“I want to give a shout-out to someone who got me on this path so many years ago – Professor Arnold Rampersad – who actually was my Intro to African American Literature professor at the University of Virginia when I was a first year undergraduate student.”
Those words were spoken by Brenda Stevenson, 2016-17 CASBS fellow and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at UCLA, during her introduction to her cohort of fellows and CASBS staff in September 2016. In the room, watching and listening, was Arnold Rampersad, also a 2016-17 CASBS fellow (and previously a CASBS fellow in 1982-83) and now retired from Stanford as the Sara Hart Kimball Professor Emeritus in the Humanities.
Stevenson’s warm remark compelled us to bring the two together for a conversation and Q&A to find out more.
CASBS: So, Brenda, you’re acknowledgment of Arnold was so heartwarming – probably the highlight of the day, if not the week, for many in attendance. What more can you share about this?
Brenda Stevenson: I was a UVA freshman in 1974. I can’t remember who now, but somebody suggested I might enjoy taking his class. I said OK, and it was really wonderful. Frightening, but wonderful. It was an introduction to a literature I knew nothing about. I grew up in Virginia. Half my time had been spent in segregated public schools and the other half in integrated public schools. There wasn’t a curriculum that dealt with African Americans in either. In the South at the time, you really didn’t get literature or history that dealt with African Americans.
C: What did you know about Arnold, if anything, at that point?
BS: I didn’t know anything about him. I walked into the classroom and there he was. He had an accent then, a little bit of one, and a beard. He looked very serious.
Arnold Rampersad: That was my major accomplishment at that point. A beard.
C: Brenda, you later pursued your advanced scholarly training at Yale, but you gave the shout-out for a reason, right? Did Arnold have some sort of lasting impact?
BS: Oh he absolutely had a lasting impact. I never would have thought about doing anything related to African American Studies – not because I didn’t like it, but because I knew nothing about it. I was going to be a scientist. I wasn’t going to be a humanist or social scientist or any of that. But in his class, I remember reading the 1923 novel Cane, for example. It was an absolute revelation for me. The description of the landscape – beautiful! I had lived my entire life in the South but had never really thought about what it looked like. That book and others, like Uncle Tom’s Children, exposed me to a rage that I felt so distinctly, so marvelously, so intensely when I read it. It just opened-up the world to me.
It’s what you go to college for – to discover new perspectives as well as something new within yourself; to be stimulated intellectually. It was a seed that ignited another seed and then it went on and on. It ignited in me a lifelong love of literature. I have him to thank for that. If it hadn’t been for his class, I probably wouldn’t have taken the other classes that put me on my path. I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. It was really the beginning of what has become my career.
C: Arnold, over the years you’ve probably had several students, like Brenda, who have gone on to do incredible things. Did you follow her career trajectory?
AR: I always remembered her name, that she had been a student of mine, and I was aware of her steady rising in her corner of the profession. It’s wonderful…to look at what she has accomplished and how far she has gone. It’s humbling to think that I played even a small part in that journey.
By the way, I had a situation somewhat similar to Brenda’s. I grew up in a British colony [Trinidad and Tobago], where American literature was ignored as a subject. It wasn’t until I was a grad student at Harvard that I fell in love with African American literature as a field. I went all the way through Bowling Green State University [as an undergraduate] and Harvard without anyone ever assigning me even one book by an African American writer in a class.
AR: Yes. Then Roger Rosenblatt, a young professor, asked me to TA for him as he prepared to teach the first class offered at Harvard on African American literature. That sent me into the library stacks, where I started delving into African American literature on my own.
My first faculty job was at the University of Virginia, and it was there I taught African American literature for the first time. I also offered a course in Southern Literature, with authors such as Faulkner, Welty, Styron, Wright, and Flannery O’Connor. The odd thing was that, at that time, none of the other English professors seemed interested enough in the subject to teach it.
BS: Right, of course.
AR: The point is, I had the same sense of “the shock of recognition,” to use a term from Herman Melville, that Brenda described about her encounter with black writers, the shock of recognizing something that speaks to you directly and profoundly, something that churns your innards, or your intellectual depths. That kind of discovery – for me, of American literature, then, later, of African American literature – is very significant. A new world opens to you that has been there, right before you, all around you, but you’re suddenly seeing it put down in words…
C: You two didn’t know that you’d both be here this year at CASBS, right? You must be tickled. Is this opportunity to reconnect a bit of serendipity?
AR: It’s been emotionally very reassuring, very challenging. I’m a retired professor. Nobody outside of his family wants to hear what a retired professor has to say…
BS: [laughing] That’s not true!
AR: I see Brenda as the senior figure in the field here. I am, if not the junior person, certainly the fading eminence…
C: He’s got a patent on the self-deprecation thing.
BS: I know, right?
