“A Soothing Balm to My Soul”: Remembering Leslie Brown

13873100_965125852930_351923303641388704_nIn April 2016, towards the end of my first year on the tenure track, I met Leslie Brown. I remember quite vividly the days leading up to our meeting because it was, by far, one of the lowest points of my semester. I was dabbling with the idea of packing my bags before the semester ended, grabbing a flight out of the country and disappearing for several months. I remember how I articulated some version of these thoughts to a close friend who “walked me off the ledge” so to speak and reminded me to stay measured, calm, and rational in all of my decisions.

I had received a random email on April 9, 2016 from a colleague who copied me on a message sent to Leslie. My colleague began, “It is my great pleasure to introduce you – for now via email – to my wonderful colleague, Dr. Keisha Blain!” After some kind words about my research and other pleasantries, she mentioned that Leslie was interested in visiting my class, “Race and Politics in 20th Century America.” I obliged. I didn’t think that much about it. Plus, it seemed like a “no-brainier.” I had assigned Leslie’s Living With Jim Crow that semester and had read some of her other work over the years. But, at the moment the request came, I would have been fine with handing over the entire class to her and going into hiding somewhere.

890c74e039aa012b0fd1437d79092ad1Remembering my friend’s advice–to be calm, measured, and rational–I pushed aside my feelings and decided to show up. It was not one of my best days. That night I hardly slept. I had too much on my mind. I was overwhelmed and needed the semester to end already. And that morning I cried all the way to campus. But, I wiped my tears ten minutes before class began and pulled myself together. I showed up in high performance–with a big confident smile as I met Leslie that afternoon. She gave a fabulous lecture and my students loved her. After class, we had made plans to grab a “quick lunch” and things were progressing as planned. I would give her one hour of my time and then I would go back home to watch Netflix. I had already lined up my shows and picked out my snacks. I would wallow in my sorrows later and just get through the next hour with a smile on my face.

And then my world turned upside down. Leslie looked at me and started asking very poignant questions–the kinds of questions folks ask when they already know the answer but want you to admit it. I remember feeling uneasy. It was not the kind of meeting I had expected. Folks normally asked me about my research or my blogging or my time at Princeton–the usual academic chit-chat. I was used to those. But, Leslie started asking questions that made me pause–questions about me. She asked questions about self-care; questions about how I “felt” about my career; questions about what I wanted for myself and for my family. She asked the kinds of questions few scholars had ever asked me and she cared to know the answers.

After she carefully listened to me, she looked me straight in the eyes and assured me, “you can do this.” For the next three hours, she shared with me her own personal journey; spoke candidly about the challenges she faced at various points of her career; and offered invaluable advice about how to navigate the academy. She didn’t dance around the issues–she was direct and brutally honest with me in a way that was not demeaning but uplifting. She shared with me the many pitfalls of the academy–especially for black women–and gave me some practical advice for facing these challenges. “You can do this,” she repeated several times throughout our conversation and each time she said it, it felt like a soothing balm to my soul.

When we parted ways that afternoon, I left feeling encouraged and empowered. I left with a sense of hope and optimism for all the reasons I had cried that morning. I realized there were many reasons to smile. I could smile because I had the power to decide that the academy would not consume my life. I had the power to decide that as much as I want tenure, I am not willing to give up my convictions for it. I had the power to decide that I would not allow others’ dismissal of my work to make any difference in my decision to pursue it and do so passionately. I had the power to decide that my own happiness mattered and I would worry less about what other people think is “best” for me at this stage of my career. I would not be reckless, but I would not make decisions to please others at the detriment of my own wants and needs.

I smiled all the way home, and decided that evening not to wallow in my sorrows but to plan for the future.

As I reflect on my meeting with Leslie, and our exchanges during the last few months of her life, I am overcome with joy that I had an opportunity to encounter a scholar who simply kept it real. Too many times in academia, we see others hurting–or perhaps we choose not to see at all because we do not care–and we look the other way or decide that it’s not our business to even ask. We get more hung up on issues that are quite trivial. Leslie taught me the importance of never losing our personhood in a profession where feelings are often deemed unimportant.

She was a brilliant scholar–yes, an award-winning scholar whose CV would cause anyone to shudder. But, above all, she was kind and she extended a hand of support even to those she did not know. I will miss her immensely. I will forever cherish her words. I will strive to follow in her example to be bold enough to say the truth and to see others for who they are– more than scholars, writers, and intellectuals but as people.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on ““A Soothing Balm to My Soul”: Remembering Leslie Brown

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    Thank you Keisha, for sharing your memories of Leslie Brown. The perceptive, sensitive mentoring and nurturing of the spirit that you describe here is oh so familiar to me. My first experience with Leslie was during my very first job talk, at Washington University in St. Louis. Extremely nervous and increasingly certain that I would bomb, I scanned the sea of unfamiliar, inscrutable faces. At the back of the room, there was Leslie who gave me a big encouraging smile and an enthusiastic wave, a warm, welcoming gesture that screamed, “you can do this!” That was all I needed to deliver a job talk that resulted in an offer. I was honored to be her junior colleague for three years at Wash. U. before we both decamped to other institutions. My doctorate is in African history but in those three years Leslie Brown was my master teacher in African American history, bringing all of her wide and varied life experience to the table alongside all of that breathtaking book knowledge. She and her partner Anne Valk mentored, loved, and cared for me as I went through difficult times. Fiercely funny, wonderfully wise, and powerfully humane, Leslie Brown was a force of nature, the definition of the passionate scholar-teacher, a truly genuine and empathetic person who left you better than she found you. She was a bad-ass woman, unpretentious, unafraid, and un-bossed. Leslie, I love you and I miss you.

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