“His Infinite Curiosity”: Remembering Jeffrey B. Ferguson

This post is part of a week-long forum, organized by Mary Hicks, honoring Professor Jeffrey Brown Ferguson who passed away on March 11, 2018. Ferguson was the Karen and Brian Conway ’80 Presidential Teaching Professor of Black Studies at Amherst College. This online forum includes reflections from David Blight, Mari Crabtree, Marisa Parham, Werner Sollors, and Uday Mehta. 

Jeffrey Ferguson (Photo: Shana Sureck/© Amherst College).

I still cannot quite believe that Jeff has passed. I have been seeing him in front of me, hearing him speak—and laugh. I have known him for what seems like an eternity, was privileged enough to know him when he was an undergraduate and a graduate student—and over the years as one of my closest friends. When I started teaching at Harvard, Jeff was in one of my first classes and made a deep impression on me with his infinite curiosity and delicate sense of humor. I kept, and still have, the blue book of an exam he wrote in a class on Richard Wright. Jeff was quiet, but asked good, deep, sometimes unanswerable questions. And he liked to virtually live in the old Afro-Am Department at 77 Dunster Street and talk with faculty as equals. He had endless conversations with Nathan Huggins (who became his unofficial mentor until Nathan’s untimely death), also with David Blight, with whom he remained in close touch throughout his life. In another class Jeff took with me, he responded with enthusiasm to the satirical novel Black No More, by George S. Schuyler, the 1931 sci-fi book about Dr. Crookman, who turns Black people white, thereby upsetting the whole system of race relations, including the civil rights establishment. Schuyler was as politically incorrect a writer as can be, and therefore, immediately appealed to Jeff.

In his senior year, Jeff was working on a thesis about black students at Harvard for which he interviewed several dozen students and evaluated their responses to his questions, both quantitatively and qualitatively, creating vignettes of the different ideal types that were prevailing among them. I still remember him telling me about one student, who claimed to have heard a lecture by W.E.B. Du Bois at Harvard more than 20 years after Du Bois had died. This student was so disconnected from black intellectual life at Harvard that he had mixed up the name of the Du Bois Institute lecture with that of the speaker. Jeff discussed his thesis research with the sociologist David Riesman, and Riesman told me later how impressed he was by the detached, scholarly, truly critical and intellectual manner of this young man.

After an interlude involving a balloon-selling business at the Watertown Mall, Jeff returned to graduate school at Harvard, getting his training in American Studies. At Jeff’s general oral examination, a conservative professor who did not believe that many African traits had persisted in Black America asked Jeff what were the most significant African survivals. Jeff was mulling over the question, trying not to give the answer this professor was trying to solicit. “I guess it would have to be skin pigmentation,” Jeff finally said, holding his head at an angle. I’ll never forget that moment and I had to work hard not to laugh out loud.

Jeff was adored as a teaching fellow. He served in a class on Blaxploitation films taught by Spike Lee. At the end of another course on Black Woman Writers, the professor asked students how it made them feel that she, a white woman, had taught it. Jeff said to me: “That would be a hell of a thing to say if she were really colored and trying to pass for white.” He talked with me about a whole host of ideas he had for a dissertation topic, all of them fresh at the time: a cultural history of the Black Panther Party, for example, or the notion of the color white in American writing. I still remember a mini-lecture he gave me on John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Snow-Bound.” Working with Sacvan Bercovitch, Jeff also deeply engaged with American exceptionalism.

Jeff ultimately returned to George Schuyler because of the writer’s “uncompromising skepticism,” recognition of the “ludicrous and outlandish in American race relations,” and sharp ability to generate freeing laughter at the absurdities of the Jim Crow regime. As Jeff put it, in all the books he had read, “nothing came close to the irreverent force of Schuyler’s satire.” Jeff’s long-standing engagement with Schuyler culminated in the magnificent, paradigm-changing book, The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance. Elegantly written and meticulously researched, it puts the iconoclastic satirist Schuyler at the very center of American and African American Studies and forces the reader to take a fresh look at Schuyler’s essays, Pittsburgh Courier columns, and his novel, Black No More. It questions the conventions of “race melodrama” through the lens of which so much American cultural history and storytelling has been filtered.

How would the field of Black Studies and thinking about “race relations” be different if Schuyler’s relentless and shifting questions were heeded? To what extent can “protest” become part of what it is protesting against? How can the “bifurcating effects” of racial melodrama, the common, popular, and well-intentioned forms of sentimental heroicization and victimization be avoided in literary and in scholarly narratives? The Sage of Sugar Hill asks us to consider normal practices and assumptions from a new and fresh vantage point.

Further contemplation of such questions led him to a more general book project, titled Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance. This was a critical examination of the fixtures of discourse that have governed writing by and about African Americans as well as Black Studies scholarship. The manifesto-like opening stakes his claims in the firmest terms:

“The broad and diverse discourse on African Americans has yielded many books, but only two basic stories: those of suffering and resistance. Whether through exaggeration, understatement, denial, or intricate combination, all others derive from these two.”

Jeff immediately widens his lens and asks broader questions that should undergird any notions of suffering and resistance: “Can meaning or wisdom come from suffering? Or is suffering the permanent enemy of the free life? Does suffering contain its own transcendence? Or can it be justified only as means to the attainment of tangible worldly goods such as money, status, or political power?”

