That first year was a hoot. The seven students showed up, ready to begin their doctoral studies in our brand new program. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, September 4th, I met with them, greeted them in my new role as Graduate Program Director, and explained that in the first year, all of them would take a double seminar on Major Works of Afro-American Studies, meeting for two and a half hours each Monday and Wednesday. In addition, I said, during the second semester, they would be expected to take a third course or seminar, either in our department or elsewhere in the University. That same afternoon, at 2:30 p.m., they were to gather in the seminar room at the end of the hallway for their first class.
All of us on the faculty were a little bit over the top with excitement, and in a moment of sheer folly, we decided that all us would attend every session of the Major Works seminar. Seven young, rather nervous students gathered around a table with Esther Terry, John Bracey, Mike Thelwell, Ernie Allen, Bill Strickland, and me. There wasn't enough oxygen in the room to draw a deep breath! I had instructed the students that they were to read three books over the summer in preparation for their studies -- the Franklin, the slave narratives, and the Meier and Rudwick -- and were to bring to the first class a paper on one of them. To each class they were to bring enough copies so that each member of the class and each professor could have one -- thirteen copies in all. I advised them to keep a file of these papers. In future years, I explained, when they were professors somewhere and were called on to teach one or another of those fifty books, they could pull out the file and see what their colleagues -- now also professors - had had to say about it,. I assured them that it would make class preparation much easier.
And away we went. Each time we met, the students were responsible for another book and another paper. Seven students, fifty papers each, three hundred and fifty papers in all. That first year, I read every single paper and returned it the next day with marginal hand-written comments and a brief typed comment clipped to the front. We were insane, of course. My five colleagues had been arguing among themselves about the substance of Afro-American Studies for almost thirty years. Gathered together in one room, they could scarcely restrain themselves from rehearsing those arguments, and they made very little effort to do so. The students would plaster themselves up against the walls, struck dumb by the sight and sound of an entire department of professors in full bellow.
There were moments whose truly extraordinary character was, I think, lost on our students, who simply assumed that all graduate programs were like ours. The assignment one day was Margaret Walker's novel, Jubilee, which chronicles the life of a young woman born into slavery, liberated at the end of the Civil War, and then struggling to make a life for herself during Reconstruction and in the terrible aftermath of Jim Crow. One of the students asked whether the novel could be read as a work of feminist literature. Mike Thelwell said that it certainly could not be so read. John Bracey, who knew a great deal about feminism, then launched into a lengthy and extremely interesting rebuttal to Mike, distinguishing a number of different schools of feminist thought, and suggesting that the novel might be read as feminist by one or another of those schools, but not by yet a third or fourth. Mike Thelwell, who disliked feminist literary theory as much as he disliked every other school of literary theory, stood fast, insisting that there was no way that the novel could be construed as feminist.
The next class period, the students came in, having read a new book and having prepared a new paper. As soon as we were convened, Mike began to speak in his characteristically courteous and somewhat orotund fashion.; "You will recall," he said, "that my esteemed colleague, Professor Bracey, and I had a disagreement when last we met about whether Margaret Walker's novel, Jubilee, could be construed as a feminist work. I said that it could not, and Professor Bracey mistakenly argued that it could. I was quite persuaded that I was correct, but I did not wish to leave my judgment thus unsubstantiated, so after the class ended, I went home and I called Miss Walker. We had a very pleasant conversation, during which I asked her whether her novel could be construed as feminist, and she assured me that it could not."
John exploded at this, saying that every literary critic knew the author was the last person you wanted to ask about the proper interpretation of a piece of fiction, and pointing out that a collection of Mitchell's short stories had been published by a feminist press [a fact of which everyone in the room save John was, of course, ignorant.] At that point, the rest of us intervened and suggested that we start discussing the book assigned for that day. But I am very much afraid that the students came away from the experience thinking that in graduate school, when one had a disagreement about the meaning of a text, the normal thing to do was to call up the author, with whom one was, of course, good friends.
