|The Other Side of the Story
Luke Eric Lassiter ‘90 was awarded the 2005 Margaret Mead Award, presented annually to a young scholar for an accomplishment such as a book, film or service that interprets anthropological data and principles in a way that is meaningful to the public. Lassiter received the award for his book, The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie’s African American Community, published in 2004 by AltaMira Press.
Lassiter, director of the graduate humanities program and professor of humanities and anthropology at Marshall University, says the recognition bestowed on The Other Side of Middletown is “tremendously gratifying, especially because it is a significant endorsement of the hard work put forth by the students, Muncie community members and faculty who together worked on [the] project.” Lassiter was associate professor of anthropology at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana before joining the Marshall faculty in August 2005.
The book is a collaborative effort to “document the history and contributions of the African American community to Muncie.” The 1929 sociology classic Middletown: A Study of a Modern American Culture, written by Robert and Helen Lynd, first recorded life in Muncie as being representative of typical American communities. However, the book failed to include African Americans, who were a growing population in Muncie and a proportionally larger community in Muncie than in major cities like Chicago and New York. “The Lynds were a product of their time, and though they missed an important demographic fact, they were working within the research framework of their time,” says Lassiter.
Retired Indiana state legislator and civil rights activist Hurley Goodall was the driving force behind Lassiter’s ethnographic study. A native of Muncie and an influential elder in Muncie’s African American community, Goodall collected community photographs, church histories, newspaper clippings and individual narratives for more than three decades. His commitment to sharing Muncie’s African American perspective is well documented in his extensive writings, which are held in Ball State University’s Archives and Special Collections. In the initial meeting of faculty and students who gathered at Ball State to discuss the project, Goodall read from the Lynds’ original research plan, which described Muncie as having “a homogeneous native born population, a small foreign born and Negro population that could basically be ignored.” Their research created a void in Muncie’s history that Goodall hoped would be filled by the new study.
Researchers who followed the Lynds continued to dismiss the contributions of the black community. Lassiter says, “Folks like Hurley Goodall became more and more frustrated by these researchers and their presumptions to ‘represent’ America as if it were lily-white. If Muncie somehow ‘represented’ America, then [as Goodall saw it] an important part of the story was missing both about Middletown and America at large. Essentially, then, we wrote the book because Goodall and other Muncie community members asked us to.”
With a grant and support from Ball State’s Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, Lassiter launched the Other Middletown project, which he describes as a “quintessential” collaboration among faculty, students and community members. Goodall and his wife were instrumental in informing Muncie residents about the project, and the African American community responded with great enthusiasm. Unique to the project was the significant role of students, who represented a diversity of disciplines. The Other Side of Middletown is written mostly by undergraduate students.
“I sought out students from disciplines that were closely related to anthropology especially disciplines that counted ‘culture’ and/or ‘ethnography’ as among their key concepts. The obvious choices were sociology and history. But I also drew students from philosophy, journalism, English, education, urban planning and telecommunications, believing such an interdisciplinary group would only help enhance the project,” says Lassiter. The students conducted ethnographic research and immersed themselves in the community by becoming regulars at church services, community meetings and family events and spent more than 150 hours in one semester interviewing many of Muncie’s African American citizens.
Lassiter describes The Other Side of Middletown as “a collaboratively inscribed conversation about race relations past and present, engaged by both black and white students, faculty and community members all of whom are struggling together to understand the deeper experiential complexities of race in Muncie, in particular, and, more generally, in America.” He says the book is a snapshot of an ongoing conversation about race relations, and now it has entered into that conversation.
“The Other Side of Middletown has been a boost for helping people to know and understand things that went on in Muncie. I think it will become an integral part of the Middletown situation,” says Hurley Goodall. “It did a lot of good for the students to get out beyond the walls of the university. And to Eric’s credit, the book is very well organized and presented. He is a special kind of guy who will do something great before he leaves this planet.”