History scholar wins teaching award

Clarence Walker standing holding his bike in front of a Victorian home
Clarence Walker standing holding his bike in front of a Victorian home

In his writings, University of California, Davis, history professor Clarence Walker has taken a critical view of Afrocentrism, calling it “a feel-good myth of history that is therapeutic, but neither accurate nor helpful in understanding or overcoming racism.”

His books, including “Deromanticizing Black History,”  “We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism” and “Mongrel Nation,” tackle what he considers simplistic views of race and black history and are by turns tough-minded and funny.

“It did get me a reputation,” said Walker, who is African-American. “People would see me and head the other way. There has been a view that you can’t be black and be critical of these things. I find that offensive and repulsive.”  

Over time, this viewpoint has changed. “What I hear most often now is ‘You were correct.’”

Walker was recognized for his teaching, scholarship and service today when UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi surprised his “Jacksonian America” class to announce that he is the recipient of the 2015 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

The prize, established in 1986, honors faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. The $45,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and is funded through philanthropic gifts from the UC Davis Foundation. The winner is selected based on the nominations of other professors, research peers, representatives from the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees, and UC Davis students.

“A world-class scholar and public intellectual, Professor Walker has been a leader in his field for decades,” said Katehi. “Passionate about teaching, his lectures challenge assumptions and encourage students to shed a critical eye on their place in the world. It is unfortunate for us that he will be retiring in June, but this honor is a fitting capstone to a truly remarkable career.”

UC Davis Foundation Chair Mike Child said, “The Foundation is honored to present this award to Professor Walker who continually challenges our students to think for themselves and approach learning from new perspectives. The Foundation is also proud to support this award because it celebrates instruction at UC Davis and promotes my alma mater’s commitment to building the next generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers that our society needs.”

A pioneer and risk taker

Walker’s pioneering and risk-taking work is admired by his colleagues and friends around the nation.

“Clarence doesn’t like people telling him what to do or think,” said Claire Potter, a history professor at The New School for Social Research in New York, who has known him for 20 years. “He has very rigorous scholarly methods. He was highly skeptical of this highly romanticized view of history that was being presented. He’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”

The wit and questioning in his books translates into his classroom style as well. Among the student comments over the years:

  • “He makes history classes exciting and interesting.”
  • “A positive and inspiring environment.”
  • “Loud, very dynamic, awesome.”
  • “The best professor of my entire academic career.”

“I am happy to have received this, but it comes as a complete and utter surprise,” Walker said. “And of course the real reward of teaching is to see your students go on and do well.”

An inspiring teacher and distinctive scholar

Walker will retire in June, having taught at UC Davis since 1986. His role in history studies is historic, according to Kathryn Olmsted, chair of the history department.

“He belongs to a generation of pioneering scholars in African-American history,” she said. “Walker’s work was foundational to the field and without him African-American history would not be the same.”

George R. Mangun, UC Davis dean of the social sciences, seconds that assessment.

“His published writings on the history of race relations in the U.S. have won international acclaim,” Mangun said. “As a public intellectual, he speaks beyond the academy to wide audiences, from listeners of National Public Radio to readers of Time magazine. As a teacher, he challenges our students on the most fundamental issues facing America today and does so fearlessly with complete intellectual honesty.”

Miguel La Serna, one of Walker’s former students and now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, learned about history in the classes, but also about himself and how to teach.

“He challenged his students to reconsider everything we thought we knew not only about the past, but about ourselves,” said La Serna. “The intent was not to provoke students or put them on the defensive, but to expose historical actors for the complex, flawed individuals that they really were.”

Former student Julia Lahl called Walker’s classes “an academic joy.”

“There was never a class where I did not learn something new and interesting,” she said. “Professor Walker challenges all of his students. The way Professor Walker pushed me to critically think, write and present my work has applied to everything in my life.”

Always a reader and explorer

Walker grew up in Berkeley in an integrated neighborhood and always counted black, white, Asian and Latino kids as his friends. His working-class parents encouraged education.

“Reading was drummed into us every day and all my friends were great readers,” he said.

When he was 9, his mother died, and he was sent to live with his grandparents in a small Texas community where the schools were dilapidated and segregated, and the books battered hand-me-downs from the white schools. One of the few positive parts of this yearlong exile was that he immersed himself in a book on Texas history — the only book other than the Bible his grandparents had.

Although already a reader and interested in history, when his father remarried and the young Walker returned to Berkeley, his quest for knowledge was even greater. His course was set when he tripped over his own feet in the Berkeley Public Library and landed next to Allan Nevins’ “Ordeal of the Union,” a multivolume history of the Civil War.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Francisco State University and was planning to go into Civil War history, but a professor there told him his career would move quicker if he focused on African-American history. He earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley.

A dream to teach at UC

Walker began his academic career at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1973, but always planned to return to California.

“It was always a dream and goal of mine to teach at the University of California,” he said. “When they offered me the job here I called my chairman and said ‘I’m leaving and I’m not negotiating.’  I also wanted to be at a place with more diversity, not a boutique university, and a place where I could work with more graduate students.”

Among the classes he has taught are many he created: “The Novel as Social History,” “Race and The Cinemagraphic Imagination,” “Constructing and Deconstructing Whiteness,” and “Gone with the Wind: Race, Class, Gender and Historical Memory.”

He has long used movies in his classes, but he loves movies of all sorts. Although “Gone with the Wind” is one that he most frequently teaches, his personal favorite is the western “The Searchers,” with John Wayne as a Civil War veteran trying to rescue his niece who was kidnapped by Native Americans. Since Walker is such a movie fan, and because they’ve been important to his teaching, it’s natural that one of his retirement plans is to write a book on slavery in the movies.

“It’s something I’ve long been interested and with recent movies like ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’ this seems like the right time to do it,” he said.

A changing, richer place

Walker has lived in the same house for 20 years and rides his bike to work. He doesn’t drive, but that doesn’t stop him from regularly visiting friends and colleagues in the Bay Area on what he calls “the people’s limo” — trains and buses — as well as jetting around the country to visit others.

“People told me I couldn’t live in Davis — there weren’t any black people,” he said with a laugh.

When he arrived, there was still only a handful of African-American faculty members, and the student population wasn’t nearly as diverse as it is now, but it was much more multihued than Wesleyan.

“Now they come from such a variety of backgrounds,” he said. “One of my best students ever was from Hong Kong.”

Over time, he said, the students have continued to get better.  “I can talk to them more, they ask better questions and more of them get my strange sense of humor.”

Media Resources

Jeffrey Day, Arts, humanities and social sciences, 530-219-8258, jaaday@ucdavis.edu

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University University Society, Arts & Culture Education