Later on, we read Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, and Esther remarked casually that some while back, when Anne was a bit on her uppers, she had stayed with Esther and Gene in their Amherst home. When we got to Zora Neale Hurston's great novel, their Eyes Were Watching God, John told stories about Zora, who was, it seems, a good friend of his grandmother. Zora was visiting John's grandparents in Florida when she got the $200 advance for the novel, and she and John's grandmother went out shopping, whereupon Zora blew the whole advance on a splendid new coat. I was in a state of perpetual intellectual arousal. I had been around the Academy for forty years, at that point, and I had never seen anything like it.
One moment in the seminar remains in my memory as emblematic of an important fact about the ideological convictions of my colleagues. One of the books we read was Herbert Gutman's important work, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. Michael Forbes, who had come to us from Eastern Michigan University, where he had majored in Black Studies, observed that when he took a course on the Black Family as an undergraduate, they had not read Gutman's book "because he is White." John Bracey delivered a long speech about the large number of White scholars who had made invaluable contributions to Afro-American Studies. Some while later, when we were talking about my difficulties in raising money for the graduate program, John remarked that the department was "nationalist but not separatist." That fact went a long way to explaining why they were able to welcome me into the department, as they had another White scholar earlier, and as they welcomed two more White scholars subsequently.
There was no way we could continue with the mad scheme of having the entire department attend every class. After the first year, we calmed down, and started handing round the responsibility for leading the discussion on this book or that. Because we were so short handed in those first years, I actually got to teach some of the books on the list, even though I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert on any one of them. For several years, I led the discussion on Cane, on Their Eyes, and on two books I had personally championed on our list, Skip Gates's The Signifying Monkey and Thomas Morris's five hundred page monograph, Southern Slavery and the Law 1619 -1860. My colleagues hated Gates [for pandering to the moneyed white liberals and having no roots in the Black community], and everyone in the department but me hated the Morris book, which I found utterly fascinating, so after a couple of years both books were voted off the list.
Each year, near the end of the Spring semester, we would meet as a department to discuss possible changes in the Major Works list. At first, people argued for adding titles, but could not agree on dropping any, so the list crept up from fifty to fifty-six. Finally, in one of my few acts of administrative rank-pulling, I laid down the law that henceforward, anyone wanting to add a title would have to couple the proposal with the name of the book he or she was proposing to drop. Over the twelve years during which I presided as GPD, the list did undergo changes, but it held remarkably constant. The practical consequence was that in any of the advanced courses or seminars in the department, one could confidently assume that every student had read the same fifty foundational works, to which one could therefore refer without further explanation. Pedagogically speaking, that is an invaluable foundation for a truly productive graduate teaching.
We learned a great deal during those early years. The first thing we discovered was that the Graduate Record Examination was totally useless as a measure of an applicant's ability to do well in our program. The GRE scores of our applicants were dismal -- three hundreds and four hundreds, which, as the philosophers reading these memoirs will immediately respond, means that a student is utterly incapable of graduate work. But there they were, reading books by the score and writing solid, intelligent papers. Our response, at my suggestion, was simply to stop requiring GRE scores as a part of the application file. Instead, we introduced the requirement that each applicant submit a substantial piece of written work -- a term paper or seminar paper. Since "The Graduate Admissions Committee" was simply the entire department, this meant that each year, all of us read every paper submitted by every applicant. As the number of applicants crept up from twenty-nine to forty or fifty, this became a serious demand on everyone's time, but we did it, because we knew that those papers were a better indication of real promise than anything else a student might present.
I knew very little about Afro-American Studies, but by this time in my career I knew a great deal about graduate programs, and I worked very hard to make ours a success. I began by laying down an absolute inviolable rule: No matter how much or how little I could raise to support our students, the money would be divided equally among all of the students. There would be no A-list and B-list of students, no favored inner circle considered the favorites of the faculty, with everyone else forced to pick up such scraps as they could. Contrary to every other doctoral program I had ever seen or been a part of, this was going to be a collective effort of students and faculty.
