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.
In my memory, the pattern of my friendship with Jeff was set by a single sentence he uttered to me early in the fall of 2000. I had just joined the political science department at Amherst College. For some fortuitous reason, I was assigned an office in Williston Hall in the Black Studies department, beside the offices of Jeff and David Blight. Jeff and I went for lunch and he asked me where I came from. Being Indian, I interpreted that question as referring to my family, which for generations has been socially conventional and privileged. As we ascended the back stairs of the building, Jeff with a fulsome laugh said, and this was the sentence, “there hasn’t been a planned pregnancy in my family for a 150 years.”
That was Jeff’s characteristically light touch, but also a serious way of recalling the Middle Passage, the legacy of slavery, and the displacement that had marked his family. The link with my own family was through the sharpest of contrasts. But as the years would tell, it was a link. I think I knew in that instant that this sentence, uttered with pride, self-confidence and graceful humor, and without a hint of recriminatory judgment, pointed to friendship which, over the course of next eighteen years, blossomed into one in which we both came to view each other as members of the same family.
Over those years our connection deepened. We met most days while I was still at the college. After I left and moved to New York, we regularly spoke on the phone. During those years we both met the women we would go on to marry. We both became fathers and uncles to each other’s children. In August 2008, my wife and I attended Jeff and Agustina’s wedding in Bali. In the winter of 2010, Jeff and Agustina visited my family in India. I came to know Jeff’s mother, Virginia. I also came to know Jeff’s father Teddy Sr. Jeff and I would often visit him as he lay infirm and ailing in an assisted living center a short distance from the college. Sometimes we would take Teddy Sr. for a steak dinner to the Outback Steakhouse in Springfield, in the large Cadillac—or as Jeff would put it, in the “smooth Mercedes”—that Jeff bought primarily for his father’s amusement and comfort. During a year when I was on sabbatical and living in Connecticut, I would often visit Amherst and stay with him in his utterly messy apartment on Mill Lane for long durations. This was of course before Agustina entered his life and replaced the strewn socks and electronic gadgets with a more elevated aesthetic.
Over those years we exchanged roughly 1,800 emails. Nothing I wrote, no book that I read, was not shared and discussed with him. It is simply the unvarnished truth to say that every intellectual thought I have had during these years received a considerable addition of polish, subtlety, and sharpness on account of discussions with Jeff. I simply cannot recognize the scholar and teacher that I am today without acknowledging the profound role that Jeff played in making me who I am.
There are some debts that are only a source of joy. For me the debt I owe to Jeff is one of them.
Like so many original and independent minds, Jeff had his own distinctive way of being foolish. When I was considering buying a small cottage in Connecticut, Jeff tried to convince me to take an interest only mortgage, which is commonly known to be the surest way of never owning the property one seeks to buy. When I finally protested, his response, which he often hurled at me, was “you damn Indians are always trying to be so sensible.” When he heard that I had signs of coronary disease and that my arteries were at risk of becoming clogged with fatty plaque, he convinced me—mercifully, for only a couple months—to adhere to a diet that involved only eating mounds of bacon, pork rinds, and red meat. When I tried to convince him that his idea of buying an expensive Mercedes that was ten years old and already had 100,000 miles on it was not financially prudent, he hurled that same familiar epithet at me.
And then there was the time only a few years ago when he insisted that the best thing for him was to have a bi-coastal existence between Amherst and Los Angeles. He wanted to buy a substantial house in LA, to invest in the riskiest of commercial ventures (a restaurant), to have twins, and all this after being diagnosed with stage four cancer.
I admit that I cautioned against all of these. I was wrong, horribly wrong, because they turned out to be the smartest things that Jeff and Agustina ever did. The fact is that we “damn sensible Indians” often approach life as though it were a script written for us, in which the patterns of existence are already given, the molds already cut out, and where risks are to be studiously avoided. The danger is that we sometime end up living lives that are only partially our own, because in being sensible, we are drawn to the comfort of working from facsimiles, rather than drawing our own originals.
Jeff was incapable of this. Everything he did bore the mark of a truth that was linked to his originality. He took this obligation to be self-creating as his greatest inheritance. It was an inheritance from Virginia, Teddy Sr., from African and American forbears, from slaves, from those who had suffered and endured displacement, from the syncopated rhythms of jazz, from teachers such as Nathan Huggins and Werner Sollors, and from the mournful hopes and joys that suffuse the blues. It was an inheritance that was deeply rooted in a tradition that supplied the basis for self-creation.
