Lester Spence http://www.lesterspence.com Battling Respectability Since 1969 Wed, 19 Oct 2016 16:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Frederick Douglass Marvin Gaye Remix http://www.lesterspence.com/the-frederick-douglass-marvin-gaye-remix/ http://www.lesterspence.com/the-frederick-douglass-marvin-gaye-remix/#respond Sun, 03 Jul 2016 16:11:34 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3389 A few years ago I mashed up Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July Speech as performed by James Earl Jones with Marvin Gaye’s soul-searing performance of The Star Spangled Banner. Mixcloud deleted it because they don’t allow single tracks, so I put it here.

http://www.lesterspence.com/the-frederick-douglass-marvin-gaye-remix/feed/ 0
Black Studies 3.0 http://www.lesterspence.com/black-studies-3-0/ http://www.lesterspence.com/black-studies-3-0/#comments Mon, 23 May 2016 18:21:32 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3381 A few weeks ago I listened to a WDET interview with Errol Henderson on the 45th anniversary of the development of black studies. Check it out.

In the wake of the rise of black student protests over the past few years, more than a few of us have been thinking about what could be called Black Studies 3.0.

So Black Studies 1.0 extends from the first Black Studies projects of the late sixties/early seventies until about 1991 or so. These projects took on a variety of different institutional forms (centers, institutes, programs) and included faculty trained in traditional departments (political science, sociology, etc.) alongside faculty who had no formal training. (To note but one example of this latter tendency Harold Cruse—author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Rebellion or Revolution, and Plural But Equal—was one of the most important figures of the University of Michigan’s Center for Afro-American and African Studies but not only did Cruse not have a PhD, he didn’t even have a college degree (having dropped out of the City College of New York.) This first period was a period of experimentation and institutionalization, with the first Black Studies journal (the Journal of Black Studies) and organizational entity (National Council of Black Studies) being formed during this time.

Black Studies 2.0 extends from two specific developments. (Bear with me. It’s possible that I’m fudging the dates a little bit.) One development is the creation of the first PhD granting department at Temple University under the leadership of Molefi Asante. A second development is Harvard’s decision to hire Henry Louis Gates jr. as the Chair of their own Department of African American Studies. Within a very short period of time Gates had successfully hired three of the nation’s best black social scientists (Larry Bobo, Michael Dawson, and William Julius Wilson) and two of the nation’s best philosophers (Kwame Anthony Appiah and Cornel West). Both developments came at a moment of rising black student enrollment and rising interest in black cultural production (popular and intellectual). The two departments were often pitted against each other in the popular press for ideological reasons, as Temple’s department under Asante was decidedly nationalist\ while Gates’s project was integrationist.

With Black Studies 2.0 comes two changes.

For the first time we see the modern development of a class of what could be called “superstar” black studies faculty. People like Gates and West were as well known outside of the academy as they were within it…in fact by the late nineties West had not only appeared in the sequels to The Matrix but Gates had become more known for his multi-media curation than for his scholarship. And as Black Student Unions at schools across the country began to receive large budgets Molefi Asante, Maulana Karenga, bell hooks and other scholars began to give well-paid lectures. As a result of the increased demand for black intellectual production, these figures and others likely made at least as much money outside of their universities as they did within it. Further, for the first time some black faculty members had the type of mobility their more well known white peers had. Henry Louis Gates for example moved from Yale to Cornell to Duke University before settling down at Harvard. Similarly West moved from Union to Yale back to Union to Princeton to Harvard…before then going back to Princeton and finally to Union.

We also see a significant rise in scholarship on and about black life. And this scholarship spills over its seventies era borders. Journals like the Journal of Black Studies and the Journal of African American History still exist, but it’s now possible to publish black studies scholarship in prominent academic presses and journals heretofore closed to black faculty and black studies. Several centers become departments (the University of Michigan’s CAAS becomes DAAS by the late nineties/early oughts (editor’s note–2007)), and other departments join Temple in the ability to award doctorates. And during this period it also becomes possible for black students and faculty trained in traditional disciplines to publish work on black populations (as well as on racial dynamics in general).

