In a light-filled classroom at Wellesley, the prestigious private women's college near Boston, a black professor is teaching a class. With eloquence and authority, Marsha Jean Darling analyzes the similarities between impoverished populations in the third world and low-income minorities in the United States. Clearly, Dr. Darling is a scholar with an impressive background. Judging from her easy command of her subject, elegant speech, and lucid turns of phrase, one assumes she is a product of a privileged environment - middle-class, professional parents, no doubt, and the finest private schools.
``Middle class? I'm from Brownsville, Brooklyn,'' she says, smiling at her visitor's surprise. ``It's one of the poorest black neighborhoods in New York.''
And so, standing in a hallway at Wellesley, Marsha Darling tells her story. It's about crossing over the chasm of poverty, racism, and limited horizons that often sets the black world apart. It's about the bedrock of her family's love, values, and support that sustained her on her journey. And it's about outside interventions - the concern of certain teachers and the availability of scholarships in the early '70s - without which the journey would not have been possible.
Marsha Darling has traveled far, yet she has taken her past with her. She spends most of her time in a land of the intellect that knows no boundaries, yet she keeps the old neighborhood close to her heart, visiting often and helping her family when there is need. What was possible for her should be possible for all Americans: to return from the exile imposed by a divided society, and to be everywhere at home.
``My grandmother was a domestic worker,'' Darling says. ``My mother worked at the Bulova watch factory. My father started out as a dock worker, then got a job as a subway porter, and finally moved up to conductor. No one in my family had graduated from high school. We were poor. My mother wore the same coat for 12 years.''
How did she get from Brownsville to Wellesley, a bastion of all that is privileged, exclusive, monied, and white?
She answers simply, ``I was bused to Queens.''
In her all-black junior high school, two teachers decided to lift Marsha out of the ``tracking system'' that was preparing her and her classmates for limited achievement and low-level jobs. They arranged for her to attend a predominantly white high school in Queens, and her family endorsed the change.
``My mother felt that if I went to the black high school I wouldn't learn anything,'' says Darling. ``Also she was worried that I'd be raped or that I'd get into drugs. The resources were not as good as in white schools. They had better teachers, better supervisory staff. They weren't just maintenance centers. Everybody knew that.''
The high school in Queens was Darling's introduction to the diversity of America, and to the possibilities - and problems - that lay before her.
Growing up in Brownsville, and with no television at home, she had not realized that blacks are a minority in the United States.
``The differences were tremendous,'' she says of her new school. ``Suddenly I was taking algebra, trigonometry, calculus, physics. I had science, literature, and I wrote poetry. I became fascinated with novels. But also, I was very lonely. I hadn't been around many white people before. The white kids simply didn't see the black kids. Only a few would even speak to us.
``I became very emotionally invested in the school newspaper and the yearbook faculty advisers,'' she recalls. ``They seemed to be colorblind. I understood that they were looking at my skills and my qualities. It was that validation that sustained me.''
Did she set her sights early on an illustrious academic career?
``Not at all. I didn't expect anything in my life to change,'' Darling says. ``I didn't have any ambitions beyond my sphere of experience. My family's idea was that I should get married, and maybe become a nurse at the most. Even though I had good grades, my high school guidance counselor took one look at me and advised me to be a beautician.''
A year after graduating from high school, Darling married a young man from the neighborhood.
She got a job as a file clerk in Manhattan, and she was content. Until her husband started to beat her.
She left him at the urging of the black policeman who took her to a hospital emergency room after she had been abused.
This was a turning point in Darling's life, and it was then that she decided to go to college.
Two years later, while attending a local community college, she was offered a full scholarship at a four-year institution of her choice. She chose Vassar College because it was only 90 miles from Brooklyn.
Darling earned a BA in interdisciplinary American studies from Vassar, and an MA and PhD, both in history, from Duke University. She is the author of many articles and papers and the recipient of numerous awards and grants.
Today, she is working on a book about black landownership in the South. She was a teaching fellow at Harvard for a year, and after seven years at Wellesley, is now up for tenure.
To illustrate her sense of venturing alone into an unknown world, Darling relives an incident from her high school years.
``My mother used to come into my room and find me studying at two in the morning,'' she recalls. ``I'd tell her, `I can't understand this calculus,' and she'd begin to cry. She'd say that nobody in the whole house could help me; nobody had that knowledge. She knew that I would have to do it all by myself.''
Today, Darling moves easily between the black and white worlds.
``I see friends in Roxbury [Boston's largest black neighborhood], and I do volunteer work in a multiracial high school. It's important to learn how to live in two worlds. I say this to black kids: Even if you become very successful, always draw around you a core of black people who form your little community. Blacks who sever themselves from their community experience real alienation.''
In a sense, Darling has developed a ``white self'' and a ``black self,'' one for each world she moves in.
Her white self is intellectual, cosmopolitan, with a global view of the world. But she says it is her black self that is always at the helm, providing the emotional and mental continuity she needs.
``The black self is anchored in my childhood experience. I grew up with poor people who taught me what love is. They gave me themselves, not material things. They gave me their time, their joy, laughter, discipline. That's the part I need as my wellspring because it's rooted, grounded. That's my black self.''