March 24, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Lit Fest | Gerald Early and Artifacts of the American Imagination

The 2017 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Gerald Early for a reading in Walter Hall on Thursday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m.,  and a noon lecture Friday, April 7, in Alden Library.

By Tom Tiberio
Graduate student pursuing a master’s in Creative Writing: Nonfiction

Gerald Early would prefer that you not call him an expert on popular culture.

Gerald Early

“I could think of nothing I wanted less than such an identification,” he writes in the introduction to One Nation Under A Groove, his historical account of Motown.

It’s not that Early, a professor of English and African-American Studies, is offended by the label; he is just too humble for it. Early’s objection is that his particular fields of interest (he would not use the word “expertise” here) are narrow (“almost to the point of being a small series of points,” he says) in the broader context of American popular culture. And of course, the term “pop culture” is a bit of a catch-all itself. Yet perhaps it’s forgivable to attach such a description to an essayist like Early, given that his main interests—baseball, jazz, and boxing—happen to be quintessentially American.

Also, Early is very good at what he does.

The Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives, Early also chairs the university’s department of African and African American Studies. In his essays and scholarly research, Early is drawn to what he has described as “genuine artifacts of the American imagination.” And although he is perhaps best known for writing about music and sports, he has also penned books on topics such as raising daughters (he has two) and is often called on for his analysis of cultural events. President Obama tapped him to serve on the National Council on the Humanities in 2013. He has also edited multiple Best of African American writing anthologies (both fiction and nonfiction).

Early’s deep knowledge of his subject matter has led to his being a frequent consultant on documentaries by Ken Burns—he has appeared in Baseball, Jazz, and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, among others. Asked about his friend and colleague after Early received an award for his work in the humanities, Burns offered his highest praise. The famed documentary filmmaker suggested that when people 2,000 years in the future study American civilization, they need look no further than Gerald Early to “get to the heart of what American Studies is all about.”

Part of Early’s cultural cred comes from his ability to negotiate each world he enters—be it boxing or beauty pageants—through observations that are at times sweeping (speaking to an entire generation or era) and pointed:

“But what made a great tune, say, out of the Temptations’ ‘My Girl,’” Early explains in One Nation Under A Groove, “was the tension between its rather sentimental words and the late David Ruffin’s strong gospel-fueled voice, which threatened to break out of the song’s pop sensibility at any second.”

To accomplish this panoramic view, Early does what the best of historians do, which is to offer a comprehensive look at a topic, drawing connections and parallels, pointing out places of contradiction and where others have been wrong in the past. Above all, Early seems to approach his writing as a scholar, equal parts archeologist and translator. The result is that the reader is offered an illuminating look at the complex forces behind a particular figure or movement.

While Early would admit, for example, that sporting events don’t necessarily affect those beyond the court or playing field, he also recognizes the immense power athletes hold in the American consciousness, how sports figures can become symbolic—“an affirmation,” he once wrote, “of what we would like to believe about ourselves.” Early, whose book on prizefighting, The Culture of Bruising, won the National Critics Circle Award, has called sports the “ultimate meritocracy.” Of the boxer Joe Louis, he writes:

“Louis was more than a boxer, more than a champion athlete; he was the personification of a broad and compelling black triumph, a symbol of black freedom, assertion, and achievement during an age when blacks experienced rigid segregation and were beginning to become restive about their prolonged degradation and disenfranchisement, and during an age when the heavyweight championship was the most coveted title in all of sports.”

It’s this authoritative voice that allows Early to paint in bright, broad strokes, especially when dealing with complex, polarizing figures such as Jesse Jackson, Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali. “What sport could better romanticize the ideas of social Darwinism than boxing,” he writes in This is Where I Came In, his book of essays about black America in the 1960s. And like any good reviewer of music or film, Early is bold in his pronouncements, not afraid to take an unpopular stance. This confidence on the page is especially vital given that Early is often entering territory that is complicated, if not contentious. He frequently writes about race—from the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, to crime in Philadelphia, where he was raised.

But even as he makes his strong claims, and with a writing voice that lures us from page to page, Early will admit when he doesn’t have the answer. In fact, he once began a lecture on urban violence by saying: “I don’t have any answers.” Whether writing about art or politics, he strives to be honest with his readers—and to be clear about the fact that he’s still searching.

Ultimately it is this kind of humility and loyalty to the truth that, especially in an age so saturated with soundbites and self-promotion, has led Gerald Early down the literary path he has taken.

“That’s the magic of art, really,” Early once told an interviewer, “the miracle of art is that it can come from anywhere, and it can speak to you on a variety of levels, in ways that you don’t expect.”

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