One of the earliest childhood memories of the late Martin Kilson is that of his father, Reverend Martin Luther Kilson Sr., pastor of the small Emanuel Methodist Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Kilson recalled how his father and Emanuel Church served Ambler’s working-class Black communities during the Great Depression by giving “chickens or dozens of eggs to poor families in the church.” This is how the Black and mostly working and lower-middle class Emanuel Church mobilized their resources to support the community. Emanuel Church purchased their pastor a Plymouth automobile while more prominent wealthy churches bought Buicks.. Such luxury vehicles were often enjoyed privately within the pastors’ familial unit, but the Kilson family’s modest vehicle was put back into serving the congregation. Every Saturday in the summer during the Depression, Kilson Sr. drove day laborers from his church to pick vegetables on a local farm. “On Saturdays in summer during the Depression years, Pop transported a half-dozen working-class men from Emanuel Church to work as crop pickers on the Wentz brothers’ vegetable field.”
Emanuel Church and other Black institutions like it functioned as an alternative support system for Black people throughout the Jim Crow Era and during the Great Depression. Martin Kilson, in his memoir, A Black Intellectual’s Odyssey: From a Pennsylvania Milltown to the Ivy League, credits these Black institutions with his unique sojourn from the small Pennsylvanian communities of Ambler and Penllyn (the borough Ambler and the nearby village Penllyn are often collectively referred to as Ambler-Penllyn) to his time at Harvard where he became the first tenured Black faculty member in 1969. Kilson’s memoir does delve into his own biography, but his personal life nearly fades into the background as he foregrounds the sociological and historical accounts of Ambler-Penllyn, Lincoln, and Harvard Universities. This methodology gives voice to Kilson’s primary argument that he is a product of his community and the institutions that supported his goals and dreams. While Kilson sets out to demonstrate how Black institutions supported his social mobility, he also underlines the underside of Black success in the political economy of a white supremacist society. While Black institutions like Black churches and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) certainly fostered Black peoples’ gifts and talents, comparably few were able to attain the upward mobility Kilson achieved.
The first half of the memoir (chapters 1-5) is a biography of Kilson and the Black institutions which were his first line of education in the small Northern towns of his youth in the 1930s and 1940s. Among these formative institutions were Black churches that taught Kilson a “helping-hand ethos.” This helping-hand ethos described how more successful Black community members pulled together and distributed resources and opportunities to the rest of the town. For example, Black churches in Ambler-Penllyn hosted an annual “Sunday School Picnic” to give the towns’ Black youth recreational opportunities they otherwise would not have. This was one of the most anticipated events of the year where Ambler-Penllyn’s Black community could come together and escape the realities of their day-to-day hardships. This annual tradition was also the only day Ambler-Penllyn’s Black citizens could use the public park. “Sunday School Picnic” demonstrates the capacity of Black institutions to foster community ties and create space within Jim Crow for Black people to breathe. But these institutions were also unable to fully disrupt Jim Crow’s established order that curtailed Black peoples’ free participation in public spaces.
In the second half of the book (chapters 6-9), Kilson carries the lessons he learned as a youth forward as he transitions from his Ambler-Penllyn home to the corridors of higher education at Lincoln and Harvard Universities during the mid-1950s and 1960s. In fact, Kilson describes the helping-hand ethos he learned as a child as the driving force behind his participation in civil rights activism when he arrived on Lincoln University’s campus. As a freshman at the historically Black university, Kilson joined a like-minded cohort of Black students—many from African countries that were undergoing decolonization—who agitated both on and around campus for the expansion of Black civil rights. Kilson recalled that not all students shared his and his comrades’ passion for activism. A particular point of Kilson’s frustration is the function of Black fraternities in pacifying students and keeping them preoccupied with partying as opposed to the larger civil rights issues that affected Black life. Kilson calls this type of Black conservatism a “hedonistic ethos” driven by individual and materialistic inclinations. Importantly, Kilson found that those ascribing to the hedonistic ethos were capitulating to white supremacy because of their refusal to challenge it. Kilson recalls the reasoning of these conservative Black students as such: if they did not harp on race or race issues, then those issues would not define them or their life outcomes. These students joined a long legacy of Black conservatives then and now who think ignoring their race will win their approval among white people.
However, Kilson’s epilogue perhaps reveals an aim that runs throughout the entire memoir. His epilogue describes the Black voting blocs (BVBs) that led to the election win of Barack Obama in 2008. Kilson hones in on the Democratic primary at which the Obama campaign ignited Black networks and institutions in states like South Carolina to deliver his win and upset the Clinton political machine. While Kilson is not comparing himself to Barack Obama, his point here is that any success Black folks in America may attain is not due to their own individual skill, but rather due to the Black communities that nurtured and sustained them. Kilson’s memoir places a fine point on his illustrious life and career as a freedom fighter, sociologist, and academic. What began as a career during the 1950s and 1960s that was preoccupied with the potential of newly decolonized African nations ended with Kilson’s concern about Black leadership’s capacity to deal with poverty and the United States’ growing inequality. Kilson’s helping-hand ethos remained embedded in both his personal and professional life.
Kilson’s Odyssey also joins a growing wave of scholarship that underscores Black institutions’ impact on the lives of Black people during the era of Jim Crow. In his description of the successes that come from Black social networks such as BVBs, one observes Kilson’s yearning for a return to strong Black institutions like the churches Kilson grew up in. While I also share fond memories of Black churches developing my gifts and talents, I also wonder about the other side of these Black success stories.
On the other side of these Black institutions that gave so much to both me and Kilson exists many more Black folks who don’t achieve the success or upward mobility Kilson discusses throughout the memoir. America is willing to let a few Black folks achieve social mobility if it does not totally disrupt the racist social order. Kilson’s Odyssey heightens the contradictions involved in what it means to be successful and Black in America. Indeed, it compels us to ask what success means in the context of a capitalist white supremacist heteronormative society. For example, while Kilson celebrates the many unprecedented opportunities that he and his high school classmates who graduated had, he also notes that most of his classmates did not graduate because their economic circumstances forced them to drop out to support their families. And this is something especially Black folks who reach middle-class status ought not to forget: most of us did not and will not make it here. Understanding this, we have a responsibility and obligation to disrupt the status quo in the spaces we occupy that will allow us but not many of our family members.