The Grooming Of a Public Intellectual
Title: Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, Emory University, Atlanta
Education: Ph.D., English and American
literature, Stanford University; M.A., English, Ohio State University; B.A., English and American Studies, Wesleyan University
Dr. Lawrence Jackson admits he has always had a “a sense of urgency” about his career, and all it takes is a glance at his CV to confirm that. His new biography, Ralph Ellison:
Emergence of Genius — surprisingly the first ever of this towering intellectual figure — is in bookstores, and it has been called “essential” reading by the novelist Charles Johnson, and “indispensable” by the noted literary critic, Dr. Lorenzo Thomas of the University of Houston-Downtown.
Only 34, Jackson, an assistant professor of English and African American studies at Emory University, also is moving along with his second book project, A Song in the Front Yard: A History of African American Writers and Critics from 1935-1960, which he’s currently shopping to publishers. In addition to the books, there’s also an impressive list of articles, fellowships and awards, not to mention nearly 50 conference presentations.
Asked where and how he finds the time, Jackson has a sobering answer.
“A close friend of mine, who was at Morehouse, was murdered” in Jackson’s hometown of Baltimore before Jackson’s senior year of college. “It was a typical thing that happens, people trying to rob you in the street.”
The randomness of the crime and the popularity of Donald Bentley, the victim, made it a life-altering event not just for Jackson but for his entire peer group as well. “There were a number of us who were inspired to make a tangible commitment to making it, changing things, when Donald was murdered.”
The losses multiplied when Jackson’s father died just as Jackson was finishing school. And adding insult to injury, Jackson didn’t get into a single doctoral program he had applied to. “That was a very, very difficult time for me personally,” he admits. “Those experiences make you more serious. They can destroy you, too, I guess.”
But Jackson wasn’t destroyed — he just got tougher. His godmother, a professor at Howard University, came to his rescue, suggesting he might try applying to the master’s program at Ohio State University.
A master’s thesis on the pioneering scholars Sterling Brown and Alain Locke taught Jackson how much he loved doing archival work — “it was wonderful; I was spending all my time reading issues of Opportunity magazine from the 1920s and ’30s”— and it also paved the way to Stanford’s doctoral program.
Jackson recognizes that a savvy selection of mentors made it possible for him to rocket through Stanford’s doctoral program in five years — the median for scholars in the humanities is closer to nine. “Horace Porter,” one of the legendary chairmen of Stanford’s African and African American history program, “made it his business from the day I got to Palo Alto to take me under his wing,” Jackson says.
The Ellison biography presented Jackson with his greatest opportunity, but it also has created his greatest career hurdle. “In August 2001, Ellison’s estate threatened to file suit to stop publication. The book was in galleys, and they wanted 3,000 words (of a particular section) cut from the manuscript — these were quotes from his letters to Richard Wright, which are in Yale’s library and open to the public.”
Noting that there’s no manual to prepare a young scholar for dealing with that kind of pressure, Jackson says, “I just had to keep my eyes on the prize.” Eventually the 3,000 words came out.
“My goal is to be a writer,” he says. “…It’s important to me to write to be understood and to think about educating and reaching as diverse a body of people as possible. I think that’s the challenge that’s laid down by people like Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. We should be taking the public intellectual life seriously,” Jackson says, adding that scholars could be doing a better job of getting young people into and through the Ph.D. pipeline.
“We need more people to be intellectuals,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”
— By Kendra Hamilton
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com