“The Right to Laugh”: 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).

In his book, The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance, Jeffrey Ferguson remembered that as early as his undergraduate years, he was “addicted to independence.” He came of age in the 1980s as an intellectual under the tutelage of Nathan Huggins and Werner Sollors, as well as some other famous and some unknown Harvard faculty on whose doors he knocked. Jeff found himself entering a field of African American history and literature that had become, he said, “a stronghold for sincerity, melodrama, sentimentalism, and deep seriousness.” By temperament and intellectual proclivity, Jeff yearned for satire; he yearned to find access to the absurdity of American race relations and to the idea of race by finding a way to “laugh.” He laughed not at the seriousness of the study of race, but at our pretentions.

Jeff was always ready to snap up anyone’s sentimentalism or their earnestness or their race loyalty or their belief in racial capacities and drown them with carefully placed scorn, and therefore, if possible, argument—on the way to laughter. Jeff was deeply serious about scholarship, clear thinking, and the historical depth and wily ways of racism. But he did not abide narrow or parochial thinking. As a thinker, Jeff was generally a pragmatist as well as the more visible iconoclast. He kept his doors of the mind largely open; he enjoyed testing truths, no matter how jealously held. As an intellectual, Jeff was profoundly loyal to many things, perhaps most among them to irony and honesty. He practiced these values in his writing and, with great notoriety, in his teaching at Amherst College for twenty years.  Jeff lived to read, think, and talk. He was a voracious, probing talker. Anyone who has ever known Jeff well at all knows this. So many of us have been hooked into a seemingly brief conversation that turns into hours; that goes down tributaries, but in the end, leaves you thinking, even if a little weary. Jeff was a coffee house intellectual looking for sparring partners, for laughs, and for friends. Some of us dubbed him the mayor of Rao’s and not without reason.

I first met Jeff in early September 1987, in the lounge of the Afro-American Studies Department at 77 Dunster Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had just been hired as an assistant professor and he came to check me out. At that point Jeff was only a year or so beyond graduation from Harvard College. He was taking a couple years off to read. As we became fast friends that year, he went through intense periods of reading Sigmund Freud, William James, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and some French literary theorists about whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to educate me. Jeff was an intellectual sponge: if he met you or read something, he figured out as quickly as possible what he could learn from you or from it. To me, at that point, Jeff seemed like some kind of organic intellectual who sat around mail rooms in departments or at coffee houses and tried to find and think the great thoughts. I was both enthralled and somewhat intimidated.

To make a living in those years Jeff had his own balloon-selling business at the Watertown Mall and in downtown Boston outside Filene’s Basement department store. He also worked as a bartender at the House of Blues and waited tables at the Bombay Express in Harvard Square. Jeff had an eye for business, for entrepreneurship, and it stemmed from the circumstances of his youth. Even here, Jeff sought independence. He wanted to own his means of production, if ever a college professor can be said to do so. Jeff and I learned quickly that we had similar class roots and mentalities; but we also came from different worlds. Working class attitudes and values come from many geographies and in every shape and shade.

Jeff was born in the Bronx, New York City, on May 7, 1964. His mother was Virginia Jones Poree, a teenage bride at the time, but as Jeff always said, his best friend through life. His father was Theodore Watson, who sometimes went by Alan Ferguson or Eugene Middleton in his work at menial jobs and later in some alternative economies. Jeff was extraordinarily loyal to and supportive of both of his parents, and many of us witnessed this with admiration. Ted Watson died in Amherst in a nursing home where Jeff visited every day and made fast friends with many of the heroic nurses. Jeff kept much of his family and personal background very quiet until he felt comfortable talking about it. And that took time.

Jeff’s father played a tremendous role in shaping who Jeff became. Ted Watson, who may have had an 8th grade education, demanded that his son learn discipline and strive in every way. By the age of six, Jeff had learned to do his own laundry and iron his clothes, a habit he never broke. He used to come visit me with his own iron packed because he knew I never used one—he ironed his jeans!. Jeff’s father insisted that his son never associate with street children where they eventually lived in New Jersey. If kids were not on the right path of rectitude, Jeff was not to see them. Jeff’s mother remembered his father insisting that Jeff “look like a rich boy.” He wore a suede coat in grammar school. For a while, his parents moved Jeff to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where, through misguided educators, Jeff was put into special education. According to his mother, he missed essentially one year of school. Back in New Jersey, in the early to mid 1970s, Jeff’s father entered him in a Catholic school called Sacred Heart in Elizabeth. Then he moved on to a Catholic high school run by the order of Marist brothers in Roselle, New Jersey. Jeff loved and played basketball , winning some trophies, but mostly he impressed all his teachers as an extremely serious student. Graduating at seventeen, according to his mother, he was denied the honor of valedictorian because he had joined and taken a leadership role in the Guardian Angels. Numerous photographs and newspaper clippings survive of Jeff conducting training and performing the para-policing functions of the Angels. He appeared on radio and television as their spokesman. He commanded a contingent of Angels who were once attacked by a mob. Jeff, the story goes, organized a retaliatory attack on the mob in order to sustain group morale. Into his undergraduate years, Jeff returned to the New York-New Jersey area, as well as other cities, to lead the Guardian Angels. They were extremely controversial in their bold efforts to provide protection to citizens on streets and in subways, especially with Mayor Ed Koch of New York and his police chief. In one article, Jeff as spokesman, responded to the criticism, “It is a citizen’s right to walk the streets. Just because two people are against it? I don’t care if the president is against us. If the people want protection we go.” Jeff looked fabulous in his red beret. I used to tell him he missed a calling: colonel in the Marine Corps. He did not disagree. Jeff liked nothing better than “figuring things out,” and any kind of strategic thinking.

