Honoring the Life of Pellom McDaniels, III

Dr. Pellom McDaniels III, (courtesy of Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library, Emory Library)

“Pellom loved Black people.” His faith compelled him to. His artistry and scholarship commanded him to. His soul cries out even today with that same love. Loving Black people became his epitaph. Put it on his tombstone. “Here lies Pellom McDaniels, III—Lover of Black people.” It was a banner he carried with pride throughout his many lives. It was spoken aloud and then validated via nodding consensus at one of the first gatherings of his family and friends after his passing. Now this mantra rings out across the world, to the Continent, and beyond.

Loving Black people—not to mention embracing Blackness itself—is an act of rebellion. The world hates you. You’re supposed to be unlovable. But Pellom wasn’t having it. He loved you anyway. And he wanted you to love yourself. Unconditionally. Unapologetically. Without limits. Yet his embrace of the African Diaspora, in all its glorious complexity, was not some kind of crude parochialism. His love for Black people was enough; but it was also his springboard to an ever-wider solidarity. In this way, Pellom’s love for all things Black became his entrée to a world embracing vision—a love for all people. It’s not supposed to work that way. Blackness is designed ontologically as the antithesis of ‘the human.’ It is supposed to be despised. Yet through Blackness, and his love for Black people, Pellom McDaniels came to love the depth of his own true humanity and recognize its presence in others.

But Pellom wasn’t loud in his love. He wasn’t that kind of rebel. He moved with a quiet calm. That is, until he had to sack John Elway and rip that pigskin away from his plundering hands (but more on that later). The point is that Pellom’s radical love was part of a legacy of Black nurturing within the Black protest tradition. It’s probably what drew him to gardening. He liked to see things grow. He was a builder, a connector, a life giver. He had to create things. Whether that meant works of art, books of poetry, museum exhibits, archival collections, or patented chemical compounds to help dentistry patients (yes, for real). He was a throwback to another time—a Renaissance man now stuck in an era without a Harlem. Those eclectic impulses might best be understood as his restless attempts to set the world aright. His ultimate project was to bring about a healing unity that started with Black people and engulfed the entire planet.

The Lives

Born in San Jose, California on February 21st, 1968, Pellom McDaniels was always larger than life. This almost superhuman range began in childhood. He grew up in humble circumstances, and was forged in a struggle that he refused to forget. In a country just beginning to contend with its post-Civil Rights future, the odds of him one day becoming an academic and a curator were slim to none. Luckily, as a young man his unwavering work ethic helped him both in the classroom and on the football field. While Black minds remain largely unwanted in America, Black bodies never ceased to be useful to American capitalism. Seeing few other options, Pellom risked his body to keep it fed. As he bashed heads with other Black workers, the largely white crowds at Oregon State University screamed out for more. At that time, football fans and administrators paid their gladiators with a college education. Playing the most hazardous position on the field, Pellom’s mind thankfully survived the pounding.

After leading his team in sacks and earning recognition as an All-Pac 10 defensive lineman, Pellom once again beat the odds. He went undrafted out of college but had interviewed with Procter & Gamble as a back-up plan. After a short time as a sales representative for Procter & Gamble, he followed his passion for football and worked his way into the National Football League. In 1991, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. After moving to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, he spent seven more seasons in the NFL where he averaged over a sack a year. More importantly, however, in Kansas City Pellom began engaging in significant community outreach. Football was just the hook. Kansas City’s young people soon became exposed to his contagious love for them, the arts, and their writings. The Chiefs nominated him for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. His loving service and mentorship to Black communities and teammates continued during his final stop in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons in 1999. It only accelerated in the twenty years since.

