Practicing what he preaches

Call it tough love.

Avon Drake, associate professor and a former director of the African-American Studies Program, said helping students reach their full potential of academic excellence — even when he’s blatantly honest — is one of his main goals in life.

“Basically, what I would like to see change are students at a higher standard of performance,” he said. “I would like to see a change in the nature of academic culture at VCU.”

Blue Wooldridge, associate professor and a member of the graduate faculty in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, concurs with his colleague’s assessment of being blatantly honest.

“He (Drake) brings things to my attention I wouldn’t have noticed,” Wooldridge said. “He sometimes gives me a valuable reality check with his pertinent viewpoints.”

Ten years ago Drake stepped down as director of the African-American Studies Program. Since then, he said he has had more time for research, teaching and spending time with his students — something of great importance to him.

“I think one my strengths is my enthusiasm and also my commitment to excellence. For the least reasons they (students) don’t show up for exams,” he said. “They have this excuse and that excuse. They don’t come to class on a regular basis.

If you miss more than two classes, your grade is going to be reduced by a full letter at the end. And that’s what I do.”

Once he implements such policies as class attendance and honesty, Drake said, students perform better and have more commitment to their studies.

Another strength, Drake said, involves his blatant honesty that sometimes becomes a fault.

“When I teach, I don’t pity-pat issues. Most of my courses deal with racial issues, and I think it is important not only for black students but also for white students to hear the hard, cold truth about what has been happening in racial terms.”

“I feel good that I can do this, and white students never — well I’m not going to say never — but in general they don’t consider me bias or anti-white.”

Wooldridge also said he appreciates Drake’s commitment to his students and wishes that other students — not only political science majors — could experience a class with him.

But Drake also identifies this commitment to his students as a weakness.

“I’m too impatient. I’m too inflexible. I’m very traditional in my way of teaching and what I expect. And sometimes that leads me to be overbearing, and sometimes I don’t realize I come across that way.

“I try to come across to make students do their best, but you can’t always do that. Students are grown. If they want to mess around, some professors say let them mess around. It’s their life. That’s true, but I have a hard time adjusting to that.”

Samantha Sadler, a senior and political science major, said after taking Drake’s class last semester, she appreciates his firm teaching methods.

“Professor Drake is known for being thorough and tough. However, I appreciate this in him. He has pushed me to do more than scrape the surface of whatever is out there.”

Drake’s children, his daughter, 31, and his son, 32, have terminal degrees and receive the same treatment as his students.

“I am just as tough on my children as I am on my students and maybe a little worse,” Drake said, adding that one of the important things he brings to the VCU faculty is a voice that comes from his experiences in the black movement of the ’60s.

Heavily involved in the civil rights movement during the early ’60s, Drake and two other students were jailed in 1963 for protesting against A&W Root Beer’s policy for not allowing blacks inside its facility and for protesting against the Holiday Inn because it wouldn’t let blacks eat in its dining halls.

From there, Drake became vice president of the NAACP youth league in his hometown, Newburn, N.C. While earning his B.S. degree in sociology at North Carolina A&T University, he joined the NAACP at the state level and became vice president.

After earning his master’s in African-American studies and his doctorate in political science from Cornell University, Drake said he began to lose interest in the NAACP.

“I began to lean more toward the rising tide of black consciousness and black activism,” he said.

After becoming more knowledgeable about the Vietnam War, Drake said he began to have a critical mind and started speaking out about anti-war issues as well as the black awareness movement.

“I wanted to raise my voice about what I considered to be wrong and raise it from the standpoint of a black man with a clear identity,” he said.

Meeting such people as Stokely Carmichael and Marion Barry and others who were older and more experienced in the civil rights movement, Drake said, not only helped him become the person he is but also have influenced his teaching

Sadler said Drake has proven to be a wonderful teacher of life, particularly that of African-Americans. She attributed her growth as an individual and becoming more active concerning civil rights and equality to his teachings.

For now, Drake’s main goal concerns completing a good draft of his memoirs, that combines his autobiography and social commentary.

“It’s called ‘Racial Memoirs: The Autobiography of a Black Power Militant.’ In the book I’m going to try to describe the changing ideas of a 1960s’ black militant, who wants to concentrate primarily on race.”

Because he wants people to understand the contemporary black situation, Drake’s memoirs will focus on economic subordination and race being co-equals in the American society.

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