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.
I wanted to begin with a joke or a clever quip, or at least some mild sarcasm that Jeff would have appreciated, but I scour the depths of my imagination for something to chuckle about and come up empty. That emptiness speaks to the more general sense of loss I feel in the wake of his death. To lose a mentor is simply devastating. An anchor has come untethered. A ship has been set adrift in the sea.
I had been replaying my memories of Jeff often in the weeks before I learned of his passing. Every time I step into one of my classrooms, I think about his gift for cultivating his students’ critical eye and tapping into their sense of wonder, and I strive to do the same for my students. Though doing, as Jeff did, is an entirely different matter. I had been thinking about him even more often than usual because I worried about his silence in the past couple of years. Both times he told me he was ill, I sent him little things—letters, a coffee mug, whatever book had recently captivated my imagination (whether it was some side-splitting novel by Paul Beatty or a blues-inflected collection of poems by Yusef Komunyakaa). I never expected a response, but I still worried because, every time I checked the Amherst website to see if he was back from sick leave, I saw that he was still absent from the Amherst seminar rooms that still contain so many of my most poignant memories of him.
In the months before his passing, I had been plotting my next letter to him. I came so close to writing him a note in February that a part of me wonders if I knew, somehow, that August might be too late. I dawdled and delayed because I wanted to send it in the summer when an essay of mine would be published at Raritan, a journal in which one of his essays had appeared exactly ten years earlier. His Raritan essay, “Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance,” which I read at a critical moment in graduate school, pushed me to think about the ways in which resistance has overwhelmed other frameworks for analyzing and appreciating African American life. His essay prompted me to more deliberately think about what gets lost in flattening the African American experience by reducing it to suffering and resistance. Breaking away from the suffering and resistance paradigms was all the more difficult for me because I was writing a dissertation about lynching and memory. Because of Jeff, I was particularly careful and deliberate as I drafted and revised dissertation chapters so that I could capture, through what are truly heart wrenching lynching narratives, a more complete and fleshed out picture of Black life.
Jeff always prompted his students to ask more questions of ourselves and the texts we read, and that healthy skepticism pushed us to dig deeper behind the assumptions and language of even the most respected and established thinkers. At some end-of-semester dinner, Jeff mentioned that his earliest political memory was running down a hill in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during a “riot” yelling “Power to the people! Power to the people!” as police helicopters hovered overhead. In a lecture at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he told that story again, but joked that his academic training had “transformed [his] childish ultimatum into a series of questions”— “Whose power?” and “What people?” He instilled in his students that same urge to seek out the gray spaces that defied simple explanations, to pry open received narratives, to listen on the “lower frequencies,” to tap into our senses of wonder.
And I am still, as ever, Jeff’s student; my essay in Raritan bears his mark. After all, I open that essay with the grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man urging his children and grandchildren to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth.” Now that I’m knee-deep in a book project on deception and irony in African American culture, that grandfatherly advice has become a well-worn line in my work. I first came to know what it meant to “undermine ‘em with grins” and “agree ‘em to death and destruction” in Jeff’s iconic seminar, “The Seer and the Scene.” Our discussions from that course on Invisible Man have stayed with me ever since. To this day, when I think about signifying and hustling (academia does push us to those places sometimes), I remember how Jeff compared Brother Clifton, after he was broken by the Brotherhood, to a man Jeff saw on the streets of Cambridge who sold what tourists believed to be stolen designer watches that were, in fact, watches he bought from the dollar store. Jeff was running his own business selling balloons then, so I like to imagine him at the dollar store buying balloons, giving the watch seller a knowing wink and nod.
For years, Jeff had been talking about writing an intellectual biography of Ellison, a book that, I am sure, would have become the critical text on Ellison as an intellectual and an artist. Jeff, whose insistence on nuance and careful analysis, was the ideal scholar for such a project. He possessed the analytical sharpness to match Ellison’s complexity, and I can’t help but think that the skeptical yet playful inflection in his writing would have rhymed so well with Ellison’s wit and ironic sensibilities. We will never know what could have been, but I hope that those of us in the field of Black Studies can find inspiration in his sensibilities as a scholar.