So perhaps for the first time in American history it’s possible for graduate students and faculty interested in black life to follow their interests in black subjects as a matter of course. I could, for instance, tell Hanes Walton (my dissertation advisor at the University of Michigan) that I wanted to study gender and political participation in Detroit without having to worry about whether it would be considered legitimate within the discipline. Similarly though I never ever thought about the job market as such until I really needed a job, I was able to get interviews at two of the best political science departments in the country studying the participation of black men and women.

These changes are pretty important. They change the landscape of black studies itself, making it more akin to other more traditional disciplines. And they indirectly change the traditional disciplines themselves.

But here’s the rub.

As Black Studies increasingly mimics its traditional counterparts the university itself is undergoing a process of neoliberalisation. Universities public and private are increasingly forced to rely on their endowment, with wealthy donors becoming more and more influential in shaping university agendas. What types of students universities recruit, what types of intellectual projects universities decide to take on, what type faculty the university decides to hire, becomes increasingly connected to donor desires. University faculty are expected to be more and more productive, and are expected to consistently go on the market in order to raise their profile and their salaries. The tenure track itself becomes more and more of a pipe dream, as the number of tenure track jobs decrease while the number of low paying adjunct faculty jobs increase.

The end result is that a small number of black faculty are now given the opportunity to make as much money as lawyers and wall street bankers, but are under pressure to move from place to place to place (and to consistently produce produce produce) in order to do so.

We’re now seeing a wave of black student protest that we haven’t seen since the years right before Black Studies 2.0 took hold. What might Black Studies 3.0 look like? What should it look like?

I’m coming up against my word count so i can’t go long. But instead of definitively answering this question I’ll pose a series of questions I think people interested and invested in this should ask.

First. Do we want to mirror the arms race that sees a small number of faculty members gain the lion’s share of resources or do we want to share resources equitably?

Second. Do we want to enhance our ability as individual faculty members to pursue our research and job opportunities where-ever they may take us, or do we want to enhance the likelihood of generating deep and enduring institutional changes where we are?

Third. Do we want to increase the potential black students have of constructing a rich concept of blackness that has room for queer and straight students from Detroit, Kingston, Johannesburg, Tamale…or do we want to prepare black students for the job market?

Fourth. In black studies centers in or near major urban centers, do we have a responsibility to bring scholarship to bear on the issues facing those centers, or do we primarily have a responsibility to our own individual research agendas?

Fifth. Should questions of political economy be “backgrounded” or “foregrounded”?

These and other questions all boil down to a very simple proposition. Are we to be part of a black radical abolitionist project?

http://www.lesterspence.com/black-studies-3-0/feed/ 2
Prince is Dead. Fuck. http://www.lesterspence.com/prince-is-dead-fuck/ http://www.lesterspence.com/prince-is-dead-fuck/#respond Tue, 26 Apr 2016 13:10:17 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3311 “Art among us blacks has always been a statement about our condition, and therefore it has always been political.” —Ossie Davis

Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic is one of the most important book written about popular culture and politics ever written. Iton (who also passed way far too early—I wish he could’ve been here to write this piece) quoted Davis above to drive home the deep connection between popular culture and politics in black life. And Davis’ quote works as kind of a truism in black spaces. Of course all black music is political.
Of course.

But this explains everything and nothing. That is to say if black art (and by extension popular culture) is and has always been political, if we can simply lump together John Coltrane’s Alabama and I don’t know….Ace Hood’s Hustle Hard as both being statements about the black condition—then we’re still left unable to either explain the nature of that condition or to prescribe the precise solution to that condition.

Prince is dead. Fuck.

Because it’s hard for me to imagine Prince in the past tense, much less take all 39 studio albums (this counts none of the albums he produced under pseudonyms much less the thousands of records in the Vault), over 100 singles, and more than a dozen EPs, in a single post, I’m not going to spend a great deal of time talking about Prince’s politics. Now that the embargo he imposed on his friends has been lifted, we know that Prince routinely spent resources on progressive causes including but not limited to Black Lives Matter. And it doesn’t take that much digging to find evidence of progressive stances on war (Dirty Mind’s “Partyup”, Controversy’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia” , 1999’s “1999”) corruption (Controversy’s “Annie Christian” contains a reference to Abscam) the environment (Planet Earth’s “Planet Earth”) liberation (Controversy’s “Sexuality”, 1999’s “Free”, Emancipation’s “Emancipation”) and sex (INSERT ANY TRACK HERE). Further we don’t have to look hard to find evidence that he stood for artist’s rights against corporate extortion and expropriation (he was a union member for almost forty years, he went so far as to change his name in an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Bros).

