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Owning History: Carmen Twillie Ambar, Oberlin College, and Bringing Dark Corner to Light

This past September, Carmen Twillie Ambar began her role as the 15th president of Ohio’s Oberlin College. And—as tends to happen when someone from the African-American community ascends to just such a position of prestige—her biography quickly became the subject of virtually all of the articles that were covering her recent high-profile career move.

Mrs. Twillie Ambar is the college’s first African-American leader, a distinction which—for many onlookers—signals incontrovertible proof of cultural progress. The sort of capital-O Overcoming narrative which (for obvious reasons) is a feature of much of the writing that comments on any black person in America’s major achievements, is again in the case of Mrs. Twillie Ambar relied upon to transform what would otherwise be a fairly unremarkable act of administrative succession into a triumph of the human spirit and a fulfillment of progress with respect to American race relations. Here is one writer’s (herself a student at Oberlin) particularly rapturous response to learning of Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s appointment as president:

“A bit of balance has been restored in the universe. I lost one great president, and now I’ve gained one much closer to home. This is not only a victory for the college or for students of color, but a victory for Black women…Us Black and Brown people are sacred. When we are born, we lose our individuality; we are woven into the fabric of our ancestors–All the kings, queen, empires, civilizations, triumph, suffering, and bloodshed that has come before us and will come after us. This is our legacy. For the college to elect–for the first time–a Black woman into its highest position is its first step towards finally honoring that legacy.”

Less ecstatic coverage—while not necessarily attributing Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s presidency at an elite liberal arts school to enacting cosmic equilibrium—nonetheless strives to emphasize her background as being one that is entirely rooted in the African-American experience; that is to say, in a condition of oppression, injustice, and basic non-opportunity that really underscores and brings into focus the magnitude of her career achievements, of which her presidency at Oberlin is really just the latest in a long line of impressive administrative tenures. Readers are consistently reminded that Mrs. Twillie Ambar is just a “handful of generations removed from slavery,” and that her father, Manuel Twillie, labored tirelessly for most of his life in the field as a “cotton picker.” 

But this foregrounding of ancestry is not just a convention in the journalism that aims to contextualize Twillie Ambar’s successes. In the remarks that she herself delivered during her introductory ceremony at Oberlin College last May, Twillie Ambar asked the audience there to “just imagine the Deep South, the heat,” where she said her father would “look up at the hot beating sun as he was out there picking cotton and he would say to himself, ‘I don’t know what I want to do but I know I don’t want to do this.’”  

It’s a compelling image, and one that—elsewhere—surfaces fairly often in her personal musings on her improbable trajectory. In a 2016 essay for Inside Higher Ed, she writes that her father had been “plowing behind a mule since he was six,” living in the “black section” of Colt, Arkansas, a place referred to as “Dark Corner.” She says that his family’s circumstances were so lowly that he might have been given “a few nuts for his Christmas present.” And during a 2017 interview with The Chronicle Telegram, she wonders, “[W]hen my dad was standing there in that cotton field, could he ever have thought that his daughter would have the opportunity to be president of Oberlin College?”

A listener would have to be somewhat insensate not to be genuinely moved by the story that she invites you to consider, one in which her parents persevered (as she also remarked in her Oberlin introductory address) “against all odds.” But a deeper look into Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s ancestry appears to raise the question of exactly how total those odds actually were. And how—as is common with so many who occupy the ‘first African-American’ of x category—the fact that she and her family appear to have been the beneficiaries of circumstances extremely uncommon in black America is something that seems to be carefully omitted from her family’s history in favor of promoting the uplifting (if artificial) idea of individual agency in the face of great adversity; a sort of partial telling of one’s pathway to success that ultimately works to encourage the societal misperception that, insofar as black people can’t seem to transcend their station, it is a matter of personal attitudes and behavioral deficiencies and not the profound headwinds of group-based wealth scarcity—the true ‘all odds’—that are endured by most American descendants of slaves, and which by and large confine them to a life of nonexistent opportunity. 


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In a taped interview that took place in 1995 for the oral history project, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South (a copy of which is now archived at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture), a woman named Delores Woods provides an account of some of her experiences in the South during that time for the interviewer, with one caveat: “You know, like I say, I was kind of sheltered by living in a black community and they all land owners.”

The African-American community Mrs. Woods was referring to was in a place called Caldwell, a small town located in St. Francis County, Arkansas. In 1899, about forty years before she was born, Bishop Henry M. Turner—the leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—had declared that Arkansas was “destined to be the great negro state of the country. The meagre prejudice compared to some states, and opportunity to acquire wealth,” he reasoned, “all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man. [Arkansas] is the state for colored men who wish to live by their merits.” 