Early in life Jeff learned a sense of politics which was itself rooted in independence as well as social action. He began studying Tai Chi at twelve years old with a master named Mr. Austin, a devotion he managed to largely keep through the rest of his life. Teachers and counselors at his high school urged him to apply for college at Harvard and Brown among others. In the early 1980s, as the era of Reagan began, Jeff found himself negotiating the ways of Adams House, Harvard Yard, and Widener Library. He wore ferocious intelligence and a working class black kid’s insecurity, undoubtedly, to every class and into the dining halls. But Jeff conquered Harvard, as his beloved teacher, Werner Sollors remembers, by reading closely, soaking up history and literary texts, and pushing to know what a great place of learning could give him. Werner kept a single blue book exam from a course that Jeff had written, particularly for the brilliant essay on Richard Wright. This was and is Jeff—he made impressions one never forgets. I have personally never known anyone in my life who better exemplifies how education can make and re-make a human being; how education is a holy, sacred endeavor that we should treat with reverence. Jeff was his education, as well as all the elements of his youth that shaped him.

In the fall of 1989, the renowned historian, mentor to Jeff and to me, Nathan Huggins, died. At his memorial service in Harvard’s Memorial Church, there were only three speakers: Dean Henry Rosovsky of Harvard College, the historian Oscar Handlin, Nathan’s mentor, and the young Jeff. I do not remember Jeff’s exact words, but they were a tribute from the soul to his teacher, to a way of thinking, to a vision of African American history as central to American history, and to profound friendship. I still remember talking with Jeff about Nathan’s dying so fast from cancer. With that turning of his head and wry laughter, he told me of visiting Nathan in his final days, quoting Huggins: “Oh Jeff, don’t worry, it happens in the best of families.” Hundreds of times Jeff and I reflected on how we were both lifetime “Hugginoids.” What that always meant to us is practicing our craft as Huggins had suggested in a telling sentence: “The challenge of the paradox [of race in American history] is that there can be no white history or black history,” wrote Huggins, “nor can there be an integrated history that does not begin to comprehend that slavery and freedom, white and black, are joined at the hip.” Jeff lived this vision and infused the Black Studies curriculum at Amherst with its letter and spirit. The last course I was privileged to offer at Amherst was a co-taught course with Jeff on “The Life and Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois.” I learned so much.

In 1996, when Jeff was still in the middle of writing his dissertation, we hired him at Amherst for one year to replace me when I went on leave. Jeff was such a remarkable teacher that the College hired and kept him in Black Studies and American Studies. He took his time to finish the project on George Schuyler, the Harlem Renaissance journalist and satirist. As many will remember, Jeff would rather read, think, and argue than he would write in those years. But he finished his Ph.D., was tenured, and grew into one of Amherst’s legendary teachers and iconoclastic faculty.

Schuyler was no subject for the faint-hearted. Jeff took the journalist from his early writings in the wake of his embittered World I experience to his stardom (in black America) as the fierce satirist of the Messenger and the Pittsburgh Courier. In his unrelenting “game” of “ironic turnabout,” Schuyler spared no one and no group in his effort to argue against racism and Jim Crow through satire. Irony was Schuyler’s currency and stock in trade, and they were Jeff’s as well. Schuyler was very serious about trying to conquer the “race problem” in America, but he lampooned piety and earnestness wherever he found it, among blacks as well as whites. He debunked racial essentialism at every turn, but could still advocate race pride and race-based enterprises. He could chastise the “hokum” of the racial art of the “New Negro” in the late 1920s while himself contributing significantly to that new movement.

Jeff went to the H. L. Mencken’s papers, examined closely Schuyler’s writings for the Mercury, and developed a careful and persuasive critique of how Schuyler both modeled and appropriated Mencken to his own ends. Jeff spent some years determining who each outrageous character represented in Schuyler’s famous novel, Black No More, a conclusion no other scholar has reached. Indeed, Jeff showed himself in this work to be a careful and devoted researcher as a literary historian.