So instead of doing that what I want to do is take a different approach.

One of the questions people have asked of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street before them can be boiled down to this: The odds are dead against you. Why do you try?

Answering this question the right way has obvious political import. In as much as the two movements have done more to not only bring our attention to anti-black police brutality on the one hand and rampant income inequality on the other, it’s worth figuring out why people did what they did, and why they continued in the face of long odds.

I think the people asking this question misunderstand the role of public action. It’s likely some of the people involved with both movements believed they could win, not all did. In fact I think it’s likely most of the people involved didn’t have “winning” in their calculus. That is to say, they didn’t fight because they thought they could win.

So why did they fight?

While they fought for as many reasons as there were people, I think many of them fought because they understood the power of public action. They knew if they fought in a way that was visible and public, they would do two things. First they would increase the likelihood that other people in the same time and space would join them. Second they would increase the likelihood that other people in different times and different spaces would join them. These two actions would increase the possibility of resistance in other spaces and other times, and would increase the nature of resistance in that time.

What does this have to do with Prince?

If we’d have conducted a survey in 1977 or so, just asking one simple question: where are you most likely to find the center of 1985 black culture….you’d probably get four or five answers, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and then maybe some would say either Atlanta or Detroit. If you’d have asked that same group of people to tell you the most important pop culture figure of black masculinity you’d have likely either gotten Isaac Hayes, Teddy Pendergrass, or Jim Brown. There’s no way in hell even a significant number of folk would’ve located the center of black pop culture life in Minneapolis. And definitely no way that we’d have thought that the person who’d do more to change and reify our understanding of what black masculinity was and could be would stand 5’6 in heels, would appear so effeminate it’d at first be hard to tell whether he was a boy or a girl.

Here’s another take on it. If you’d have asked Prince himself when and where he’d have garnered his most support…he’d probably have said either NYC (before hip-hop made it hard for his more fluid concept of black masculinity) or L.A. (who was seemingly more open to fluidity, sexuality, and racial integration). Perhaps one of the last places he’d have mentioned would’ve been Detroit. Trying to think through his perspective I imagine he’d have thought it too “black power black” and not cosmopolitan enough. He wouldn’t have known that a local DJ by the name of Charles Johnson (stage name: Electrifying Mojo—you think Prince was mysterious, Mojo was so mysterious most of the thousands of listeners never knew what he looked like) with an eclectic listening palette would be drawn to Prince’s music. And among those listeners would be the mother of a little boy who’d fall so in love with his music that when Purple Rain was finally released in theaters he walked 4.9 miles to see it with his best friend.

In 1941 Richard Wright published 12 million Black Voices. The book documented the lives of black people during the Depression using a combination of photography and text. There hasn’t been a lot written on it (in fact one of my grad students hipped me to it), but I think one of the things he was trying to do with it was drive home how heterogeneous black life was even in the presence of back breaking poverty. In the contemporary moment there are a number of things to take from Prince’s life. And one of them is the fact that black life is far richer, far more powerful, far more beautiful, than any of us can possibly imagine.

But for someone with my politics, with our politics? My takeaway is pretty simple.

Prince is dead.


And organize, and plot, and plan, and think, and strategize, and dissent.

Not so we can win.

But because sooner or later someone will come along who can.

And they’ll need us.

http://www.lesterspence.com/prince-is-dead-fuck/feed/ 0
Michael Dawson and Lester Spence on Neoliberalism http://www.lesterspence.com/michael-dawson-and-lester-spence-on-neoliberalism/ http://www.lesterspence.com/michael-dawson-and-lester-spence-on-neoliberalism/#respond Mon, 28 Mar 2016 14:00:53 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3307

http://www.lesterspence.com/michael-dawson-and-lester-spence-on-neoliberalism/feed/ 0
Knocking the Hustle (Red Emma’s Book Reading/Discussion) http://www.lesterspence.com/knocking-the-hustle-red-emmas-book-readingdiscussion/ http://www.lesterspence.com/knocking-the-hustle-red-emmas-book-readingdiscussion/#respond Mon, 21 Mar 2016 14:00:29 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3305

http://www.lesterspence.com/knocking-the-hustle-red-emmas-book-readingdiscussion/feed/ 0
Midday Morning on Knocking the Hustle http://www.lesterspence.com/midday-morning-on-knocking-the-hustle/ http://www.lesterspence.com/midday-morning-on-knocking-the-hustle/#respond Thu, 14 Jan 2016 08:00:26 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3277 A few weeks ago Tom Hall at WYPR interviewed me about the book, one of the first interviews I conducted. Began with a nice version of Cannonball Adderley’s Work Song.