It was perhaps that promise of opportunity—that meritorious idea—that had first attracted Delores’s uncle to the area. He’d arrived from Mississippi, and his brother—Delores’s father—soon followed. There, he married Hula Gillam. Hula had been raised by her grandparents, who’d owned farmland in Arkansas. In addition to the crops produced on that land, Delores tells the interviewer, her great-grandparents “sold milk and butter, and…eggs and chickens.” They “had their own little food orchard” and “raised their own garden…they basically raised all the food that they ate.” 

Delores’s mother and father—who’d sought to buy their own cotton farm in St. Francis County—were driven to live a life of similar self-sufficiency: “They raised their own corn, and own vegetables, and own hogs, and own cows,” Delores says, “and we killed our own meat and we had our own vegetables in the freezer. At that time they made what they called lard and they had that.” Delores also says how her parents had resolved to not take on any debt: “My mother said if we need to buy baking powder or salt or flour—something like that you didn’t raise—she would go out and chop by the day—a day—and get that 35 cents or 50 cents a day. And that’s how we lived.” In due time Delores’s father was able to buy the family a farm; it adjoined another plot of farmland owned by his brother.

Meanwhile, her paternal grandmother—a woman named Dinah—would often come to St. Francis County from where she lived in Mississippi to visit her son. Slowly, in a kind of piecemeal fashion, she relocated herself to St. Francis County: “And so what she did,” Delores says, “she had—I got that trunk now—she had a big old trunk and she put all her stuff in it and she came out like she going to visit her son, but then when she go back the trunk is empty. So she go back and get some more stuff, and she moved all her stuff, and then so she got on out here.” Eventually, Delores says, Dinah was able to “save up her some money and then she bought her place.”

On all her family’s properties in Arkansas—her great grandmother’s farm, her grandmother’s farm, and her parents’ farm—Dolores and her eight siblings worked chopping cotton. “If we get through with our farm,” she says, “[other black people] would hire us.” And so during the interview, whenever the exploitation and mistreatment of sharecroppers that was widely practiced during the time is brought up, Delores is repeatedly very upfront about how—because of her family’s extensive property ownership, and that of the local black community—she was relatively insulated from those sorts of experiences. “And of course, I don’t know if it ever was going on in the community where I was because, like I said, all those people down in [Caldwell] for like four or five miles owned their own property and they were kind of big people because in those days—in the thirties and the late twenties—they had their own T-Model Fords and A-T Fords.”  

Delores’s family was some of those ‘big people.’ And in addition to possessing a kind of shrewd acumen for business—for, as Delores says, “[knowing] how to save a penny if they got a dollar”—they also “all had the attitude,” by which she means that they all seemed to share as a kind of familial trait a definite inability to suffer the frequent demonstrations of contempt and antagonism of bigoted whites who expected black people to behave obsequiously before them.

Delores hadn’t worked for a white man until, as she says, she was “probably ’bout 16 years old.” And when one eventually did hire her to chop cotton—and then tried to short her on her earnings for the day—she proved to not be easily intimidated or cowed into making allowances for white people which she knew to violate fairness: “I said, no you don’t owe me that. You owe me some more, so and so. And I read my figures off to him just like I carried them. And he kept arguing and he wanted to make me say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’  And I would not say yes sir and no sir. I can talk to you all day and I’d never say yes and never say no…I’d say it as a kid. Give me my money.” After that incident, Delores quit and went to work someplace where she could make “more money and [be] in the shade.”

Before Delores’s grandmother, Dinah, had moved herself out to St. Francis County, the “boss man” back in Mississippi had once instructed her to go with her newborn child out into the rain and “get the cows out of the cotton, ’cause they done got out,” she responded matter-of-factly, “My baby’s young. I’m not going out there getting in the cotton.”

That baby would grow up to one day hold a knife to a white man’s throat who’d tried to attack his brother. He also “toted the shotguns in order for the black people to be able to vote when they go down to vote, cause [whites] didn’t want them to.” His name was Allen Twillie, Delores’s dad, and Carmen Twillie Ambar’s grandfather.


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When Delores’s youngest daughter was in college, she did some research on the family name. What she discovered helped explain, for Delores, what had always enabled the Twillies to—as she says—”[know] how to maneuver and how to get by” the way they had, and why they didn’t “take no mess” from whites who looked upon them with arrogance and disdain. 