One reason Jeff always recoiled against the familiar story of the victimhood of African-Americans was not because he disputed the harrowing truth of those accounts. He never did. He knew and deeply understood the disfiguring effects of the violence that courses through that history. Instead it was because those accounts so often forget, or place in a lower key, the valor, the courage, and the emphasis on self-creation that is a buried, but still vital feature of that tradition. It was from this tradition of tragedy, courage, satire, playfulness, and of never blaming others, and yet also of retaining a deep compassion for those who have been broken by this long history of prejudice and discrimination, that Jeff crafted his own inheritance.
It was this inheritance that made Jeff the legendary teacher that he was. He insisted on the highest standards of prose, clarity, and argumentation from his students, irrespective of their backgrounds. He wanted them to know that they, like him, were the heirs to a tradition of thinking and feeling that included the narratives of slaves, the moral poignancy of Frederick Douglass, the iconoclasm of Ralph Ellison, the grandeur of Hegel, the dark sensibility of Dostoevsky, and the courage and piety of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
He was more demanding than any teacher I have known. The last course I taught at Amherst was a course on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. which Jeff and I taught together. I recall it as an extended tutorial, perhaps more to me than to the students, on the moral and pedagogic rigors of what it meant to teach and learn. The standards he set were daunting. I know I have never prepared as hard for a course as I did for that course. And yet he did more than any teacher to ensure that students imbibed these standards by correcting every sentence, rearranging paragraphs, and reading draft upon draft of student papers. Teaching for Jeff was a calling in which the imparting of knowledge was interwoven with setting an example. The example he set never relied on the fashions of politics or popular opinions. There is an irony in Jeff’s popularity as a teacher because popularity, especially in a teacher, was what Jeff was most suspicious off. This was Jeff’s distinctly American creed, unsparingly exacting, and in equal measure, compassionate and demanding of himself.
The week following Jeff’s passing, my wife, Manjari, my seven year old daughter, Shreya, and I visited Agustina, Django, and Teddy Jr. in their California home. The house was resplendent with all the beauty and grace that Agustina had added to Jeff’s life. There were flowers, incense, and photographs of Jeff and his family and friends. The home had recently been renovated under Jeff’s vigilant guidance. The previously dark floors and wooden beams now had a more graceful hue to them, which invited in the light through the numerous windows that overlooked verdant foliage. This was in a room just below where Jeff spent the last several days of his life being ministered to by Virginia, Agustina and her family, by friends like David and Rosalina, and through the wonders of Facetime, by me. As we entered this room that had all these signs of Jeff’s presence and absence, little Django drew my attention to the wooden urn in which he said “Dadda was.” He wanted him to come out. I said he would, desperately leaning on that part of the Indian tradition that is not sensible, because it believes in rebirth and the eternity of life.
Every life is a full life, irrespective of when it is felled. Jeff’s life was fuller than most. He was blessed with great intelligence and creativity. He was blessed by the appreciation of scholars, by the respect and admiration of students, by the love and longstanding conversations with many friends, by the care and warmth of his own and Agustina’s family. He was blessed also by this great college, by its students and faculty, and by the incalculable decency of its president Biddy Martin, who ensured that his last several years were not beset by worries and anxieties that typically—especially in these times—attend the onset of serious illness. He was blessed most of all by Agustina, by her love, care, and unstinting devotion, always, but especially during the past five and a half years. I know the joy and comfort that she added to Jeff’s life and how much he appreciated all that she did for him. I believe that in his last breath Jeff had that infinite assurance that Django and Teddy would be loved and cared for in all the ways that are human possible by Agustina.
These are all great blessing and fruits of a full and well-lived life. And yet it is hard, very hard, not to share in that rage which the poet Dylan Thomas felt at the death of his father. That rage at the fading of the light on account of which we can only imagine the joy and pride Jeff would have felt at teaching his boys how to read; to read against the grain, to read with sympathy. The joy of taking them to the ballpark and explaining to them the subtleties of a sinking fastball, of the conversations left incomplete, of the rippling effects that his books would have among scholars, of the transmission and deepening of an inheritance to his two boys as African American, white, Balinese, Chinese, Jewish, and American. It is very hard not to rage against the silencing of that mischievous laughter, of that warmth, of that tenacious and jovial moral seriousness.
Jeff inscribed the copy of the book he wrote on George Schuyler, which he gave me with the following simple words: “To Uday, my brother in all the ways that count.” You see, in the end, it is not the planned or unplanned pregnancies, the histories of privilege or displacement that really matter. We all make our pasts as much as we make our futures.
For me, Jeff was a brother, in all the ways that count.