Learning From Wilt And Milt
I was among those stunned earlier this month at the news that basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain and jazz legend Milt Jackson had died within days of each other. Chamberlain’s giant feet trampled over me once at a track and field meet that I and a few athletes he was mentoring were competing in the late 1970s. The fact that he didn’t apologize hurt my feelings, but it didn’t change my respect for his contributions to the world of sports. I will never forget how, as a child, my family and I would gather around the television and watch slack-jawed as this towering giant dazzled the world with his power and artistic flare on the basketball court.
During a late 1980s engagement of the Modern Jazz Quartet in Los Angeles, I was charged with chaperoning Milt Jackson on a day of media interviews. To me, he embodied cool as only Black men can — wearing a black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, a gold chain around his neck and talking in a raspy voice that suggested he was a chain smoker. He was one of the most down-to-earth celebrities I have ever met. And when I saw him perform live, I realized that he was less a player of the vibraphone than the very essence of it.
The only comfort in the passing of these two legendary African Americans, is the knowledge that their respective genius and contributions as trailblazers set new standards in their fields while also transforming the country’s understanding of what Black athletes and Black musicians are capable. They didn’t just pave the way for people like Michael Jordan, Cheryl Swoopes, Cassandra Wilson and Wynton Marsalis; they helped lay the foundation for what has become a dominant and respected presence of Black performers in professional basketball and music.
While editing the stories for this year’s special report on Faculty Recruitment and Retention, it occurred to me that Black public intellectuals of the latter 20th century are having a similar transformational influence on the academy.
As evidenced by Michele N-K Collison’s story (see pg. 30), most postsecondary institutions would love to have a Nell Painter, Charles Johnson or Cornel West on their faculty. Not just because scholars of this stature attract publicity, money and students, but also because they are setting new standards of scholarship.
Unfortunately, the high profile of these academic superstars also has given the unwitting public the mistaken impression that the institutions that employ them have licked the faculty diversity problem. The truth is, few traditionally White institutions can make this claim. As the statistics in this edition’s 15th Anniversary Roundup support (see pg. 44), faculty of color are still in short supply in the United States. The anti-affirmative action movement has created new obstacles to increasing their numbers.
Nevertheless, the past 20 years have been marked by significant growth in the production of Black Ph.D.s as well as the development of more savvy approaches to nurturing and recruiting Black folks into careers as professors.
Robin Bennefield’s story on Black scholars in Small Town, USA, (see pg. 26) provides evidence that Black professors are turning up in the most unlikely of places. Ronald Roach’s story on faculty pipeline programs (see pg. 20) reveals that, despite the challenges posed by the anti-affirmative action climate, people of vision in higher education, government and industry are joining forces to accelerate the momentum of minority faculty production.
Perhaps in the next millennium when people think of professional scholars, the faces of Black educators will come to mind as readily as the likenesses of Chamberlain and Jackson do now when people think of professional musicians and athletes. We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than we were.
Cheryl D. Fields
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