“[My daughter] did some studying of history, a looking up your name,” she says, “and when she went back and researched it she found out that the Twillies were never slaves. And so I guess that’s why they always had the high-strung attitude with [whites].” When Delores relayed her daughter’s findings to her mother, she seemed to meet the news merely as confirmation of what she’d already surmised: “And so my mother said, she said ‘Well, I had always figured that out that they were never slaves because the attitude and the way that they did about people and the way that they were able to get by.'”

The Twillies were “Frenchmen,” according to Delores. “It was two brothers of ’em”, she says, who first came over from France to the United States by ship. “So if you run across any Twillies anywhere,” she tells the interviewer, “they all kin to us.”


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“Nothing changes lives and family trajectories more profoundly than a college education,” Carmen Twillie Ambar, kin to those two Frenchmen, wrote in her essay for Inside Higher Ed. “I’ve seen it in my own family. Those ‘plow to the end of your row’ and ‘stand tall’ parents of mine graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock.1 They went on and got advanced degrees. Before long, their children did as well. No more Dark Corner.”

But what was Dark Corner, really? It sounds pejorative, but—to hear Delores describe it—Dark Corner was a vibrant, relatively prosperous and cooperative community of black landowners. “I’ll say our black community, if somebody got sick or unable to handle their crops or like they wadn’t going to get it out, when the other people would finish theirs, they all go over there and give him a day,” Delores says, “I mean give him a day. Just chop his cotton out or plow it out. And if he was sick, then they would just go over there and work that crop out.” When someone in the community was building a house on their land, Delores says, “all the men in the neighborhood [would] go and help build the house and the women would cook the food for taking down there ready to eat. And they’d build that house.” And so contrary to the implication that Dark Corner represents a kind of inferior or undesirable former state of affairs for the black family—where progress is understood as away and removed from—it seems maybe more appropriate to adduce what Dark Corner was as a source for what a family such as the Twillies would have required in order to have the opportunity to succeed in America. In this light, it’s not so much ‘no more dark corner,’ as it would seem to be ‘nothing more without Dark Corner.’2

But actually recognizing the trans-generational advantages conferred upon a person whom descends from a class of landowners is to sacrifice the usual outpouring of accolades that we bestow on anyone—but especially an African-American—who spins a compelling self-creation mythos, one whereby a person bootstraps him or herself into a better existence seemingly by dint of an indefatigable spirit coupled with good decision-making skills. And while in Twillie Ambar’s case this has made for good media fodder so far, the complicating fact remains that the cotton row on which her father was plowing was set on sprawling acres of family-owned land, some of which had been in the family for generations.3

For much of black America—a group with an already very low wealth position—the suggestion that enrolling in college and obtaining a degree is the most prudent course of action for effecting a more favorable trajectory of a person’s life is simply empirically untrue. As demonstrated by the recent report, What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap—put together principally by leading wealth economists and scholars Sandy Darity of Duke University and Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University—”[a]t every level of educational attainment, the median wealth among black families is substantially lower than white families…Moreover,” the authors write, “on average, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.” Critically, when evaluating predictors of “both college attendance and college completion,” the authors of the study note that it is the level of “family wealth” that is a decisive variable. 

For Twillie Ambar, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was precisely this factor—her family’s wealth—that opened up the possibility for their later impressive achievements. And there’s no reason to think that, in the present era of extreme wealth inequality, such contingent access to opportunity would be any different for other members within her community, the preponderance of whom are the products of discriminatory government policy that denied their ancestors wealth-building pathways.

And so what seems required, then—insofar as the institution that she now leads professes social equity to be one of its fundamental values—is a commitment on some level to a political agenda that aims to make that sort of access available to American descendants of slaves as a matter of justice. However, looking at Oberlin’s record on racial justice—particularly the former president’s refusal to even negotiate with a list of demands submitted by the college’s black student union in 2016—there’s certainly reason to be skeptical of the institution’s appetite for meaningful action backing any such pledge.4 Will Twillie Ambar be different? Her disinclination to provide a fuller picture of the ways in which she was the beneficiary of an extremely atypical set of circumstances—and the specific reasons behind why and how so many in her community as nowhere near as fortunate—should caution those who would rush to equate a black face in a position of power with a fidelity toward doing whatever they can in order to help lift up the rest of their group.5 

But perhaps in her capacity of president of a college that, in all likelihood, doesn’t necessarily assume their applicants are generally burdened by the inhibiting realities of the wealth-deficient, there is no real need for Twillie Ambar to imagine herself in relation to the rest of her specific group. In fact, that disassociation is probably incentivized by the various dicta of contemporary higher ed; namely, creating budget surpluses, increasing endowments, and operating revenues.6 And anyway, does she really even owe anyone a fuller account of her background? 

