Hill, coedited with Robert Chrisman, Ballantine Books, 1992.
Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America, coedited with Herb Boyd, Ballantine Books, 1995.
(Contributor) Race, Gender, and Power in America, ed. by Anita Faye Hill and Emma Coleman Jordan, Oxford, 1995.
(Contributor) Readings in Black Political Economy, ed. by John Whitehead and Cobi Kawasi Harris, Kendall/Hunt, 1999.
(Contributor) The African American Studies Reader, ed. by Nathaniel Norment Jr., Carolina Academic Press, 2001.
Strong in the Struggle: My Life as a Militant Trade Unionist, cowritten with Lee Brown, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Honoring Sergeant Carter: Redeeming a Black World War II Hero’s Legacy, Amistad Press, 2003.
Kivel, Paul, and Allen Creighton, Making the Peace, Hunter House Publishers, 2002.
Crisis, October 1995, p. 8.
Library Journal, June 1, 1997, p. S18.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through e-mail interviews with Contemporary Black Biography, provided on November 24 and December 10, 2002.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger and Ralph Zerbonia
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