In an unlikely move, Pellom became a historian. First came the M.A. in 2006 and then the PhD in 2007, both from Emory University. After a brief stint back in Kansas City as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, he returned to Emory as the Curator of African American Collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library. Students loved him. Administrators admired his creativity and boundless enthusiasm for his work. While building the collection he would conduct extensive research on the intersection of race and sports, Black intellectual history, militarism, and the question of Black citizenship. As a poet and creative writer Pellom would also explore the themes of Black memory, African genealogy, and the long history of the prison industrial complex. His work as a curator and archivist brought priceless artifacts to the Emory archives that will benefit the world for years, if not centuries, to come.

Of all his academic and artistic work, it was this building of a Black archive that was Pellom’s most telling intellectual nexus. Collecting the ephemera of the African Diaspora was a spiritual experience for him. Each object was precious. Sacred. The diary of a newly-literate share cropper’s daughter. The recording of a Black musician channeling the spirits of so many thousands gone. All must be resurrected and merged with in his own art, teaching, and writing. Each moment in time, each precious life captured in the archive, had to be loved. Until their stories were told they could never be free (and neither could he). In Pellom’s beautiful mind, curating and archiving were acts of resistance and liberation—setting loose Black souls demanding to be heard—shouting out to a world designed to not hear them.

Faith and Family

While longer remembrances will no doubt do justice to Pellom’s longer body of work, two inseparable influences molded him in to person he became. His wife, Navvab, changed his life forever. Not only did he fall in love with her, but he would also adopt her faith. As a young man, Pellom told Navvab that he thought God was like water; everyone needed it but called it by different names. The teachings of the Baha’i Faith about the unity of humankind spoke to him in a way that other religious traditions hadn’t before. He also found great validation in the unique teaching of the Baha’i Faith that “work performed in the service of humanity is elevated to worship.” In this Faith, he found an appreciation for his incredible work ethic. What is more, there was a place at the table for people of African descent in the particular concept of the pupil of the eye. Foreshadowing, if not directly informing W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness and the “gift” of Black “sight,” Baha’u’llah regarded Black people as “the pupil of the eye which is dark in colour, yet it is the font of light and the revealer of the contingent world.” Yes, Black people were “surrounded by the white” but “[i]n this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the sprit shineth forth.” God loved Black people specifically. He had endowed Africa’s progeny with a special kind of spiritual x-ray vision. Blackness was not a curse or a badge of servitude in the eyes of God. Blackness was a gift from the heavens—a divine protection against the greatest sin that ‘humanity’ has ever perpetrated against its designated antithesis.

“To See What the End Will Be”

Pellom loved the rain. He died in the morning. That night the heavens poured out all its rain upon Atlanta. The tears of the ancestors wept. Perhaps they were mourning. Perhaps they were nourishing the garden he so lovingly planted. In this moment of global pandemic, even mourning itself is being mourned.

While his son Ellington and his daughter Sofia were at home with him and Navvab when they might otherwise have been away, they are now cut off from the communities they love so much. While there will continue to be countless memorial services for Pellom, both formal and informal, was no large funeral (which, of course, he wanted to be a lūʻau). We can’t hug each other. We can’t sing together. We can’t interface without the mediation of a for-profit multinational tech company. As the choir (virtually) sang “Done Made My Vow to the Lord” at least we can still weep. As the writings of a 19th century prophet from Persia got the full gospel treatment from Baha’i vocalist Sandy Simmons, at least we can still ask “What Shall I Be?”

But the world is over. Pellom is gone. The only thing left to do is to come together, however we can, and build that garden of love he wanted to plant throughout the world. Black roses go in first.

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Guy Emerson Mount

Guy Emerson Mount is an assistant professor of American History and African American Studies at Wake Forest University focusing on the intersection of Black transnationalism, Western modernity, and global empires. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2018 where he also served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Social Sciences. He joined the faculty at Wake Forest University after previously teaching at Auburn University. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.

Comments on “Honoring the Life of Pellom McDaniels, III

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    RIP Pellom.

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    Pellom was an amazing brother and human being. I was his very first fan. His amazing spirit will always live with me.

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