The last time I spoke to Professor Leslie Brown was in May of this year. I was preparing to graduate from Williams College with plans to head to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in Religion and African American Studies. At Williams, I majored in History and that was mainly because of Professor Brown. She stressed the importance of having competency in history—African American history, women’s history, Native and indigenous history—in order to forge ahead and create a black, gender-inclusive future where freedom was not only imagined but conjured; not just insatiably desired, but readily actualized.
Professor Brown’s love for history was undeniable and she worked tirelessly to ensure that her students loved studying the past. She once said, “My family is from the South, and I began my career as a historian sitting under the dining room table listening to the grown folks talk.” And like any good professor, she taught us how to listen to the grown folks—our ancestors, our elders, and the sages and prophets who walked this plane before us, leaving behind legacies and footprints, letters and artifacts, photos and memories.
During my first semester at the college, Professor Brown stopped me in the hallway of her academic building, looked at me, and told me that I was taking a history course. She didn’t ask me, but she told me, and if you knew Professor Brown, you’d know that she said this with a straight face while carrying a manila folder full of papers and maybe two or three books that she was currently reading at the time. I laughed, but I also listened.
A week later, I was enrolled in a history course, and you guessed it– it was Professor Brown’s “History of the United States: 1865 to Present.” What a course. There were about 40 students enrolled, and 90% of the students were white. The class was so white that I often shrunk in size and sat in the back, rarely opening my mouth to join the often-intense discussions.
But that didn’t last long with Professor Brown. She invited me to office hours after about a week of this practice, and before long I was seated upfront, pushing back against my white peers’ incendiary comments. Professor Brown helped me find my voice.
The following year, I enrolled in her “Whiteness and Race in U.S. History” course, which trained me to use the prisms of race and gender to explore social, political, and economic American development, specifically by following the evolution of white patriarchy and planter class legacies chronologically from the colonial era to contemporary America.
These were the words Professor Brown wrote on the chalkboard in large print on our first day of class. As she finished writing each word, she exuberantly sounded them out. We each felt the imprint and the weight attached to these terms, and Professor Brown pushed us to think about their contemporary implications for race in America. And as always, she did so unapologetically and with candor that only she could bring to the classroom.
The next semester I was Professor Brown’s teaching assistant for the very same United States History survey course I took my first year. We used two main texts: Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans (with documents) edited by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Professor Brown’s edited book, African American Voices: A Documentary Reader from Emancipation to the Present.
Professor Brown loved primary sources, and she didn’t let any paper pass without substantive time spent in the Chapin archives. She taught us to sit with our research questions, to read and to read some more, and and to think critically about the five c’s of history: chronologies, contingencies, context, causality, and consequences, in order to see how past, present, and future commune, especially when past and present blur.
A sophomore at the time, I was honored that she even considered me to be her teaching assistant. She called me a historian long before I knew that I was one.
Like most historians, Professor Brown and I didn’t always agree. However, our debates made me hungrier for knowledge. She was my Mellon Mays faculty mentor during my sophomore year, and it was in the mix of our intellectual exchanges that she helped me articulate my own love for history, my identity as not just student but scholar, and my true interests in not just African American history, but African American religious history. I’m grateful that she believed in me enough to hear and respect my thoughts, even when she did not agree, and I’m humbled that she considered me a scholar in conversation with her and other scholars.
Our last conversation will remain a lasting memory. It was in Old Snack Bar of Paresky Center at Williams, and she disclosed that she had leukemia. We hadn’t seen each other for a few months before then because of our schedules, but it was as if God, Spirit, and the ancestors allowed our paths to cross that day. Professor Brown reminded me of how proud she was, encouraged me to take more history courses in graduate school, and gave me the push I needed to finish my honors thesis: “keep writing!”
I’m immensely grateful for that conversation, but I’m also thankful for all the conversations we’d ever had—the ones in her office, on the porch of her home, and even at Tunnel City Coffee over bagels. And I know without a doubt that Professor Brown will keep talking to me. Her written words, her talks and lectures, and all the notes she’d ever written all over my papers will always speak. So now I say, rest, dear friend, mentor, and professor. You fought a good fight.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University, where he is also pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include Black religion(s), Black Pentecostalism, Holiness Movements, Gender and Sexuality in the Black church, and 19th-20th century African American religious history. Follow him on Twitter @permission.