A Scholar's Life Told Strictly by the Book

By Cobb, William Jelani | The Crisis, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

A Scholar's Life Told Strictly by the Book


Cobb, William Jelani, The Crisis


Long before there were endowed chairs and Ivy League dream teams, before there were collegiate bidding wars to attract Black talent, there were ad hoc thought committees bent on proving that the term Black scholar was not an oxymoron.

At least since the days when Frederick Douglass stole literacy from a children's primer, education has been as central to Black American life as improvisation is to jazz. Successive generations of Black children have had the axiom of education-is-salvation instilled as an elder tapped them on the temple promising, "Once you get it up here, nobody can take it away from you."

Horace Porter's memoir The Making of a Black Scholar details a largely under-explored area in African American autobiographical narratives. Early on we learn of Porter's prodigious talent and inclination toward reading. Born to a farming family in Midland, Ga., book-learning provided Porter, a professor of English and chair of African-American studies at the University of Iowa, with a literal and figurative escape route from Jim Crow. Education is both a personal passion and Porter's career field; academic life has fostered many of his treasured friendships, as well as his marriage - he met his wife during graduate school at Yale University.

As fertile as this subject matter is, however, Porter's narrative is curiously under-seasoned. The author seems reticent to discuss his personal or family life, which makes it difficult to connect the outer journey (to the Ivy League) with the inner journey of the spirit and intellect. We surmise that learning is important, perhaps at the core of Porter's existence, yet he never quite conveys its personal, political, indeed spiritual significance in his life. We are left to wonder what precisely does the unsanctioned curiosity of a Black boy in Jim Crow Georgia mean?

The Making of a Black Scholar touches upon vital threads, but doesn't fully develop them. When Porter was 9, his father left a wood stove burning as he worked outdoors. The house caught on fire and burned to the ground. The fire was a turning point in the family's life:

"I knew in a deep way that the afternoon of fire and smoke, ashes and dread would somehow forever change my life. The rural life we had known - rows of green corn and the ivy-like sprawl of sweet potato vines - was over," Porter writes. "I was sad, but I remember sensing intuitively the opportunities afforded by city living...At first my father seemed to take the destructive episode in his stride. As the months passed, however, it became clear that he was emotionally devastated. He blamed himself for the loss of everything."

The fact that his educational opportunities expanded as a result of the same event that psychically eviscerated his father is compelling, but the theme is dropped. …

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