Arguably, yes. And the reason why is because it’s the very idea of that history that both the college and Mrs. Twillie Ambar leverage to underscore the significance of her appointment as president, to connote and legitimate the degree of import that her particular honorific as president represents. No one would doubt that the farm labor done by her ancestors was difficult, or that as black people living in Arkansas they were made to suffer that insolent pride of southern whites. But as immigrants and landowners, the Twillies were able to live above that most systemic and enduring and punishing legacy of slavery, the wholesale exclusion of wealth-building opportunity. And so to create the impression that she’d been able to overcome—by the sheer determination and the industrious pluck of her parents—the deep, structural adversity that hamstrings and enervates virtually the whole of the African-American community is to at the same time trivialize and exploit that adversity, a grave condition of victimhood, and one that stands in dramatic contrast alongside her family’s actual lived experience which—as even her own aunt concedes—is but a kind of partial likeness of that utter hemming in of opportunity, that carceral-like existential counterpoint to white life.

And so when Mrs. Twillie Ambar says, “Part of my job as president is to show our students that people from all backgrounds can be seen as leaders and can be successful,” there really ought to be some pushback on that very notion, one which relies entirely on a glossing of significant components of her own background. In fact, as the first African-American president of Oberlin, rather than simply stand as symbolic reassurance for the rest of America—where the impression is that we’ve completed the work of fixing the enormously disadvantaged background out of which the group she apparently represents comes—the more important part of her job should perhaps be to testify to the appreciable differences in access to opportunity that exist within the black community, and to show how those function to demarcate who among them gets to even be considered for those leadership positions in the first place.


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Ultimately, all of this may be perceived as simply trying to label Mrs. Twillie Ambar as some kind of imposter or fraud, or that there’s a suggestion that her authenticity as the college’s first African-American president is up for debate. In fact, no. Mrs. Twillie Ambar is obviously an African-American woman. And to the extent that she and the rest of society genuinely understand her family’s position and experiences as the fullest embodiment of what it means to be black in America, then she will continue to be thought of as exactly as authentic as the culture will allow. But this is precisely the point. If we are to ever really reckon with American history—with the lack of access to opportunity that actually pervades the lives of U.S. descendants of slaves, and meaningfully grapple with the reasons why—then there desperately needs to begin to be a space opened up in the intellect that can accommodate a more nuanced and thorough understanding of the specific ways in which Mrs. Twillie Ambar is very much an aberration from her group, and how there are seriously harmful implications for other members of the community (and for our collective sense of national progress, more generally) when any black person in a position of power misrepresents his or her history by identifying it with one that was in fact totally different both in its nature and consequence.

The concern for creating this consciousness is nowhere more apparent than in the projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, who for years now have been arguing that if our institutions are genuinely committed to achieving equality—to making the necessary structural adjustments that will produce equal if not advantageous outcomes for some members of the black community; where descendants of actual slaves can be elevated into these kinds of top leadership roles—then one prerequisite is that both black and white people alike be equipped with the full knowledge of how the caste-bound condition of American blacks hinges absolutely on a fractured and diffuse sense of their ancestry; rather, there must always be a recognition of the uniquely American centrality of wealth-scarcity to the group’s lived experience and the ongoing failure of government since Reconstruction to make them whole. 

In a certain sense—insofar as that period immediately following the Civil War contained in it the promise of laying the groundwork for promoting wealth creation in the black community via land redistribution—the Twillie Family (bracketing the issue of French immigrant ancestry), as black members of a propertied class, offers us a striking vision of what may have likely been a wider phenomenon of the possibility of upward mobility for black people in U.S. society. From the immediate family of Carmen Twillie Ambar—who are college presidents, high school principals and cosmopolitan artists—to her aunts and uncles and cousins—who are a collection of attorneys, teachers, real estate firm owners7, university department chairpersons, and management consultants—they are a solidly middle-upper class unit

And here then in the Twillies you can recognize in miniature what it seemed America feared—and maybe still does fear—above all. The reason why Forty Acres and a Mule had to be blackcoded out of possibility. Because you see a constellation of successful black individuals who, in the nature of family, are adjoined in yet a larger, evermore stable system. And then if other families like them are also prosperous, then that stability spreads outward into a whole robust community. A community whose members aren’t made to wait for opportunity to be contingently granted them inside that idle and tyrannical-like oppress of dependency, but rather is structured in a way where whomever in it can go forward and try to fashion that opportunity for themselves. A group who, in short, has meaningful access to the set of opportunities that white America has been allowed to hoard among itself from the beginning. And you see then how the absolute anxious, phobic dread of that possibility of economic displacement—maybe not even displacement but even simple correspondence—has impelled the country to go to such awful and heinous lengths to deny black America not just wealth but even just this basic familyship—sold them, lynched them, impoverished them and caged them to fragment that simple, foundational unit of innate empowerment. 