http://www.lesterspence.com/midday-morning-on-knocking-the-hustle/feed/ 0
The Global African on Knocking the Hustle http://www.lesterspence.com/the-global-african-on-knocking-the-hustle/ http://www.lesterspence.com/the-global-african-on-knocking-the-hustle/#respond Wed, 13 Jan 2016 22:41:08 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=3274 I recently appeared on The Global African (the last episode unfortunately) to talk about Knocking the Hustle.

http://www.lesterspence.com/the-global-african-on-knocking-the-hustle/feed/ 0
My short Best of 2015 Book list http://www.lesterspence.com/my-short-best-of-2015-book-list/ http://www.lesterspence.com/my-short-best-of-2015-book-list/#respond Thu, 31 Dec 2015 16:48:27 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=2988

In anticipation of the new year I had a discussion with Marc Steiner about the books that had the greatest impact on me over the past year. A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James), Black Silent Majority (Michael Fortner), Between The World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), Octavia’s Brood (Adrienne Maree Brown and Walida Imarisha, editors), and Only the Strong (Jabari Asim).

Briefly, in a Brief History of Seven Killings, James uses an attempted assassination on Bob Marley and a bloody crack house rampage to tell a story about postcolonial governance, globalization, the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic, black migration, class, sexuality, and popular culture. Juggling five distinct time periods, the first person perspectives of dozens of characters, and two different spaces (Jamaica and New York) calling this book ambitious is an understatement. I borrowed a Kindle to read it…and then ended up buying a hard copy that I hope to get back to before I die.

Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority represents an attempt to contribute to the growing literature on the carceral state by noting the role blacks played in passing the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws, viewed by many being responsible for what has now been a five decades long punitive approach to crime. Two prominent historians (Donna Murch and Khalil Gibran Muhammad) have both attacked Fortner’s work for assigning too much agency to black populations. While I think both Murch and Muhammad are excellent scholars, in my estimation they both overstate Fortner’s premise. Fortner isn’t suggesting that black people are to blame for the punitive turn. He isn’t suggesting it’s their “fault”. However he is suggesting that we can’t talk about or write about the punitive turn without talking about or studying the attitudes of blacks who tend to be the victim of crime that occurs in black communities. He’s right. Over the past twenty years political officials in Baltimore have increased police spending dramatically. When Martin O’Malley was elected mayor he implemented zero tolerance policies that over a brief three or four year period resulted in more arrests than Baltimore had residents. You think this move didn’t happen without the support of a significant portion of black residents? I’m hoping that the next few decades sees a new wave of scholarship that emphasizes political economy and black heterogeneity and focuses a bit more on history and institutional development than on large N survey research. I think Fortner’s book will do important work in moving this project forward.

Like James’ book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is on every top-ten list worth its salt. And it should be. I think he does a masterful job of communicating the visceral effect the anti-black life equation has on contemporary American life while at the same time recognizing black agency and power. And like Fortner’s book, Between the World and Me has come under scrutiny…but whereas scholars critiqued Fortner for putting too much weight on black agency, scholars have critiqued Coates work for not putting enough weight on black agency. More to the point, they have critiqued Coates’ for being far too pessimistic. I don’t buy this at all. If anything, he is a realist, combining Ralph Ellison’s appreciation of antagonistic cooperation with Richard Wright and James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the visceral impact of racism. Coates set out to write a Baldwin like book. He’s succeeded.

I’ve been a fan of Octavia Butler’s work for decades. Butler’s probably more responsible for putting black life into science fiction than any other author. Now the more I think about this, the crazier it sounds. If there’s anything worth examining through the lens of science fiction it’d be black life. But, you know, white supremacy. What Brown and Imarisha have done is meld Butler’s appreciation for dystopia with their own radical impulses, and the result is impressive. In the video below, Brown, Jennifer Culbert (political theorist, Johns Hopkins University), and I wrestle with Butler’s work and then with Octavia’s Brood. As you can gather, there’s a lot to be mined.