Jeff completed and published three substantial chapters on such “grounding modes” (as he called them): the rhetoric of resistance; the belief that the cultural productions of intellectuals, including novels, poetry, and drama should be connected to a folk-based vernacular as embodied by the blues; and the always reemerging expectation that race would disappear (occasioned, for example, by Obama’s election). He drafted several more chapters: one on the pervasive theme of escape and flight (with a section on Ralph Ellison); one on violence and nonviolence; and one on the failure to recognize vulnerability as the deepest sign of human strength (contrasting W.E.B. Du Bois with Gandhi). I hope that an editor at a university press would be willing to bring out the completed parts of Jeff’s Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance as a book, so his questions circulate more widely and the power of his answers are more directly felt.

Jeff brought his sense of intellectual freedom and his inimitable sense of humor to teaching. Once he started at Amherst College, he moved through the ranks from visiting lecturer to the position of the Karen and Brian Conway ’80, P’18 Presidential Teaching Professor of Black Studies. He conveyed the power of rhetoric and debate to students who had not been aware that their speech was already governed by rhetorical figures the names of which they did not yet know, though rhetoricians of antiquity had already identified most of them. One of his unfinished projects was to work with me on a new student-friendly handbook of rhetoric updated from Cicero and Quintilian for the 21st century, using examples from African American literature, music, and life. I hope that the mere description of this project would be sufficient to entice some younger scholars to undertake and publish such a handbook in Jeff’s spirit.

He asked students to role-play and defend positions that were not their own, making them see a certain legitimacy in different viewpoints. Through his own example, Jeff encouraged students to adopt a mode of speaking convincingly and clearly. At a time of shrinking Humanities enrollments, he made Black Studies grow dramatically as an attractive major for students who could imagine themselves as lawyers, politicians, or doctors. He invited me to his classes at Amherst twice, and the undergraduates just loved Jeff. They were in awe of me simply because I had been their teacher’s teacher. Whoever has heard Jeff lecture will have a full sense of his charm, humor, and probing questions. Brian Hochman, one of his students who became a graduate student of mine, wrote a touching memorial of Jeff as an Amherst teacher that conveys Jeff’s charisma. When Jeff edited The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents it was clearly inspired by his teaching at Amherst.

Jeff kept up his quips; his Jeffisms. A Bond Street tailor of African descent once donated an elegant tailor-made suit of the best material to a professor who announced he would offer it as a reward to the best senior graduating in Harvard’s Afro-Am Department. When he saw this announcement, Jeff’s comment was that this was a good start, especially if all other graduating students would then be required to wear the kinds of suits that were commensurate to their intellectual performance. And in response to Toni Morrison calling Bill Clinton “America’s first black president,” Jeff wrote that though Hillary Clinton also held strong appeal to many black voters, there was “the tantalizing possibility represented by Obama: that the second black president of the United States might actually be black.” And a few days after Donald Trump was elected President, Jeff called him “America’s first white president,” long before others claimed that moniker in print.

A further large project, about which we had many meetings and conversations, is still in progress. It concerns the creation of a new, racially integrated American anthology. As Jeff argued in the rationale he drafted for this project, anthologies of African American literature generally do not include any “white” texts (except by mistake) and while many American literature collections have opened their pages to a few “Black” works, one searches in vain for the many formal, thematic, biographical, and historical connections between Black and non-Black American writers. Hence a newly inclusive anthology that would show the many strands of interracial relationship, ranging from inspiration and influence to sharp political or aesthetic antithesis, and would make readers wonder what exactly makes a text “white” or “Black,” or what difference it makes for them to interpret a work this way before they actually read it. When he was already quite ill, Jeff completed the selection of texts for a massive pilot volume, titled Black. White. America: An Anthology, that includes works from the beginnings to World War I.

Jeff was also a loyal son. His mother, who had helped him type the dissertation, was so proud of him. He took his father to live with him in Amherst until his father’s death. When he met his future wife, Agustina, in Amherst, this opened a whole new world to him, reaching from Worcester to Bali (how he loved going to Bali!). He transformed from a confirmed bachelor into a happy husband, brother-in-law, son-in-law, grandson-in-law, and later into a boundlessly delighted father when Agustina gave birth to their beautiful twins whom Jeff nicknamed Django and Teddy. He couldn’t get enough talking about them, explaining how different Teddy was from Django, and the Yoruba naming ceremony in Amherst was one of the happiest parties I have been to.

Then came the sad news of the long-misdiagnosed illness that turned out to have been cancer, a malicious cancer that Jeff fought valiantly and resourcefully. There wasn’t a treatment for which he did not steel his body to get a step ahead of the disease and stem it. He was too ill to teach, but he kept working. He came to Venice, and in those warm days he was so hopeful that he had turned the corner, that the disease had been contained, had been all but defeated.

Many times, Jeff and I sat on chairs next to each other, after luncheons or dinner parties, and we would spin a dialogue that always culminated in the line, “this is as good as it gets.” The subject was life. Life. How Jeff cherished it and how cruel was the fate that took him away at such a young age.

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Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors is Professor Emeritus of English Literature and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He has taught at Columbia University, at the Università degli Studi di Venezia, Cà Foscari, and New York University Abu Dhabi. His most recent books are 'The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s' (2014), 'African American Writing: A Literary Approach' (2016), and 'Challenges of Diversity: Essays on America' (2017).