He is so decorated and honored, and his work is so magnificent and prolific. His career has been a marvel. It’s a challenge to live-up to a career like his, so I wouldn’t even try. Of those who have influenced me, his work is the most imposing in the historiography, in the scholarship. It’s extraordinary to see someone who has taken on the subjects that some thought – still think – are marginal. They’re not marginal, of course. His excellence in African American literature has made it mainstream, made it acceptable, made it something that other students can do and have a wonderful career doing. It’s been great reconnecting with Professor Rampersad. It’s been really wonderful.
C: Are you allowed to call him Arnold now?!?!
BS: I am. I do.
AR: Yes. But as Henry Kissinger said, “I really prefer to be addressed as ‘Your Grace’.”
C: Arnold, you’re very famous for having written biographies of people who are in the public consciousness. Brenda is telling deep, rich histories of those who are voiceless or unknown to us, at least in the bulk of her projects. But from reading about both of you, in the bigger picture I see some commonalities. It seems Brenda is a historian who incorporates literature and humanities, while you have been writing histories and biographies from the perspective of literature. Any disciplinary walls don’t seem to matter much. Also, you both challenge revisionist claims through serious scholarship. You see things others have not seen up to that point.
AR: What I’ve wanted to do is use literary analysis but also historical details – and some knowledge of sociology and psychology – in order to give a full picture, a full human picture, of my subject. My central subject has been the African American character, which is to say the human character.
As I said in my own CASBS fellows intro talk, when at first I read books about African American people I profoundly admired, writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, I barely recognized them. I hate to use the term, but they were written almost as if black lives don’t matter. Well, I thought they did matter, and the only way to demonstrate that fact was to produce works of biography that systematically, using whatever knowledge and expertise and style of writing at my disposal, to convey the essence of humanity that I know is there in the subject.
Of course, there is no perfection in historiography or literature or biography. It’s a constant groping after something we might call ‘truth,’ but such truth is never fully obtainable. What I think Brenda and I have in common is that we actively respect the value of a variety of fields…and realize that we have to combine them, fuse them, in order to apply them to the human, social, and historical situations we are trying to understand and represent.
BS: It’s interesting because once I left the sciences – once I struggled through organic chemistry and decided no, this is not for me – I actually ended-up taking more literature classes than history classes. I just loved literature.
I like to write about people. I want people to understand what other people are like from the inside out. Often, with my subject matter – The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins, as one example – people don’t really see the human quality of the person, and that’s what you have to expose. You really have to expose that everyone is connected through this humanity even though people may look different and live under different circumstances. We’re motivated in the same kinds of ways, we mentally want the same kinds of things and we act in somewhat predictable ways. In the work I do, I’m always trying to uncover that, while at the same time telling a really good, rich story.
And, you know, one of the great things about being in African American Studies is that it’s inherently interdisciplinary. You’re trained from the very beginning to not only focus – in my case, as a social historian – not only on social history, but also to examine the literature and art and psychology and even science in terms of methodological processes and things like that.
Since I was in Arnold’s class, I’ve been trained to really embrace, use, and reflect interdisciplinarity in my own work. That’s why I’m finding CASBS to be quite stimulating, actually.
AR: I should say that, for me, even working on a famous figure such as Ralph Ellison or Jackie Robinson, you’re unearthing what, for a lot of people, is a basic revelation. “Oh, he was interested in that? Really? Oh, I didn’t know that. I had no idea that he could be interested in that.”
C: The National Endowment for Humanities web site has a statement about you in recognition of your receiving the National Humanities Medal in 2010…
AS: I’ve never seen it.
C: …that quotes you as saying you see “the African American personality as a neglected field, despite the prominence of race as a subject in discussions of America. African American character in all its complexity and sophistication was and still is, by and large, a denied category in the representation of American social reality.” Brenda, that’s exactly what you’re doing in one of the CASBS year projects [on multi-generational female black histories from the 1600s to the 1800s] you described in your CASBS fellows intro months ago – unearthing that representation as part of American social reality.
BS: Right. And when I try to expose humanity, I try to do it comparatively. I want people to see that, regardless of who you look at, you’re going to find this connective tissue of humanity. That sounds odd, but you can’t take for granted that people understand that black people have humanity, or that they have a humanity that resonates with an Asian immigrant female’s humanity or a planter’s wife’s humanity, or something like that. That’s what intrigues me, is how people come together and what that means for their displays of humanity or inhumanity when they are in conversation with each other or in a power struggle with each other.
AR: See? I told you she was my senior. She’s doing what she should be doing, which is to assimilate everything that’s been done in the past by scholars such as Blassingame, Baker, Rampersad – you name them, including white scholars. But she is producing something that is new and richer than we ever imagined.
AR: Of course, there is a limit to my modesty. [laughter] I don’t feel that I’ve been made, you know, completely redundant. Not completely.
BS: [laughter] No, not at all. Not at all.