NOTES

1. Manuel Twillie, Carmen’s father, attended Philander Smith College on an athletic scholarship for football, as did his twin brother. He was offered scholarships by both Philander Smith and Tennessee, and—at the encouragement of his mother, who wanted him to be with his twin brother—opted to go to Philander Smith. Listening to an interview that he gave in 2007 with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies—in which he talks about his life’s educational experiences—you hear exactly the kind of conservative, bootstrap rhetoric that his daughter uses (though she does so somewhat less subtly) when she suggests things like, regardless of a person’s background, they can succeed. Here’s Manuel Twillie speaking to the interviewer in 2007: “When we were growing up, you know, our parents, our community, believed that the way out of our situation was education. I don’t think that mindset is prevalent anymore in the black community. I think we too often find excuses about what’s not happening, and blaming the white man, the system, or whatever. Now I’m not saying the white man or the system is good. But it’s pretty obvious to me—if you look at our struggle as black people—that we’ve been able to outmaneuver the system because of our belief that education was the way out of the system we was in. I don’t think we believe that anymore…I don’t mean individuals, I’m talking about collectively. Our communities don’t really believe that. We believe that somebody owes us something, uh, ya know, we’ve been mistreated and therefore they ought to do this for us. We’ve—yes, we’ve been mistreated, but that doesn’t have anything to do with life. You have to decide if you’re going to put forth that effort…it doesn’t matter what race you are, but it does matter what you do with your life and how you push. Nobody’s gonna give you anything. Nobody owes you anything. Don’t believe that. It’s your responsibility to do with what you have.”

2. At the risk of being too cynical, these terms—’Dark Corner’ and ‘cotton picker’—seem deliberately deployed without context in order to elicit a certain emotional response from people. The average U.S. reader or listener—especially at this remove from history— is likely going to auto-associate ‘cotton picker’ specifically with slavery and not as part of the production, processing and distributing of that crop as carried out by a class of black landowners. Similarly, without the right info, a town referred to as ‘Dark Corner’ registers in the ear with certain negative connotations as well; namely, the sort of extremely poor, abject conditions that result from segregation and the absence of capital ownership in the community. That both of these terms refer to something fundamentally different in the actual Twillie family history does raise question of whether they are being used somewhat exploitatively in an effort to heighten the emotional appeal of the story.

3. According to public county data for St. Francis County, Arkansas, two parcels of land—each forty acres—are listed to Allen Twillie, Carmen’s grandfather. The parcels—all acreage of which was zoned crop production, save for two acres that are zoned for house lots—sit off to the side of a long stretch of roadway named after the family, ‘Twillie Heights Rd.’ The land on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s great great grandmother’s side lays right alongside the road as well. And in looking at recent data on land valuation in St. Francis County, it would appear that all that Twillie-owned land may provide a useful advantage in helping to potentially capitalize further ventures: “The average price ($4.2 million) of land and rural property for sale in Saint Francis County,” according to Land and Farm, a top-tier rural property marketplace, “was higher than the Arkansas state average for all land and property listed for sale.”

4. And it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to suggest that this most recent installment of an African-American in the college’s top position might have been a decision that was, at least in part, motivated by the board of trustees’ PR concern with its image after the former president’s public misstep and somewhat out-of-touch response to those demands. This is not to cast aspersions on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s actual qualifications for the job; it’s just a pretty basic observation . 

5. We need only look at what happened to black wealth in the U.S. during the first African-American president’s tenure to gain some better insight into the disconnect between minorities in power and the interests of the group that they really only seem to nominally represent.

6. All of which—as Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s record indicates—she is quite successful at. Cedar Crest College, the institution over which she last presided, saw its endowment rise 92 per cent during her tenure. The college also had three straight years of budget surpluses and net assets under Twillie Ambar grew by 35 per cent.

7. Twillie Realty is located in Little Rock, AR. Jacquelyn Twillie is the principal broker. The firm has been operating for 13 years and grosses 500k-1MM in revenue, annually. 

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