Jon-Christian Suggs (1940-2016)

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Jon-Christian Suggs, 2016. In front of Self-Portrait by Edward Hopper at the Whitney Museum of American Art

(These remarks were delivered at the memorial service for Jon-Christian Suggs held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY on Thursday, September 8, 2016.)

I wanted to share a few words, inadequate though they may be, about what Chris meant to me, because he meant so much to me and was a fixture in my life for the past 13 years, and I know that it will take the rest of my life to pay forward even a measure of the kindness and generosity that he showed to me and my colleagues and friends.

The last time I saw Chris was earlier this year, on a cool April evening at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, in a session for the Gotham Center Seminar where he was presenting on his research project about Hannah Elias, a little known black businesswoman in early 20th century New York. Chris was as knowledgeable and witty as ever in his presentation. Now that I know he was working on that unfinished research project in the last months of his life, I find it fitting that this was the last place I saw him –  in a library in New York, sharing his knowledge with others. I’ll always remember him as a scholar and a gentleman to the end.

All of us here know that Chris was a student and teacher of African-American history and literature. I emphasize student and teacher because inasmuch as he was a master teacher of literature, he also maintained an inquisitive spirit, searching out new trends in the field.  A few days ago I searched his name in my email inbox and came across an old thread from two years ago on the Africana Studies listserv where he asked us about the best African-American novels published in the 21st century thus far, and then compiled a list of the suggestions we all made. You already know that his book Whispered Consolations is an important scholarly contribution to the fields of law and literature and African-American studies. But what you must also know about Chris is that unlike some of his colleagues in this profession, for whom African-American studies is merely a “frame” or a “trope,” or a convenient subfield with which to leverage their prospects for jobs and tenure, Chris did this work because he cared deeply about the lives of black people, and he was always a supportive and encouraging mentor to his black students, recognizing the particular challenges that we face.

In a season where there’s a lot of talk about how economic insecurity and racial grievances are driving certain Americans into the arms of a certain demagogue, I just need to remind you that Chris grew up in Louisiana — in poor, white, rural Louisiana — and that he served his country in Vietnam (however conflicted he felt about that service later), and that he recognized that anyone who claims to care about liberty, and anyone who’s talking about government tyranny and repression had better be concerned about the lives of those who have actually lived with the government’s boot on their necks for ALL two hundred forty years of this nation’s existence.  Chris devoted himself to the study of African-American literature, and championed the work of little known and neglected black writers, and passed his knowledge on to the thousands of undergraduate students who he taught here at John Jay, and the dozens of scholars he mentored at the Graduate Center, ushering us into the ranks of the academy.

I hated to see the news of his passing, but I think he would appreciate the fact that I spent that very week writing about Sutton Griggs, an author who I first discovered in his African-American Legal Novel Class. I know that any scholarship that I am able to produce will always have Chris’s fingerprints on it. I’m grateful that I had him on my orals and dissertation committees. I’m grateful that he was there with me the evening of my defense celebrating with drinks at O’Reilly’s. I am grateful that I got a chance to tell him about the research that I’m working on now, and that I got a chance to thank him for helping to make it happen.

I can personally say that I owe much of my academic career to his guidance and support through the years.  During the trying months when I wasn’t sure if I’d get through the program, when I felt like giving up, he was always a steady hand of encouragement, and I know there are so many people in this room with stories just like mine.

I want to send out my sincerest condolences to Nan, and all his family and friends who knew him even better than I did and loved him.

When I heard that he had left us, I immediately thought of this short, poignant poem by Langston Hughes that resonated with the loss that I felt at that moment.

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,—
I loved my friend.*

 


Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by Jon-Christian Suggs.

Read some of Chris’s autobiographical writing, and other thoughts, on his blog With My Weight on My Elbows.

Contribute to the Jon-Christian Suggs Memorial Scholarship in Literature and Law at John Jay College:  https://jjaycuny.thankyou4caring.org/suggs.

* “Poem [2] (To FS)” by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf, 2004.

Campus Fiction on the Web

“Our generation – we subscribe to the old liberal doctrine of the inviolate self. It’s the great tradition of realistic fiction, it’s what novels are all about. The private life in the foreground, history a distant rumble of gunfire, somewhere offstage. In Jane Austen not even a rumble. Well, the novel is dying, and us with it. No wonder I can never get anything out of my novel-writing class at Euphoric State. It’s an unnatural medium for their experience. Those kids (gestures at screen) are living a film, not a novel.”

– David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)  

 

Bad news Mr. Lodge. Film is an old medium now. These days we are living a YouTube video: short, truncated, atomized, disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.  Much of what I’ve learned about academic fiction has come from the web, whether from the blog Schoolsville (which collects recent articles and reviews of campus novels), or Ms. Mentor columns on academic novels in The Chronicle of Higher Education, or other articles on academic fiction from various sites around the web (some of which I’ve corralled into this bibliography).