Last but not least we’ve Only the Strong. Although Asim, like the other authors above, has received his fair share of accolades, I don’t think he’s gotten the credit he really deserves. He’s mastered four very different genres, children’s books, young adult fiction, non-fiction, and with A Taste of Honey and Only the Strong, fiction. This, at the same time he’s running The Crisis, teaching Creative Writing at Emerson, and most important of all being husband, father, and now grandfather. With Only the Strong, Asim has introduced a character in Guts Tolliver as interesting as Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, or Leonid McGill. And in Gateway City we see a landscape as dense and rich with storytelling possibilities as Mosley’s Los Angeles.

I look at “best of the year” lists the way I look at NBA drafts…with the passage of time some “best ofs” end up being weak, while others end up being pretty strong. I expect each of these books to stand the test of time.

The Public Archive is one of the most insightful blogs I’ve come across over the past several years. They published their best of list, and Knocking the Hustle made the cut. I was honored to even have been considered.

Lester K. Spence’s Knocking the Hustle is the book many of us have long been waiting for. Spence analyzes contemporary racism through the lens of hardnosed political-economic critique while offering a radical interpretation of neoliberalism that accounts for the structuring forces of whitesupremacy. Brilliantly caustic and eminently readable,Knocking the Hustle unravels the culture of insecurity, precarity, and dismal entrepreneurialism that has marked out the terrain of Black political life in a world completely turned over to the market. Necessary reading. 

http://www.lesterspence.com/my-short-best-of-2015-book-list/feed/ 0
Is Obama becoming the President Blacks Wanted? http://www.lesterspence.com/is-obama-becoming-the-president-blacks-wanted/ http://www.lesterspence.com/is-obama-becoming-the-president-blacks-wanted/#comments Sat, 18 Jul 2015 15:17:55 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=2916 On Thursday July 18, David Greene of NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed me for about a half hour or so on the shift in President Obama’s rhetoric on race and racism.

Although I haven’t performed the “for real for real” type of analysis to definitively show that a shift has occurred, it’s worth comparing. Here’s the commencement address he delivered at Morehouse College in May 2013. [foot]Transcript here.[/foot]

Tuesday July 15 (the same day Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was released)[foot]I noted on Facebook that there are three books I’ve read over the past few years that deserve all the accolades they’ve received–Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, Joe Soss, Sanford Schram, and Richard Fording’s Disciplining the Poor and now Coates’ book.[/foot] he delivered a powerful speech to the NAACP detailing the pernicious effects of the prison industrial complex–the most powerful speech on the issue a president has ever delivered. Below, the speech.[foot]Transcript here.[/foot]

The next day, the show aired.

As I noted in the interview we don’t hear any of the “no excuses” rhetoric when he’s talking about reforming prisons. No sense that prisoners are in jail because they didn’t keep their pants up, no sense that prisoners are in jail because they made excuses instead of doing hard work.

David Greene probably selected me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I was one of the few folk of color to routinely appear on NPR, through my work on News and Notes and then Tell Me More. But secondly he interviewed me on the same subject in March 2012.

The President is undoubtedly constrained. The institution of the presidency was designed to be constrained, by the legislative branch, and by the judicial branch. And he’s [foot]Perhaps “he” until this next election.[/foot] constrained by his desire for re-election, and then even in his second term by his desire to see his party keep the office. These constraints are very real. But these constraints didn’t prevent him from pardoning/commuting the sentences of unfairly imprisoned citizens. These constraints didn’t cause him to spend a significant portion of his time castigating black audiences.[It’s really worth listening to the speech he gave Morehouse graduates in  These constraints DID prevent him from promoting an urban new deal that could’ve radically altered the life chances of black men and women. But those constraints didn’t cause him to come up with My Brother’s Keeper. He made choices. Problematic ones.

In the end this President will likely go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of the modern era.

But he had a very very low bar.

