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.