Faculty, staff, and students convened at the Yale School of Management on March 7 for a conversation that examined segregation in the United States through the lens of the life of Willie Harris, who rose from his origins on a sharecropping plantation in Mississippi to become one of the first Black movie stuntmen in Hollywood. Tim Shea, an SOM staff member, documented Harris's story in a recent book called Big Man: An Incredible Journey from Mississippi to Hollywood. Shea discussed the inspiration for and the process of researching and writing the book in conversation with Zoe Chance, senior lecturer in management.
Shea said he developed a close relationship with Harris over several years and enjoyed a level of trust that provided him unfettered access to many of Harris’ colleagues, friends, and family members. Because of the close collaboration that made Big Man possible, Shea said, it was important for him to give Harris co-author status: “White people have been claiming Black people’s cultural contributions for hundreds of years, and I didn’t want to be part of that tradition,” said Shea.
Harris died before he had a chance to see Big Man in print. But Shea said he hopes that sharing stories like Harris’ will encourage others to capture the experiences of Black Americans who survived segregation before that generation disappears.
Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies, joined Shea for the second half of the conversation. Prof. Anderson provided historical context and shared both his qualitative field work and his personal experience of growing up in the segregated U.S. The author of several award-winning urban ethnographies, Anderson’s newest book is Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life.
Professor Anderson said that many of the same challenges facing Black Americans during segregation persist to this day. The racism is not always explicit; it is often tacit and implicit. He said: “In navigating White spaces, Black people are typically burdened by a negative presumption they must disprove or neutralize to establish mutually trusting relations with others, discrimination that contributes to racial disparities in residence, employment, health, police contact, incarceration, and random insults in public. Racially prejudiced White people are often prepared to draw the color line.
"Thus, the challenge for unfamiliar Black people is to disabuse such White people and others of the notion that their racial stereotypes about the urban ghetto apply to them personally. This conundrum encourages Black people to perform respectability, or what many Blacks refer to derisively as a ‘dance.’ In White spaces, Black people often feel they are left with a provisional status, or always with something more to prove.” These are among the findings from Professor Anderson’s many years of ethnographic research on race relations in the urban areas of the United States.
Tim Shea's Big Man: An Incredible Journey from Mississippi to Hollywood can be purchased through Amazon.