This rule went hand in hand with a departmental ideal whose strongest proponent was Esther herself: If we admitted a student, then we would do whatever we could to make sure that that student completed the program and earned a doctorate. I was myself very deeply committed to this conception of education, as my comments about the Army and South Africa have already made clear. The structure of the program embodied this conception of our mission. Each class of students was expected to work as a team in the first year Major Works seminar, studying together, helping one another, looking out for one another, and that is indeed what happened. No student fell through the cracks, no student was allowed simply to slip from view. If a student missed a class, everyone in the department knew about it. If a student was having trouble grappling with the flood of texts, we would know that immediately because we were reading the papers that were turned in twice a week. The National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896, adopted as its motto "Lifting As We Climb," and the spirit of that commitment was built into the structure and the ethos of our doctoral program.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what became of the students who entered the program. In the first two years, twelve students were admitted [after the first class, we settled on five per year as the appropriate size for each class]. Of the four students remaining in the first year class and the five students who were admitted the second year, every single one earned a doctorate, and eight of the nine now hold tenured or tenure track teaching jobs in American colleges and universities. By way of comparison, according to a recent study by the Council of Graduate Studies, the national ten-year doctoral completion rates for African-Americans is 47%.
In that first year group, Michael Forbes, the man who questioned the appropriateness of reading scholarly works by White authors, went on to write a fascinating comparative study of Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway as expatriates. He is currently Assistant Professor of English and Black Studies at DePauw University. Njubi Nesbitt, who came to us after earning a Master's Degree in Communications Studies, wrote a study, since published, on the role of African-Americans in the anti-apartheid struggle. Njubi is now a tenured Associate Professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State, and the author of several books. Tanya Mears, a tall young Black women with a mordant sense of humor, wrote a ground-breaking study of Colonial American execution texts about people of African descent, a genre of literature that preceded the much better known Slave Narratives. Tanya has just accepted an Assistant Professorship of History at Worcester State College, after spending several years of back-breaking work at Norfolk State, an historically Black college in Virginia. Brandon Anderson Hutchinson, while starting a family, has earned tenure at Southern Connecticut State University. Her dissertation was a study of three Black female playwrights.
The second year class has been equally successful. Chris Lehman, a serious, deeply religious man, married to a minister who had studied at Harvard Divinity School, astonished us all by choosing as his topic "derogatory images of African-Americans in animated cartoons," or, somewhat more colloquially, coonery. He studied old animated cartoons, interviewed as many of the writers and animators as he could find who were still alive, and produced a completely original study that was subsequently published as a book. Chris lives with his wife and children in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he is a tenured Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State U. Rita Reynolds, who had already studied both African-American Studies and Photography before she came to us, wrote a fine archival study of a group of wealthy free Black women of Charleston, South Carolina. Rita, who is one of my very favorite all time students, is now a tenure track Assistant Professor at the Wagner College on Staten Island. One of her closest friends in the second year cadre was Andrew Rosa, the first Latino to join our doctoral program. Andrew is a cheerful man with a penchant for the theoretical as well as the archival. He fixed for his doctoral dissertation on St. Clair Drake [yes, the same man whose name I misspelled as Sinclair Drake while we were crafting the first year Major Works Seminar.] Despite being the most important African-American scholar after W. E. B. Du Bois, Drake had been virtually unstudied when Andrew began his research. Indeed, Andrew was the first person to make a systematic study of the one hundred boxes of Drake's papers and other materials stored at the Schomburg Library in New York. Because Drake had been John Bracey's teacher at Roosevelt University in Chicago, John was able to arrange personal interviews for Andrew with several of Drake's contemporaries who were still alive. Andrew is now bringing his intellectual biography to completion and readying it for publication. When it appears, it will be an indispensable contribution to the political as well as the intellectual development of twentieth century African-American thought. Andrew is an Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University.
Let me tell one brief story about Andrew, to give some idea of the sort of commitment we all had to the success of our students. For several years, Andrew carried out his doctoral research, traveling repeatedly to New York, to Chicago, and elsewhere in pursuit of original materials. When to came time for him to start writing, however, he got stuck. I think he simply had so much material that he was unable to subdue it to a satisfactory and manageable narrative line. I knew that he was having difficulty, but since I was not directing his dissertation, I really had no role to play. [Readers of this Memoir who are not themselves academics may be puzzled by this remasrk, inasmuch as I was the Graduate Program Director, but at UMass, and more generally in graduate programs of any sort, it is the dissertation director, and no one else, who is in charge of a student's progress, once he or she reaches the dissertation stage.]
