Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Thinking through a Life: Reconsidering the Origins of Ralph J. Bunche

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Thinking through a Life: Reconsidering the Origins of Ralph J. Bunche

Article excerpt

This essay draws primarily upon Ralph Bunche's personal papers and the two most recent scholarly biographies of him (Henry, 1999; Urquhart, 1993) to analyze his formative years and what they might illuminate about the formation of character. It also places this chapter of Bunche's life within its larger historical context. Special attention is given to Bunche's years in Los Angeles, because it was during this time that Bunche first became a respected public figure and a leader of his generation.

Scholarship and common sense agree that an individual's formative experiences and circumstances decisively influence the direction and velocity of the rest of the journey. Exactly how circumstances and decisions become achievements, however, is a complicated process. One danger inherent in tracing the origins of a "great life" is to see inevitable triumph in every fragment of evidence. And indeed, journalistic admirers of Ralph Bunche, writing in the late 1940s and 1950s, constructed such a picture, with some assistance from Bunche himself. Bunche's "rags-to-riches" life story and his gifts as a mediator were much admired in a society struggling to come to terms with many profound social changes and ideological contradictions (Keppel, 1995, pp. 61-95). Today, this symbolic work continues with Bunche's skill as a peacemaker being used to inspire African American youth facing the temptation of gang membership to choose education and nonviolence instead (Elster, 2003).

I approach Bunche's formative years as an historical challenge, and I must, in the process, acknowledge some of the limits to what we know. In addition, even though this inquiry must strive to be scholarly and objective, this does not relieve me from the obligation of thinking about how this narrative might help us to better understand the formation of character and leadership in a society very much in need of both. As I look back on Bunche's life, I am, like my predecessors and contemporaries, thinking through a life: that is, trying to find in Bunche's life answers to our own questions about our world. For instance, today, when "mentoring" has become a buzzword for addressing the many problems faced by young people, it seems entirely legitimate to ask how studying Bunche's early years can help us to understand how individuals achieve in the face of great adversity and hardship. At a time when many see the American family as being "in crisis," Bunche's own example should cause us to rethink stereotypes about what constitutes a "stable" or "functional" family.


Students of Ralph Bunche's life owe a great debt to his two most scrupulous and scholarly biographers, Brian Urquhart (1993) and Charles P. Henry (1999). Their meticulous research has given us the best account of Bunche's early years and family life. The family into which Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan on August 7, 1903, seems to have been a large and loving one. Bundle's mother, Olive Johnson Bunche, came from a strongly religious family with a deep commitment to education.

We know virtually nothing about the family of Fred Bunche, Bunche's father, except that he seems to have been a gregarious man who never quite found his economic or personal footing in life. By 1916, Fred Bunche had vanished from the scene. The tuberculosis which afflicted both Olive Bunche and her brother, Charles Johnson, propelled the family to the drier climate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1914. Within three years, both Ralph's mother and beloved Uncle Charley would be dead-Olive from tuberculosis and Charley from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This tragic turn of events inspired the family's next move to Los Angeles with Bunche's beloved grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, firmly at the helm (Henry, 1999, p. 10; Urquhart, 1993, pp. 30-31).

If there is a singular theme that emerges most strongly from Bunche's adult recollections about his youth, it is about the bedrock importance of his grandmother ("Nana") in his life. …

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