David Hamilton Golland
I try to help my students understand the role of government and the individual in the modern world.
David Hamilton Golland fell in love with history when he was 11 years old and read Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s sprawling account of political unrest in 19th century France. The son of a professor, he spent his childhood with his nose in books, but his desire to teach didn’t arise until much later.
“I wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll star,” he said. “I sing, and I went to the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.” Yes, that one—the setting for the 1980 film Fame. “After that, I tried my hand at Broadway. I was an actor and singer, but I didn’t make a living at it. I made my money busing tables. I did get a callback for Les Miserables, the original musical, around 1995, and then I went to college.” Golland continued his relationship with the book Les Miserables. “In my early 20s,” he recalled, “rereading it was an annual ritual, usually for a week in April.”
It was during his time as an undergraduate that Golland found his passion for teaching.
“I was told by all of my professors—and I try to tell this to my students as well—you should major in your favorite subject. You should never major in something that sounds like a job. The job will come. And so history had been my favorite academic subject, and so I majored in history.”
Golland joined the faculty at Governors State University in 2011. He was brought on board to help build the university’s history program. He is Associate Professor and Coordinator of History and Social Sciences and vice president of the Faculty Senate. His book, Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Opportunity, was published in 2011 by the University Press of Kentucky, and he has another volume in the works.
I was taught that a good historian does her or his best by getting away from one’s own experiences. And so I did not become a historian of the Jewish experience. I became a historian of the African American experience.
GSU Newsroom: How did you end up a civil rights historian?
Golland: Well, I like to say I was raised in the shadow of the Holocaust. I grew up in the reform Jewish tradition in New York City where we would partner with churches in Harlem. Our youth group would do social events with them and other community building activities.
It was also a Labor household. My grandfather used to get beat up—I want to say by Pinkertons but I’m sure he never actually encountered Pinkertons—but he used to get beat up by thugs that the bosses would send after people like him. At some point he was a leader in the retail shoe employees union, and I still keep his brass retirement card in my wallet. He really believed in the union project at a time when it was illegal in some states, before the Wagner Act requiring that workers be allowed to organize. I grew up middle class, but there was this sense of, “you have to look at things from the perspective of the people who are not in charge, who do not have the advantages.”
Communism was also in the household. Both of my godparents were very active in the Communist Party before and after the war. We would visit them on weekends. We would drive up the river to see them. My godfather wanted to be a school teacher, and when President Truman made everyone who wanted to be employed by the government sign a loyalty oath that said that they were not now and had never been a member of the Communist Party, my godfather wouldn’t sign it. He actually became incredibly wealthy then, because he went into business for himself. So it’s one of these weird things about history where this staunch Communist continues to be very important in the New York Communist world, because he’s giving so much money to the Communist Party, but he’s actually making his money as a capitalist.
I was taught both as an undergraduate and in grad school that a good historian does her or his best by getting away from one’s own experiences. And so I did not become a historian of the Jewish experience. I became a historian of the African American experience.
I work 30–35 hours a week just on my scholarship. Research is still a love and fresh for me, and I can’t imagine it ever not being so. I bring that passion and love for what I do to the 16 hours or so I spend each week teaching.
Newsroom: What are you currently working on?
Golland: I’m working on a political biography of “the father of affirmative action.” His name was Arthur Fletcher. By all accounts he was quite a character in life, and he was a figure in my first book. He was born out of wedlock on the wrong side of the tracks with all of the advantages missing in his childhood, and he rose to advise four presidents of the United States. Along the way, he was the first African American player for the Baltimore Colts football team, and he served as director of the United Negro College Fund.
He was in charge of the United Negro College Fund when it adopted the motto, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and he made a critical change to that phrase—so if he hadn’t been there, it would have been very different. Others in the organization wanted to phrase it, “a mind is a hell of a thing to waste.” Many of the members of the UNCF were associated with churches, and Fletcher knew the idea of having the word hell was a non-starter. He still got in trouble for terrible, but no one could have predicted how successful that was going to be. He was a Republican, which I find interesting; he was to the left of the entire party when it came to civil rights. And so the story has morphed from a civil rights biography to a political biography of a man who got left behind by his team, so to speak.
Newsroom: So much of history is political, and we’re at a point right now when politics isn’t necessarily anyone’s favorite topic. How do you broach that in your classroom?
Golland: I try to help my students understand the role of government and the individual in the modern world. There are a lot of negative things said about politicians. And there are a lot of negative things said about bureaucrats. But the root of politician is polis, and these are people who can run a polity; the root of bureaucrat is bureau—these are people who know what their office is responsible for. Yes, it’s frustrating to have politicians who seem to be out for their own benefit all the time, bureaucrats who stare at you from behind a glass window and force you to follow rules that seem arcane and inane. Of course those things are frustrating. A lot of the modern world is frustrating, but if we didn’t have those things we’d be living like they live in the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead where everybody is trying to survive the next five minutes. We need our government run by people who know how to run a government. Of course they’re ambitious, but everyone’s ambitious. It’s a matter of degree, and being ambitious for things that you can actually achieve.
My father once told me—this was right after Reagan was elected—that anyone who actually wants to be the president probably shouldn’t be the president, because it’s a rather crazy proposition. Look at how quickly their hair turns gray, for one thing—why would you want to do that to your body? They have the weight of the world on their shoulders.