Finally, I decided to step in informally. I asked Andrew to meet me in my office with everything he had written thus far. He showed up with about one hundred pages or so of material. I took a quick look and found that it was really alternative versions of the same material, or fragments from different stages in Drake's life and career. so I set it aside and started to talk Andrew through the structure and organization of his project. Since he had undertaken an intellectual and political biography of Drake, the narrative structure was obviously going to be chronological. Andrew had a very clearly defined and quite precise conception of the successive stages of Drake's education and career, so it was not difficult to see how the dissertation should be broken into chapters. However, since Drake lived to be seventy-nine and played a major role not only in African-American affairs but also in the Pan-African Movement following the end of World War II, it was obvious that Andrew could not possibly cover the entirety of Drake's life and career in a doctoral dissertation. Following Andrew's lead [I knew nothing about Drake -- I mean, nothing], I proposed a cut-off point for the dissertation, essentially at the end of the research project that led to Drake's most important scholarly work, Black Metropolis, written with Horace Cayton and published in 1943.
Once we had defined the limits of the dissertation, I talked Andrew through an outline of the successive chapters, each of which he really already had conceptualized in his mind. Finally, after more than a hour, we reached a point at which Andrew had a clearly defined game plan for the writing of the dissertation. At this point, I said to him, "Andrew, I want you to go home and today write the first page of the first chapter. When you are done, I want you to email it to me as an attachment. I will read it, make any corrections I think it needs [of an editorial nature -- I was certainly not qualified to make any substantive corrections!], and I will email it back to you. Tomorrow, I want you to send me page two. I will do the same thing. Every day, including Sundays and holidays, you are to send me an additional page. I may go to Europe with Susie for a vacation, but you are to continue sending me a page a day, regardless. You will do that for eight months. At that point, you will have a draft of your dissertation. If I see you wandering from the outline, or getting ahead of yourself, I will warn you and get you back on track. If you are patient, you will get your degree at the end of this year. Once you have a complete draft, submit it to your dissertation director [John Bracey], for his comments, corrections, and required revisions.
For the next eight months, Andrew sent me a page a day, which I read and sent back to him that same day. Andrew completed his dissertation, which was fully as impressive as I knew it would be, and off he went to Oklahoma State. I have done the same thing with two other students in the doctoral program, always, of course, without having more than the most rudimentary knowledge of the subject matter of the dissertation.
The fourth student from that second year group was Carolyn Powell, an older independent scholar who came to us after a career in the secondary schools of New York City. [John Bracey became very excited when he read her application file, because it seemed that he routinely assigned an essay she had published in one of his undergraduate courses.] Carolyn wrote a very controversial dissertation about consensual sexual relations between slave masters and female slaves in the Old South, and as luck would have it, was writing about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings just at the time the DNA evidence confirmed the oral tradition in the Black Community, steadfastly denied by Jefferson's White descendants, that the Founding Father had fathered a child with his slave, Hemings.
This is perhaps the appropriate time to say something about an aspect of our program of which I am most proud. Over the years, we attracted and admitted a number of older Black students like Carolyn who had been away from the Academy for as much as twenty years or more, and now wanted to return to do earn a doctorate with us. These were in every way non-traditional students, and each, in his or her own way, found the transition back to student life difficult. W. S. Tkweme, a very tall, elegant graduate of Harvard, had had a bad experience in the Ivy League, and had withdrawn to Atlanta, where he ran a radio program devoted to Black culture and started a John Coltrane Society. Tkweme [as he styled himself -- it was not his birth name] was obviously made somewhat uncomfortable by once again being a student after making a life for himself as an accomplished and mature man. With exquisite tact, he took to calling me "Dr. Bob," which nicely triangulated our relationship. He chose to write on the politics and economics of the jazz world in the 60s, and took advantage of the fact that one of our colleagues in the department was the great jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. After earning his doctorate, Tkweme accepted an Assistant Professorship in the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville.
