Saturday, February 15, 2020

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.'s Numerous, Essential Introductions

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. and Eugene B. Redmond at event in East St. Louis, Feb. 2005

I'm researching a project related to former English majors from Tougaloo College, where I earned my undergraduate degree. In the process, I have been conducting interviews and thinking about ways that the English department supported several students who eventually earned PhDs.

One name that keeps coming up, not surprisingly, is Jerry W. Ward, Jr., a long-term and noted scholar and professor from Tougaloo. Now, prior to my recent research, if someone had asked what Ward's major contributions to former students like me had been, I would've said something like, he helped students like me with our writing. Or, he helped us solidify research projects. He offered guidance, and served as an important model.

I still think those things are true. But something new has emerged in the course of my research. Something else that Ward did that was really important: he made numerous, essential introductions. I always benefited from those introductions, but until recently I had not adequately put the practice into context of contributions to my advancement as a scholar and professional.

Yet, when a professor introduces a student to numerous scholars, artists, and other useful contacts, they are providing a vital service and raising the chances of future opportunities.  Ward personally introduced me (and other students) to dozens of scholars and artists in our field.

The practice of making numerous, essential introductions is something that we should strive to emulate.

Professor Valerie Matthews, a 1992 graduate of Tougaloo, noted to me in an interview that "Dr. Ward wrote personal letters to scholars such as Houston Baker and Trudier Harris to prepare the way for my graduate school applications." That is, outside of letters of recommendation, Ward wrote letters connecting an undergraduate with potential graduate mentors. Harris, by the way, ended up directing Matthews's dissertation.

The many introductions Ward made concerning me began in the fall of 1997. He arranged for me to attend a conference "Myth, Memory and Migration: The Black South in the Cultural Imagination" at the University of Alabama. During the conference, Ward introduced me to some of his scholar-friends: Houston Baker, Trudier Harris, Karla Holloway, and Virginia Whatley Smith. Around that time, he linked me to a poet in Mississsippi named C. Leigh McInnis. Back on campus, Ward put me in touch with his colleagues Ben Bailey and university archivist Clarence Hunter.

When I made my graduate school visit to Penn State in the spring of 1999, my future advisors Bernard Bell and William J. Harris were quite receptive when I introduced myself as "a student of Jerry Ward." I replicated that mode of introducing myself during my initial encounters with Joanne Gabbin and Maryemma Graham.

Ward was at a conference I attended as a graduate student in Utah in 2000. There, he introduced me to his poet-friends, Kalamu ya Salaam and E. Ethelbert Miller. He introduced me to Wilfred Samuels. He also introduced me to the tireless bibliographer, Keneth Kinnamon. At a later conference, Ward introduced me to Tony Bolden and Thabiti Lewis -- two scholars I don't recall ever not knowing. Imagine becoming acquainting with all these scholars and artists prior to working fully in the field.

At one of the first Modern Language Association conferences I attended, I saw Lorenzo Thomas at the book exhibit. I approached him and introduced myself with my familiar "I'm a student of Jerry Ward" greeting. We talked for a while. I had previously noted something Thomas wrote in the acknowledgements of his book Extraordinary Measures (2000): "This work has profited from....a lively conversation with Jerry W. Ward, Jr., that has continued for two decades." I noted to Thomas at that time how amazing it must have been to have been conversing with Ward about literary art and culture for twenty years. It turns out that my own lively conversation with Ward has persisted now for twenty-three years.

I first met Eugene B. Redmond during my interview for my job in the English department at SIUE. "You're a student of Jerry Ward?" Redmond asked and confirmed at the opening of the meeting. During my first few years on the faculty, when Redmond introduced me to various people, he often opened by saying of me, "he's a student of Jerry Ward." It was commendable that I earned a PhD from Penn State, but my origin story as a student of Ward is what legitimized me as a serious Black Arts scholar in many contexts.

In 2007, in the lead-up to birthday celebrations for Richard Wright, Ward and Graham introduced me to Wright's daughter Julia Wright.

Making introductions, my research and Ward's model has made me aware, is a really crucial service a professor can perform for students and young professionals. Those introductions lead to collaborations and all kinds of opportunities. 

In my ongoing research project, I recently reached out to Charrita Danley Quimby, the chief of staff at Hampton University. Quimby is a graduate of Tougaloo. When I contacted her for an interview, I figured I needed to let her know I was credible. "Like you," I told her, "I'm a student of Jerry Ward."

A notebook on English majors from Tougaloo College
A Notebook on the work of Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

1 comment:

Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

it was over dinner at another grad student conference that Howard Rambsy and Jerry Ward helped me decide whether or not to go to Penn State!