In “the Grand Tradition”(1): A Reflection on the Passing of John H. Bracey, Jr., a pioneer of Black Studies

By Andrew Rosa, Western Kentucky University

Andrew Rosa, author (top row, second from left); John H. Bracey, Jr. (front row, fourth from left), Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Charleston, South Carolina Oct. 2, 2019.

“To teach is to mentor, and to mentor is to teach and lead students out,” John H. Bracey, Jr., 2019

Historians are, by and large, not noted for introspection. Our calling requires us to analyze past events, but rarely do we turn our interpretive talents upon ourselves. The occasion of John H. Bracey’s recent passing from the scene at the age of 81, however, has prompted me to reflect upon his significance to the field of Black studies and to my own evolution as a scholar of Black history. While beyond the scope of this reflection, I contend that any comprehensive examination of Bracey’s life history would illuminate an important genealogy of Black intellectualism essential to an understanding of the history of Black studies and a model for doing Black history at a moment when many states, especially across the U.S. South, seem to be engaged in a general assault on any type of knowledge that interrogates such critical issues as race, sex, gender, and class.

My relationship to Bracey began when I arrived to the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of African American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1998, after receiving my masters from Temple University. In the broader history of Black studies, Temple is distinguished for establishing the first PhD-granting program in the field and for capturing, by the time I got there in 1995, significant media attention due, in no small part, to its Afrocentric orientation and to the charisma, entrepreneurialism, scholarly productivity, and rhetorical acumen of its chairperson, Molefi Kete Asante. Who could but forget the noisy academic battles that erupted during this period between Asante and the Wellesley classicist Mary Lefkowitz over how much, if anything, the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, and all Western thought for that matter, owed to the cultures of Africa, and particularly Egypt. This debate resulted in some notable books by Asante and Lefkowitz, as well as several acerbic essays in such popular outlets as The Washington Post, and Village Voice.(2) In this way Afrocentricity was introduced to a wider public as a combination of racial romanticism, historical mythmaking, popular history, and the paradigmatic antithesis of Eurocentricity in that it purported to be a corrective to the wholesale exclusion of Africa and Africans from the unfolding of world history.  

To be clear, my choice of Temple for graduate school was not rooted in a desire to study under Asante, or by any unquestionable commitment to Afrocentrism. In fact, I knew very little about either at the time, and simply chose Temple because it was considered the premier graduate program in Black studies and I was offered a full ride in the form of a Future Faculty Fellowship, which aimed to increase the number of minority faculty in the professoriate. More than this, Temple offered me the opportunity to continue a course of study that began when I was an undergraduate student at Hampshire College where I felt as if I walked in the shadows of Great Barrington’s own W.E.B. Du Bois and the writer extraordinaire James Baldwin, who briefly taught in the Five College Consortium as a visiting faculty, before returning to the south of France where he died a few years before I started my undergraduate journey. At Hampshire, I had the good fortune of studying under the likes of Robert Coles, e. francis white, Michael Ford, Andrew Salkey, and David Blight, to name a few. Each of these individuals shaped how I first began to seriously analyze the history, culture, and contributions of people of African descent to U.S. society, which led me into the interdisciplinary field of Black studies.

At Temple I came to appreciate how Afrocentrism represented a distinct school of thought within the larger universe of Black studies and, beyond this, an important variant in a long tradition of Black intellectualism that, since the early nineteenth century, defended Black capacity from attack by marking the achievements of African civilizations in the long centuries before European contact and the rise of racial slavery. For Asante, Afrocentricity’s centering of African knowledge systems made it the ideal foundational philosophy for the discipline; however, I came to reject efforts to impose a single methodology on doing Black studies, seeing it as stifling, unrealistic, and anti-intellectual. Moreover, as one who grew up in diverse working-class communities on both side of the Atlantic, Afrocentricity seemed to me to reinforce troubling discourses and hierarchies, and fell well short, as a research methodology, for engaging with the actual history and cultures of Africa. In addition to its inability to account for the hybrid identities and experiences across Africa and its diaspora, Afrocentricity’s emphasis on the dynastic universe of ancient Nile River Valley civilization made, in my view, little room for considering the contributions of Black people to the making of the New World and an understanding of the myriad transformations wrought by the process of enslavement and colonialism.

It was this type of interrogation that led me to join the doctoral program at UMass where I was one of five students admitted into the History track of the program’s second class. It was here where I developed a wider understanding of Black Studies’ history and learned how the UMass program was uniquely connected to Black movement history. In fact, it seemed as if the department’s founding faculty rode into academia on a wave of campus revolts, the freedom movement in the South, and several militant organizations that took hold in cities across the country in the era of Black Power. The department’s first acting head, Michael Thelwell, was a close confidant of Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Howard University. As a student at Bennett College, where she now serves as provost, Esther Terry participated in the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina and was instrumental in the founding of SNCC. Ernest Allen, Jr. was active in the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and became a leading historian on Black nationalism; William Strickland was Malcom X’s biographer and a founding member, along with Vincent Harding, of the Atlanta-based Institute of the Black World (IBW)—a grassroots organization committed to bringing Black studies into Black communities.