So many of my intellectual touchstones, from James Baldwin and Nathan Huggins to W.E.B. Du Bois and Patricia Williams, came into my scholarship because Jeff introduced them to me in the nearly half dozen classes I took with him at Amherst. In particular, I am eternally grateful that he introduced me to Baldwin. As most people who know me well can attest, I have difficulty imagining an iteration of my intellectual life (and my life in general) in which Baldwin doesn’t play an integral role. Even so, I have Jeff to thank for opening up new worlds to me through Baldwin’s stunningly beautiful yet unapologetically devastating critiques of white supremacy. He showed me, through Baldwin’s and Ellison’s work, the real power of the essay as a written form. Incidentally, a couple years ago, one of my students mentioned, as he was turning in a response essay, that he thought the text we had discussed that day in class was “really well-written.” I had to chuckle because the author was James Baldwin and the text was The Fire Next Time. Well-written? You think? But I admit his wide-eyed awe at Baldwin’s writing reminded me of my first encounter with Baldwin, whose books I reread then and reread now for the halting elegance of his prose.
The summer before my senior year at Amherst, I received a fellowship to, in essence, read books by and about Du Bois for my honors thesis and talk to Jeff about them once a week. He taught me so much about being a thinker that summer—the process of developing substantive questions and honing ideas and the seemingly impossible task of coming up with an argument about Du Bois that was in conversation with the likes of David Levering Lewis and Manning Marable. I remember one of our meetings in particular, when construction in the Black Studies building raised so much dust that the fire alarm kept going off. We resumed our conversation sitting on the building’s stoop, fully engrossed in the deeper motivations behind Marable recovering Du Bois’s radicalism while the fire alarm carried on in the background. I took far too many conversations like this for granted as a student since, as far as I knew, this was what mentoring was like. But few professors would eat dinner in the dining hall to chat with students over mystery meat out of pure love for debate and conversation. Few professors, even at elite liberal arts colleges, could match Jeff’s pedagogical sophistication that he used to develop assignments and facilitate discussions that molded his students into critical thinkers. Jeff, in large part, designed the curriculum that gave Amherst Black Studies a well-deserved reputation for being among the most rigorous majors on campus, and once word got out, the students flocked to these courses.
As singularly brilliant as Jeff was in the classroom and in his writing, his generosity and genuine concern for his students always struck me, but not until I became a professor did I fully comprehend the depths of his care. A few years ago, I asked Jeff to write a letter of recommendation for me. That fall, however, Jeff, who had been in remission and had returned to teaching a year earlier, found out that the cancer had returned. The unimaginable devastation of this news left him unable to write the letter. Upon hearing about his declining health, that letter was the least of my concerns, but Jeff, who had such a keen sense of responsibility to his students, ended his email: “I promise that in the future I will write for you, if you will have me. I’m so sorry, Mari. I wish that I could have done better for you.” I wept over his words. Rereading them now pains me just as much as it did when I first read them. Jeff had given me more than I could have ever asked for over the years—friendship, emotional support, an intellectual sounding board, new lenses for seeing the world, much better taste in writing, an authorial voice, a model for the kind of scholar I aspire to become—so there was no such thing as doing better for me, there was no need for apology.
In processing this loss, I have been looking for fragments of Jeff. I found a few photos of him from my last few weeks at Amherst. I came across articles he had written for Daedalus and Amerikastudien that I hadn’t known about. I watched, again, that video from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that was filmed the day before I saw him for the very last time. I listened to papers he delivered at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities on Du Bois and King. In all of these articles and lectures, I saw that incisiveness and wit that made his books and articles as well as his presence in the classroom so engaging. Jeff could dazzle with his stunning explications of a text. He could dissect an argument by Alain Locke or Charles Mills with as much grace as he could reveal the depths of that scene in Invisible Man in which the protagonist encounters a man carting off blueprints while singing the blues, all without ruining the delight of reading Ellison’s prose. He read deeply. He read widely. He shared with all of us the pleasures of reveling in the life of the mind. He was, in the truest sense of the words, a scholar and intellectual.
At this past AAIHS Conference, Jeff’s death was still too fresh, the wound still too raw, for me to trust myself talking about him with others. I went to a fascinating panel that reimagined the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr., that included Bob Gooding-Williams and Brandon Terry, both of whom knew Jeff. I asked a question during the Q&A, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to them afterwards to see if they had heard the news. I had wanted to know what they remembered of his life and work and what this loss meant to them. Instead, I found a quiet bench in the hallway to distract myself from my thoughts with a pile of grading. I am slowly coming to grips with this loss of a friend and mentor and intellectual force, but I find solace in knowing how much he gave me. For, every so often, in just the right light, I catch glimpses of him in my life and work, and I smile.permission.