P.S. Written more for the historical record than anything else. Later Friday evening I got a chance to perform onstage with George Clinton. (Yes. That Clinton.) I’m sure there’s video somewhere–I don’t have it. To make a long story short, Clinton’s Atomic Dog” is my fraternity’s unofficial anthem, and we’ve kind of adopted him. He saw one of my fraternity brothers and I performing in the audience and he called us onstage. What I’ve tried to do over the past several years is show folk–particularly but not exclusively black folk–that there’s a way to be productive, to be critical, that doesn’t require embracing the bankrupt trappings of “seriousness”. We all have to do more to get free from the constraints preventing us from doing the work while we live the life.

http://www.lesterspence.com/is-obama-becoming-the-president-blacks-wanted/feed/ 1
In Honor of Mary Stewart http://www.lesterspence.com/in-honor-of-mary-stewart/ http://www.lesterspence.com/in-honor-of-mary-stewart/#respond Fri, 10 Jul 2015 20:58:47 +0000 http://www.lesterspence.com/?p=2907 Approximately 52 minutes ago at 4pm July 10, 2015, Mary Stewart retired from the University of Michigan after 42 years of service. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year I wrote the following letter to the University on her behalf:

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Lester Spence. I am currently an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. I entered the University of Michigan as part of the first post-BAM III/UCAR freshman class in the summer of 1987. I matriculated from the University of Michigan in 2001 having received not only my bachelor’s degree (in 1991) but my PhD as well. For almost 15 years I was not only a student on Michigan’s campus, I was deeply involved in the lives of black students. As an undergrad I was on the executive board of my dorm’s minority student association, the Black Greek Association, the Black Student Union, and then one of the founders of the Association of Multicultural Scientists. In honor of the work I performed for the University of Michigan I received the African American Alumni Council’s Ten Under Ten award. Since leaving the University, I’ve received awards for my scholarship (my 2011 book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award), for my teaching (in 2009 I was awarded Johns Hopkins’ Excellence in Teaching Award), and for my work in Baltimore (Urbanite Magazine named me one of their Changemakers in 2012).

I wrote the bio above to provide context for my letter of support for Mary Stewart.

As someone intimately involved in black student social life and in black student political life for almost 15 years, I routinely dealt with administrators and staff persons tasked to work with black students, from high-level administrators to day-to-day staff persons. Although a number of these individuals had and continue to have the best interests of black students at heart, of those individuals still at the University of Michigan there is only one other person I hold in as much esteem as I do Mary Stewart.

When I attended the University of Michigan, black student organizations relied on parties for organizational income. Because the local bar community was closed to black students (we could attend them but were very rarely allowed to host parties in them) and we didn’t have the resources to purchase real estate, we had only a few campus options. We could use the Trotter House, we could use the Michigan Union, or we could use the North Campus Commons. We preferred the Union because it had a big enough capacity and because it was centrally accessible.

Because Mary was in charge of scheduling, she became our point person. However, in the process she became much more than that. She was our historian—she knew our alumni members in many instances better than we did and could put us in touch with them long before Internet usage became common. She was our cheerleader—presenting us with income generating opportunities in the Union when no one else would. She became our counselor—helping us work through issues when we had no one else to turn to.

And when we fought to make the university more representative, she became our advocate.

Being on the other side of the university now as a tenured professor, I have a much keener understanding of the ways the university works, and a much keener understanding of the role non-tenured faculty, administrators, and staff-persons play. And I have even more of an appreciation for Mary, because while Mary was only supposed to do one thing—schedule rooms for students—she ended up providing so much more in time, affection, patience, and love. Further, in her role as an advocate, she possibly put her job in jeopardy because, unlike tenured professors, she serves solely at the behest of her supervisors.

Because I was so deeply involved in the university, I can still come on campus years later, and see people I know.

But because Mary Stewart means so much to me, and so much to Michigan’s community of color, she’s the first person I see when I return. The pictures she has on her wall? Don’t begin to state how important she is to us. Over the last twenty years we are now doctors, lawyers, professors, executives, political operatives, presidents, professional athletes, and more.

And we all owe at least part of our success to Mary Stewart. She is irreplaceable.


In honor of her retirement and her service, a group of Michigan Men put together a scholarship for black students in her name, and created a short video for her (i’m somewhere in the middle). She’s been (deservedly) feted by a range of news outlets in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area. Those pieces come close to doing her justice. But I felt it important to articulate the politics that made her work necessary, and the political choices she made, often in fear of her job. There are others at Michigan like her–Elizabeth James at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies stands out. But she really is irreplaceable.

http://www.lesterspence.com/in-honor-of-mary-stewart/feed/ 0