Of John Bracey, he arrived to UMass in 1972 by way of Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Chicago where he attended both Roosevelt University and Northwestern University. At Roosevelt, Bracey came under the influence of the linguist Lorenzo Turner, Charles Hamilton, coauthor of Black Power (1967), August Meier, an historian of Black intellectual history, and, most significantly, St. Clair Drake, a trailblazer in urban sociology and a pioneering figure in both African and African American studies. At Northwestern, Bracey became involved in the Black studies movement along with the likes of James Turner, Christopher Reed, and Darlene Clark Hine, all leading figures in the field of Black Studies today.

As with most of the founding faculty of the Du Bois Department, Bracey was active in the civil rights, Black liberation, and peace movements, working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Chicago Friends of SNCC, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and RAM. Bracey often recalled how his arrival to UMass was the result of a request from Du Bois himself to hire the executor of his estate, the historian, Communist, and author of American Negro Slave Revolt (1943), Herbert Aptheker, as a condition of acquiring his personal papers. Meeting resistance from the Massachusetts legislature, Aptheker advised Thelwell to request five new faculty lines for the department in his place, one of which became Bracey’s position.(3) More than underscoring the curious intersection of Cold War politics and Black studies, this story of Bracey’s joining UMass points to the insistence of the department’s founding faculty to protect their autonomy in building a program that would advance Black scholarship and mobilize knowledge for the liberation of Black peoples and all other exploited groups worldwide.          

In the long years after the battle over Black studies had been won and new questions arose as to theory, methodology, and the place of the discipline in relation to larger Black community, Bracey was instrumental in moving the Du Bois Department forward by bringing in a host of brilliant faculty who were at the forefront of charting new directions in the field of Black studies. Over the course of a career that spanned more than a half century, Bracey established himself as a giant in Black studies and a veritable institution within himself. A lifetime member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), National Council of Black Studies (NCBS), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Bracey’s significance and presence were felt across the profession. As a scholar with an enormous range of interests and competencies, he resists simple definition.  He wrote several award-winning works on Black life and history, and produced the kind of documentary and bibliographic research that gave textual substance to Black studies; all of this he made accessible to scholars, teachers, and students.  

Bracey was also a consummate collaborator, working with such prominent thinkers as Sharon Harley, August Meier, James Smethurst Manisha Sinha, Sonia Sanchez, and Elliott Rudwick, to name just a few. While much of his writing and research focused on Black social and cultural history, radical ideologies and movements, and the history of Black women, he also produced comparative and transnational histories, which explored, for example, relations between African Americans and Native Americans, Afro-Latinx, and Jewish Americans. This includes several co-edited volumes, such as Black Nationalism in America (1970); the award-winning African American Women and the Vote: 1837-1965 (1997); Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States (1999); and African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-First Century (2004). From an award-winning essay on the musician John Coltrane in the Massachusetts Review in 2016 to his contribution to the Furious Flower poetry anthology in 2019, even Bracey’s final works stand as testaments to his interdisciplinary imagination, creative spirit, and genuine love for Black people.

As a model for Black studies, Bracey’s legacy suggests that the best of the discipline is in its interdisciplinary approach to knowledge production, its embrace of scholarly rigor and analysis, and in its mindfulness of the history, culture, and contributions made by people of African descent in the U.S., and throughout the African diaspora. Despite the many transformations that have accompanied the institutionalization and expansion of Black studies in American higher education, for Bracey, the discipline’s priority commitment to subjecting society to the most serious analysis to generate greater understanding of Black people’s experiences in the modern world was one that always remained steadfast and foundational to the Black studies enterprise. I cannot help but to think of how my own work documenting the life history of St. Clair Drake was perhaps inspired by the genuine affection Bracey carried for his Roosevelt mentor and their shared commitment to the field of Black studies. As he once informed me, “Drake was my teacher and guide in the struggle.”(4) For this reason, the idea of building an interdisciplinary department of scholar-activists at UMass “was not that utopian. After all,” he concluded, “we had Professor Drake himself—co-author [with Horace Cayton] of Black Metropolis (1945), Pan Africanist and advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, participant in civil rights marches and sit-ins for over three decades, sociologist, anthropologist and political theorist—as a model.” In this way Bracey laid claim to an intellectual estate that can be traced, through Drake, to Black studies earlier peripheries, particularly to those sites where Black intellectuals were free to combine scholarship and militant activism in what Drake called “the grand tradition.”(5)

1                John Bracey to Lila S. Rosenblum, June 6, 1979, author’s possession.

2                See, for example, Molefi Kete Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge (New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1990); Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: New Republic and Basic Books, 1996); Adolph Reed, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual,” The Village Voice (11 April 1995); Ken Ringle, “A Professor’s Collision Course,” Washington Post (11 June 1996).

3                John Bracey, interview by author, Amherst, July 6, 2005, author’s possession.

4                John Bracey to Andrew Rosa, September 10, 1999, author’s possession.

5                John Bracey  to Lila S. Rosenblum, June 6, 1979, author’s possession.

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