2016: Year That Trembled and Reel’d Beneath Me

View from the Brooklyn Bridge, 10/26/16

View from the Brooklyn Bridge, 10/26/16


Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!
Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed
froze me,
A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
And sullen hymns of defeat?

-Walt Whitman


By the end of this year “2016” became an Internet meme unto itself. The perception is that this year had an unusually high number of high-profile deaths. Probably not. If there’s anything unusual about this year maybe it’s the increased volume of communication networks that have facilitated collective mourning over celebrity deaths.

Nevertheless, there were some sudden, unexpected losses that felt shocking and unusual, particularly the loss of pop culture icons like David Bowie and Prince, stars who seemed like they had plenty of years left, but then suddenly were gone.

Personally, the death of Prince hit me hard. I was sitting in my school’s library when I saw the breaking news on my phone. I skipped an unnecessary meeting that afternoon and headed home.  I couldn’t imagine sitting in a room talking about bureaucracy after seeing that.  I didn’t want to be around people, didn’t want to be forced into any conversations about it.

Much closer to home, I lost one of my graduate school mentors in August just a few months after having lost another at the end of 2015.

Then November 8 happened. And my country, which I always knew had a substantial amount of headass in it, decided to go full Idiocracy on us.

The massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub earlier in the summer was a personal breaking point for me.  The aftermath of that tragedy made me decide to purge my Facebook list of some people from my past who really weren’t adding much to my life now.

No, that decision was not about living an “echo chamber.” Their rancid-ass opinions about me and my friends are very well represented in many other places, and always have been for my entire life.  I’m public on other platforms, and if these people really care what I have to say (yeah, right) they can find me there.  I decided I’m no longer willing to give such people access to me and my personal space.

I didn’t do much posting here on the blog, and didn’t write as many articles this year as I would have liked.  I decided to forego some short-term writing to focus on long-term projects, including my book and a couple of longer articles that are now in process. I’m hoping that gamble will pay off with more opportunities in 2017.

I have some new pieces in the works coming out early in the new year.  One of the first that should appear is an article about W. E. B. Du Bois and his fiction writing.  I’m interested in Du Bois’s depiction of black education as a critical part of resistance against white supremacy.  We find ourselves in a challenging moment politically now, but black writers and artists have been here before, working through crisis, and now it’s our turn to do the same.

So I can’t say I’m heading into 2017 with a whole lot of hope that we will all survive this madness that was unleashed this fall, but I’m confident that the ancestors have already given us the tools we need for the work that lies ahead.

I want to thank all of you who have kept up with my sporadic writing here over the years.  Sadly, because of spammers and trolls, I’ve decided I’d better moderate posts here before things get out of hand, but if you’ve got a serious comment I’m more than happy to engage.  From talking to people over the past few months I do realize there are some folks out there who read my meager scribblings regularly, and I appreciate that. And for some reason, from my blog stats, there appears to be a burst of interest in Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio. That novel is part of the book project I’m working on, so hopefully I can add more to that conversation in the new year.

To all of you out there, Happy New Year, and may we all find the strength and courage we need to face the challenges ahead in 2017.


Jon-Christian Suggs (1940-2016)


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.

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.