Lloren Foster had dropped out of college and pursued a career as a computer expert, before returning to complete his undergraduate degree while in his forties. He then applied to take a doctorate with us. Lloren wrote a comparison of liberation fiction in America and South Africa, and on one of my periodic trips abroad, I was actually able to track down for him a number of South African novels in a Cape Town bookstore. When Lloren was still a long way from completing his dissertation, he was offered a job at Hampton University teaching Freshman English. The teaching load was crushing, and I knew from Cynthia's experience that the task of grading student papers could be mind-killing. I urged Lloren not to take the a job until he as finished with the dissertation, but he had a family to support, and decided to accept. "The Lord will provide," he assured me, and so He did. Lloren is now Dr. Foster, and is a regular member of the Hampton English Department.
My favorite student among the older contingent was Marieta Joyner, who came out of a sharecropping background in rural Alabama. Marieta had been serving for a number of years as a staff assistant in the Clinical Psychology Department of the Boston campus of UMass. I worked long and successfully with her to help her to reacquire the ability to handle the heavy load of reading and writing that we demanded of all our students. Marieta, who was in her early fifties when she started our program, had a grown son who had gone deaf as the consequence of an illness, and this got her interested in a subject that no one at all had done any research on -- the education of deaf African-Americans. Marieta learned American Sign Language, and presented it in satisfaction of the language requirement that was a standard part of our Preliminary requirements for the doctorate. She visited Gallaudet, conducted a number of interviews with old-timers there, and produced the first scholarly study ever done of the subject. Marieta is now Associate Lecturer in History and Politics at Curry College in Milton, MA.
The last of the students in that second year class was Jennifer Jensen-Wallach, the first White student we admitted [there would be a number of others.] Jennifer came from an evangelical Christian family in Arkansas [her mother, who eventually left the Church, wrote an autobiography about her experiences that is about to become a movie in which she is played by Vera Vermiga, the co-star of the George Clooney movie Up in the Air. Talk about seven degrees of separation!] Jennifer had done graduate study in Southern History at Ole Miss, and had also worked on the Martin Luther King papers. She conceived the idea of writing a genuinely interdisciplinary dissertation in which she would do a literary analysis of a number of memoirs of the Jim Crow south, written by famous and accomplished authors, in an attempt discover whether there were insights into an historical era that can best be accessed through a literary rather than a historiographical approach. I ended up directing the dissertation, to my absolute delight. Although Jennifer needed no help at all from me, or indeed from anyone else, in the writing of the dissertation, I was able to make some philosophical suggestions about the epistemological questions raised by her approach that I would like to think strengthened her argument. The dissertation was published as a book to great critical acclaim. Jennifer is now a tenure track Assistant Professor in the History Department of the University of North Texas, and has just signed a contract for her fourth book.
All of us in the department were especially close to those first classes of graduate students. At the beginning of each year, Esther would throw a party at her big home for the entire department. Somehow, the extended Black community of UMass would get wind of the party, and they would all show up, considering the Afro-American Studies Department their home as well. In its way, this community was rather like that circle of people in New York who considered the Columbia Philosophy Department their second home.
There was a certain amount of hi-jinks that took place, inevitably. One day, I walked into my office to discover that it has been festooned with little cardboard cutouts of Bob the Builder, a children's play figure after my time as a father [or as a kid.] But I think my favorite joke arose out of a conversation I had one day with Jennifer Jensen-Wallach. My time in the Afro-American Studies Department was, after all, rather cognitively disorienting. To the students, I was good old Bob, the Department shabbes goy, who seemed to do everything administrative that no one else wanted to do. Most of the them had no idea that I actually had a certain reputation as a philosopher. That was all right with me, but sometimes I wanted to let them know that I wasn't just a pile of chopped chicken liver. So in the midst of a conversation, prompted by I know not what, I suddenly blurted out to Jennifer, "You know, this may be hard to believe, but I am actually a World Famous Philosopher."
Well, from then on, to this day, she took to calling me The WFP. Her first book is dedicated to The WFP, and when her husband, a writer for The Nation, came back from a Nation sponsored cruise, he brought with him, for me, a picture of Rachel Maddow, inscribed "To WFP." I am sure Maddow has no idea what that actually meant.
During the twelve years that I served as Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, we achieved an astonishing record with our students. Almost all of them finished their degrees and went on to good teaching jobs and a growing record of distinguished scholarly publications. During that same period, the flashy "Dream Team" at Harvard got all the press, but we were doing the Lord's work at UMass, and we were phenomenally successful.