Oxford, England — "It just never occurred to me that there were things I couldn't do." Coming from Karen Stevenson, these words are no idle boast: She is the first black American woman to win a Rhodes scholarship in the 77-year history of that prestigious award.
As we talk, the English February drizzles outside her dormitory window at Magdalen College here. But Miss Stevenson, lounging in a chair made comfortable from hours of reading, radiates a kind of warmth that justifies her optimism.
Beginning her education in predominantly black inner city schools in Washington, D.C., she went on to become a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now, one of 32 Americans awarded Rhodes scholarships this year for two years of study here, she talks about how it happened.
"I was brought up," she recalls, "with a very positive sense of self." Her mother, a child psychologist with the city school system in Washington, taught her that "it just didn't matter if you were black or if you were a girl or whatever -- you just did it."
After some unchallenging years in grade school ("I was just treading water," she recalls), her mother, who holds a PhD in special education, sent Karen to a largely white private preparatory school, the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. A change that might have jolted less confident youngsters was no obstacle to her.
"I was so excited about doing something I wanted to do," she remembers, "And being able to go as fast as I could academically. It just never occurred to me, 'Wow, I'm the only black woman in my class.' I wasn't even thinking in those terms. I was just thinking, 'I am moving so fast.'"
Moving fast is Karen's specialty. At Chapel Hill she set the state record in the women's 400-meter dash and university records in the 60-meter and 100-meter hurdles. Here, between jogging and rowing with a crew, she tackles academic hurdles wit a zest that, she feels, does not depend on "a consciousness of blackness making a difference or of blackness being a handicap." She wears, in fact, a kind of protective innocence about racial prejudice -- which, she admits , borders on naivete.
"If there was resistance," she says about her years at prep school, "I was totally impervious to it. It wasn't looking for it. That requires a kind of defensive stance and a cautiousness in one's outward and forward progress." Hurdlers, it seems, don't win by caution.
But Karen's assertiveness if not belligerent. while she professes a deep concern for the problems of urban blacks, she feels that helping a group begins with individual success. "The individual is the thing that sets everything in motion," she says, adding, "It has to be the impetus of one before it can be accredited to one great group."
We talk about whether she feels the place of blacks in US society is genuinely improving or whether the changes are superficial and cosmetic. "Everything's not cool in the States, that's true," she admits. But she is impressed by what she calls "a really active attempt" to find ways of "absorbing the diversities into a kind of single unit."
She speaks from some experience. Touring several East bloc countries and the Soviet Union Last summer, she found "a tremendous amount of prejudice and racial discrimination," including one soviet citizen who said to her, "How could you have gone to school? You're a subspecies." The Soviet authorities, she feels, don't have to come to grips with a society that includes blacks. Instead, they can say of the many black Africans she met there, "We're going to send them home , they're here to study."
In the United States, by contrast, "People are black Americans, there is no place else to go," she says. Even in France and Great Britain she finds what she labels "coexistence by indifference" among the races, whereas Americans "have to grapple with it down in the nitty-gritty of how to put all this society together."
She also finds the subject of women's liberation "incredibly" backward in Britain. But on this issue, too, her background is not typical. "Women's lib, to my sister and myself when it came up, seemed so bizarre," she muses. "All of my mother's friends were professional women. I just didn't know any women who were housewives with station wagons," she adds.
Academically, she is in her element here, embroiled in 18th- and 19th-century European history. The subject, she admits, leaves her "wide open to criticism" from other blacks, since Montesquieu, voltaire, and Rousseau were "elitists writing about elitist societies."
But, she says, "History is never about the masses, let's face it. History is about, and is made by, the elite." Neverthelss, she loves that period because "it seems to me to be the last real strength of optimism, the last time men really believed that human nature was good."
After Oxford Karen intends to return to a place awaiting her at Yale Law School. She shies away from discussing where that will lead her in a society eager to employ intelligent blacks and women.
"Other people impose the issue of 'you are black and you are a woman and what does it feel like?' on me. Me, I'm just me, and I go about my business doing what I'm interested in."