Beautiful Minds: Disciplined intellectual
Friday, March 30, 2012
Christopher Lehman wakes each day to a task: Write or edit at least one page for his current publishing project.
This remorseless regimen requires the ethnic studies professor to toil after hours and on vacation, but it has resulted in four books, including 2011’s “Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
“Sometimes I find very little information in books about the topic I’m interested in,” said Lehman. “After I start doing my own research – on information a book is missing – sometimes I have enough information to write my own book.”
Lehman credits his educator parents for modeling intellectual curiosity and selfdiscipline. A Christmas gift from them, a mock newspaper that displayed news from the year he was born, sparked Lehman’s interest in research. The newspaper listed Richard Nixon as president, but left blank the name of the vice president. Intrigued, he searched microfilm at the University of Central Oklahoma where his father was an English professor. Lehman discovered that for two months in the fall of 1973 the vice presidency was vacant. Spiro Agnew resigned in October in a no-contest plea deal that resulted from federal corruption charges. Gerald Ford wasn’t sworn in until December.
“Learning about Agnew’s resignation in those old newspapers led me to read about Watergate,” he said. “Learning about Watergate led me to read about Vietnam, because that war was winding down. And, then my research just mushroomed.”
His first book closed a gap in our understanding of the Vietnam War. Published in 2006, “American Animated Cartoons of the Vietnam Era,” discusses cartoon studios’ changing responses to U.S. participation in war, from 1961 through 1973.
Lehman explored his interest in film in late 2007, publishing “Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films.” In the book Lehman argues that African-American images and music were central to the development of America’s animated film industry. Early, hand-drawn animation cells required basic black-andwhite drawings, so animators drew crude caricatures of rural African-Americans and black minstrels. Minstrel songs and jazz tunes provided the sound track, featuring the music of African-American composers such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
The Association of College and Research Libraries honored “Colored Cartoon” as an Outstanding Academic Title of 2008.
He followed in 2008 with “A Critical History of Soul Train on Television,” about the Don Cornelius-produced television show. The book details the show’s social impact, from its start in Chicago, to its long run as a nationally syndicated program, to spin-offs such as the “Soul Train Music Awards.”
Lehman’s self-discipline carries over into his classroom. He teaches students about topics such as slavery, segregation, infringement of civil rights and housing and employment discrimination. Some resist learning about these painful social dynamics that have afflicted Americans of color.
“It’s not my job to call anyone racist, so I won’t,” said Lehman, who holds a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. “You can say whatever you’d like to say about what I’m teaching, just be able to back up your opinions. When students see that as a legitimate way of teaching, then over the course of the semester we have good discussions.”
“Sometimes discussions can get heated, but they’re not disrespectful,” he said. “I establish at the outset that as long as you don’t use profanity, you don’t resort to name-calling or ad hominen attacks, if the discussion is academic and sensible, then we can learn from each other quite a bit.”
Said Lehman: “It’s not my goal to brainwash people, because nobody brainwashed me. I was given the academic freedom to research what interested me and to develop strong papers and convincing arguments. That’s what I want my students to do, too.”