Above all else, what Jeff achieved in this book, published by Yale University Press in 2005, is a probing study of satire about the problem of race in America. We glimpse it now and then when Jeff takes the pose as Schuyler’s biographer. We understand it even more deeply from Jeff’s close and poignant readings of Schuyler’s countless editorials, short stories, reviews, and commentaries. Indeed, in the chapter on “The Right to Laugh,” we can see Jeff at his best—using his research to fashion the plea and the hope that America’s greatest fault line can be grasped, worked through, maybe even partially defeated, when we learn how to laugh about its absurdities. Jeff does not so much celebrate Schuyler as he gives him his due, his full exposure as an original and brilliant critic of American culture.

In 2008 Jeff produced a marvelous reader, full of the most sparkling literary and artistic creations of the time, The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents, for the Bedford Books series, which I helped build as series editor. Jeff’s introduction to that book is still the place to begin to grasp the beauty, the historical roots, and the deeply American ironies of the Harlem Renaissance. The collection is a lasting source in the teaching of such a crucial era of American cultural history. No one knew the range and depth of writing in that era quite like Jeff.

One of Jeff’s literary models, and perhaps heroes, was Ralph Ellison. Jeff taught a famous course on Ellison at Amherst and was invited to conferences to speak on the author of the classic Invisible Man. Jeff knew Ellison like someone he might have spent days with in the coffee shop. He always found inspiration for his own approach to literature and history not only in Ellison’s great novel about race and invisibility, but from many of Ellison’s essays. Jeff especially liked Ellison’s “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.” “The Negro’s masking is motivated not so much by fear,” wrote Ellison, “as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity.  Sometimes it is for the sheer joy of the joke; sometimes to challenge those who presume, across the psychological distance created by race manners, to know his identity.” Jeff was deeply fascinated by questions of identity, but saw them as the grain to think against, the source of peculiarly American cultural traps. He followed Ellison even as he developed his own freedom of mind. “It is the American grain,” said Ellison. “Benjamin Franklin, the practical scientist, skilled statesman and sophisticated lover, allowed the French to mistake him for Rousseau’s Natural Man. Hemingway poses as a non-literary sportsman, Faulkner as a farmer; Abe Lincoln allowed himself to be taken for a simple country lawyer—until the chips were down.  Here the “darky” act makes brothers of us all. America is a land of masking jokers.” Jeff did not think with his identity; he thought about it. He thought with his mind, not with what he once called, wryly, the one lasting African survival—pigmentation.

Jeff thought about big questions: What makes Americans re-make themselves, or at least believe they can?  What is this thing called race?  Where and how can we find and nurture a truly democratic society and culture?  How can a distrust of ideology actually help one realize one’s own?  How do white and black literatures mold into one?  Why and how has “resistance” become the central theme of so much study in African American history and literature?  Is resistance the real subject or the masking of many others?  If there is a master narrative of American history, what is it?  Jeff was a thinker who demanded that we all drop our pretentions and try to take off our blinders.

In Jeff I lost the best friend I ever had over some 31 years. He died on March 11, 2018, in Topanga Canyon, California, after his five-year struggle against stage 4 cancer. He was 53. He was with his beloved Agustina, whom he had met at Rao’s and married both in Boston in 2007 and in her native Bali in 2008. A few of us were privileged to be part of the week-long moveable feast that was their wedding in Bali in August of 2008. With Agustina, Jeff was able to pursue his entrepreneurial spirit with the café they owed in Topanga. Their gorgeous twin boys, Teddy and Django, were born October 8, 2014. Agustina and her family, Bayu Suryawan, Jeff’s brother-in-law, and her mother, Susan Suryawan, took Jeff into their fold and re-shaped his life. Jeff was an extraordinary father, brother, husband, son, and a friend like no other. Agustina’s extended family, including her grandparents, Joel and Davida Berman of Worcester, Massachusetts, embraced Jeff and enveloped him in love during his final years and months. The ending that Sunday evening in Topanga was merciful. Agustina and her brother, Bayu, gave Jeff a creative and beautiful death.

The intellectual we all knew was so deeply human. He loved sports and I so often forgave his devotion to the Yankees. He thought Tiger Woods the most remarkable athlete to ever walk the earth. He was a huge boxing fan, an obsession he had drawn from his father. We spent hours analyzing sports as well as planning books and essays. In these last years, our telephone conversations so often included Jeff’s analyses of his treatments, the physiology of the cancer’s wily ways, the doctors he trusted, the courageous home life that surrounded him. He buoyed me as much as I ever buoyed him. Our conversations nearly always ended with each of us saying the simple utterance: “I love you brother.”

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David Blight

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He previously taught at Amherst College for thirteen years. He is the author of more than 15 books, including 'Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory' (Harvard University Press, 2001), which received eight book awards. Follow him on Twitter @davidwblight.

Comments on ““The Right to Laugh”: Remembering Jeffrey B. Ferguson

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    Thanks for writing this. I was a long time friend of Jeff who met the 17 year old edition of him when he started the Angels in Boston.

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