Recently I’ve noticed a few YouTube videos and other digital content relevant to the topic and wanted to share them here.  This is by no means exhaustive. You can check out my Twitter feed (speaking of fragmentation) where I’m more likely to share individual items as I find them.

The Library at the Edge of the World is a YouTube channel with reviews of all sorts of books.  The episode below is about the Campus Novel.  Though I disagree with this vlogger’s take on John Williams’s Stoner, there’s some interesting commentary on other academic novels old and new, and the comment section has examples from other viewers.

And just to pluck out one random example of how other people are engaging with these books, one of the commenters on that video vlogs at Dinosaur in the Library and did a review of Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a book that I have checked out from the library, that has been in my queue for a while, and which I hopefully will get to sometime this spring or summer. (So much to read, so little time…)

I’ve run across Professor Merritt Moseley’s name in the critical literature on academic novels, and I’ve read his anthology The Academic Novel: New and Classic Essays. Here is a video of Moseley giving a lecture on the campus novel at his home campus, the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

And on Twitter, there’s “A Different World Now” a weekly chat group run from the account @hillmantoday which hosts Saturday morning livetweets on the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.  The group usually does two episodes per week and they are currently up to Season 5. I haven’t been able to participate often, but I’m happy to see that there’s sustained interest in the show, which remains one of the most important representations of black college life in pop culture.
adifferentworld

There are also a number of new films that I’ve seen but haven’t written about. I should probably do an updated list with some of the most recent college films. (A few weeks ago I saw The Five-Year Engagement which was racist as hell, much like too many other college films of its type, and also gave me a slight case of PTSD from the two miserable years I spent in Ann Arbor.)

Lastly, from a more traditional mode of scholarship, the latest issue of the literary journal Callaloo includes my review of Stephanie Brown’s The Postwar African American Novel, a book that caught my attention because it contains an informative chapter on J. Saunders Redding’s 1950 college novel Stranger and Alone, which takes place in a fictional black college called New Hope.

In the meantime I’m working to add a few more items of my own to the critical literature on academic fiction.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Literature, and “Of the Meaning of Progress”

[This is a modified version of remarks prepared for a City Tech panel on “Why Black Literature Matters,” co-hosted by the English and African-American Studies departments, and held on February 23, 2016. The concept for the panel was to discuss a short excerpt from a work of black literature. I chose this excerpt from “Of the Meaning of Progress,” in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois]

 

DuBois-VanVechten-1946

Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten

 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Literature, and “Of the Meaning of Progress”

When it comes to the subject of this panel, “Why Black Literature Matters,” I can think of few names that matter more than William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.

Du Bois thought deeply about the purposes of black literature. As a founding member of the NAACP in 1909, and editor of The Crisis magazine, he hired the writer Jessie Fauset as the magazine’s literary editor, and together they filled the pages of Crisis with poems and stories by writers such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes.

In one of his best known critical essays, “Criteria of Negro Art,” a piece originally delivered at an NAACP meeting in 1926, Du Bois imagines what some oppositional critics might have to say about a discussion of art in front of this important civil rights organization. As he put it “How is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art? What have we who are slaves and black to do with Art?”

Du Bois had already addressed these ideas 23 years earlier in his influential essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, a book that articulated the plight of black America in an engaging and lyrical style that drew readers to the book then, and continues to do so over 100 years later.  Du Bois is best known as a historian and sociologist, but he was also a creative writer, whose substantial bibliography of over thirty books includes five published novels, and a handful of short stories, poems and devotionals.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, he graduated with a B.A. in history from Fisk University, earned another B.A. from Harvard, and in 1895 he become the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard when he was awarded a doctorate in history.

In the spirit of Du Bois as a historian, let’s look at the historical context of his life. He died at the age of 95 years old, living from 1868 to 1963. As I was drafting this presentation I realized that this panel fell on February 23, which is Du Bois’s 148th birthday. He died on August 27, 1963, the day before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history. (There’s an interesting backstory about how Roy Wilkins, the NAACP president at the time, who was critical of Du Bois’s communism, reluctantly acknowledged his death to the crowd, only after being pushed by Bayard Rustin.) With a life that vast, and a body of work that includes volumes of history, sociology, autobiography and fiction, we can only scratch the surface today in talking about Du Bois’s significance in black literature.

For this panel I decided to focus on Chapter Four of The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Meaning of Progress.” There are other more popular chapters from Souls, and more popular ideas from the book, such as the metaphor of “The Veil” and the concept of “Double Consciousness,” and quotes such as “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” But “Of the Meaning of Progress” particularly speaks to me as an example of how Du Bois’s literary sensibilities shaped the entire book, and it is a chapter that I have returned to when thinking about Du Bois’s efforts to create representations of black education in literature.

In The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois took a passionate, lyrical approach to the black condition in America, infusing the book with excerpts from literary texts and the sacred music of the Southern black church, and employing the language and devices of fiction and poetry. In fact, “Of the Coming of John,” Chapter Thirteen of Souls, is actually a short story, a parable about two young men named John, one black, one white, and the divergent paths that their lives take.

Of the Meaning of Progress
This brief excerpt from “Of the Meaning of Progress” is based on Du Bois’s experiences as a teacher in rural Tennessee, during the summers when he was a student at Fisk University from 1885 to 1888. The passage is autobiographical, but it reads like a short story, and in it you can see the kind of descriptive language he used to describe the place where he lived, the bucolic beauty of the land, and the rugged beauty of the people.

(This blog post from the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) at Middle Tennessee State University provides some excellent historical background on Du Bois’s time at the Wheeler School in TN.)

thc-sign-for-wheeler-school

Like all of the chapters of Souls this one begins with an epigraph consisting of an excerpt of literature followed by bars of music.

In this case, the literary text (in German) is from Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play The Maid of Orleans, which is loosely based upon the life of Joan of Arc. It is an interesting literary choice that connects the main tragic character in the chapter, a young black girl named Josie, to the historic female heroine.

Wouldst thou proclaim thy high command,
Make choice of those who, free from sin,
In thy eternal mansions stand;
Send forth thy flaming cherubim!
Immortal ones, thy law they keep,
They do not feel, they do not weep,
Choose not a tender woman’s aid,
Not the frail soul of shepherd maid!

(Translation by Anna Swanwick, 1843)

As Du Bois explains in “Of the Sorrow Songs,” all the bars of music in the book are from Negro Spirituals. In this chapter these are the first few notes from a spiritual called “My Way’s Cloudy,” a song which Du Bois had heard in an arrangement by the world famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. (Hear it sung beautifully in this 1923 recording by Marian Anderson.)

Oh! brethren, my way, my way’s cloudy,
My way,
Go send them angels down.

This device of juxtaposing European (and American) literature with the Negro Spirituals is a textual representation of “Double-Consciousness,” a term Du Bois coined to describe the psychological condition of being black in America

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The “Progress” in the title has an ironic edge. In the narrative Du Bois fondly recalls his time at the school, but on a visit back to that same community fifteen years later he finds the people struggling, and sometimes failing, against the hardships of being black, poor and disenfranchised in the South.

In this short excerpt we can see many of the concerns that Du Bois addressed throughout his career:

1) There are the challenges of black education after emancipation, and the burning desire for education amongst a people for whom literacy was discouraged, and even illegal under slavery. And we cannot overestimate the sustained and brutal hostility to black education in the South after emancipation.

2) Du Bois centered the education of black women in his work, and the main focus of the story is the enthusiastic Josie who Du Bois saw as having such promise, but when he comes back he sadly finds that she has died, and the schoolhouse where taught was in poor condition. Du Bois’s first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, published in 1911, features a Josie-inspired character named Zora, and in that narrative she still lives a troubled life, but Du Bois is able to give her a happier ending.

3) There’s the reference to Colonel Wheeler’s land, an indicator of the persistence of the plantation economy in the years after slavery, and its effect on black education. White planters and politicians saw black education as a threat to their labor force, and the source of black insubordination, and in turn this made some black folks skeptical about what education could do for their children.

4) We also see Du Bois’s insistence upon the importance of a humanistic education for black people, and this relates to the much discussed classical vs. vocational debates that he had with Booker T. Washington, a topic he addresses directly in “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Du Bois understood the importance of vocational education and the practical needs of black laborers, but he also believed that the race needed to cultivate its intellectual talents toward leadership (through that class he called “The Talented Tenth”), and he saw an education in the humanities as an important part of a well-rounded education for black people in all classes, for it was in such education that they would develop an understanding of themselves as social equals, and thereby deserving of the full rights of citizenship with protection under the law.

Du Bois also saw black art as an important site in the struggle for black self-determination. He believed that it was essential for black artists to create representations of black people in literature (and other forms of popular culture) which reflected the diversity of black life and resisted the demeaning minstrel caricatures that dominated America’s culture industries. In “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois threw down the gauntlet by declaring that Art and Propaganda should be one, a point that many intellectuals debated for years to come. For Du Bois, the creation of black art was inextricably political, and black artists must continue working toward the creation of those diverse images despite the challenges mounted by white supremacist power structures in the literary, cultural and academic establishments.

The Souls of Black Folk was a product of Du Bois’s own literary imagination and creativity, and he incorporated his deep appreciation for the gifts of black people into it, making it one of the most compelling and enduring works of black literature, and one that still matters today.

– Brooklyn, NY
February 23, 2016