Early, Gerald 1952–
Gerald Early 1952–
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Gerald Lyn Early is an educator as well as the prolific author of essays, reviews, and poetry. His work has been featured in countless periodicals, and he has received numerous awards, including the Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Criticism. In addition, Early does commentaries for Fresh Air on National Public Radio (NPR).
In his book Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood, Early described the first time he knew he wanted to write. His mother had pulled him into a jazz club to get warm while they watched a parade on New Year’s Day. Early, intrigued by a musician playing a tenor saxophone, realized that he did not want to play a sax, but rather, he wanted to describe it. Since then, he has gone on to become “one of the most exciting and provocative writers of his generation,” according to Joyce Carol Oates as mentioned in Current Biography.
In 1952, Early was born in Philadelphia. His father, a baker, died when Early was nine months old, leaving his mother, a preschool teacher, to rear him and his two sisters on her own. Living in a poor area of the city, Early grew up befriending members of the Fifth and the South Street gangs, though he never became a member himself. Instead he focused on scholarly pursuits, graduating cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974. During Early’s undergraduate years, he was introduced to the writings of Amiri Baraka and later credited the poet and playwright with influencing his own work. Early developed much of his writing style through involvement with the university newspaper. Ironically, his first major piece was a journalistic foray into the gang-related murder of a cousin.
After earning his B.A., Early returned to Philadelphia, where he became employed by the city government. He also spent six months monitoring gang activities through the Crisis Intervention Network before resuming his course work at Cornell University, where he eventually earned a doctorate in English literature in 1982. Early had married in 1977, and the couple had two children by the time Early had landed his first teaching job. Starting as assistant professor of black studies at St. Louis’s Washington University in 1982, Early would
At a Glance…
Born Gerald Lyn Early, April 21, 1952, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Henry Early (a baker) and Florence Fernandez Oglesby (a preschool teacher); married Ida Haynes Early (a college administrator), August 27, 1977;children: Linnet Kristen Haynes Early, Rosalind Lenora Haynes Early. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1974; Cornell University, M.A., 1982; Ph.D, 1982, Religion: Episcopalian.
Writer, editor, reviewer, lecturer. Washington University, St. Louis, MO, instructor, 1982; assistant professor of blackstudies, 1982–84, and of English and African and Afro-American studies, 1984-88; associate professor of English and African and Afro-American studies, 1988; professor of English and African and Afro-American studies, 1988-90; Randolph Macon College for Women, Lynchburg, VA, writer in residence, 1990; Warner Brothers Communications, script adviser for the television series, The Mississippi, 1983; consultant for Ken Bums’s Baseball documentary and Jazz documentary; commentator for Fresh Air on National Public Radio (NPR).
Awards: Cornell University, first year minority graduate fellow, 1977, summer fellow, 1978-80, dissertation research award, 1980, graduate fellow, 1981 ;Josephine de Karman graduate fellow, 1981 ; Washington University faculty summer research fellow, 1984; University of Kansas minority postdoctoral fellow, 1985-87; grant from Missouri Committee for the Humanities, 1983; Council of the Creative and Performing Arts Creative Writing Award, 1978; Arthur Lynn Andrews short stories competition, second place, 1979, third place, 1981; Whiting Writer’s Award, Whiting Foundation, 1988; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines/General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, 1988; published in Best American Essays, 1986, 1991, 1993, 1996; National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Criticism, 1994;MerleKling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, 1996.
Addresses: Office -Washington University, African and Afro-American Studies, Campus Box 1109, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899.
steadily rise to a full professorship in both the English and the renamed African and Afro-American studies departments by 1990.
One year earlier, Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture, his first book, was published. The title came from a swing jazz number written and recorded by black trumpeter and band leader Erskine Hawkins in 1939. When white artist Glen Miller covered the tune in 1940, “Tuxedo Junction” became a bona fide crossover hit. As Early explained in the introduction to Tuxedo Junction, he purposely sought to bring attention to the “sense of... being for them’ and for ’us’ and for all” that is often prevalent in the United States. The collection covers a variety of topics of which draw upon Early’s personal experiences as well as the current events of the day, including literature, jazz, and boxing. Racial politics are evident throughout the book, which was positively received by reviewers.
Early next turned his attention to Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen by editing a collection entitled My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. The following year, 1992, saw the release of Speech and Power: The African American Essay and It’s Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit and a second volume in 1993. As evidenced by the lengthy subtitle, Speech and Power brought together historical and contemporary commentary on a wide range of subjects by some of the foremost African American cultural critics from W. E. B. Dubois to Terry McMillan. The two volumes included more than 100 essays. The success of that work led Early to edit another compendium. Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity and the Ambivalence of Assimilation brought together discourses of strictly contemporary blacks.
Refocusing on his favorite topics, 1994’s The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern Culture was the first work completely authored by Early since Tuxedo Junction. In the new work, Early delved into the symbolism of specific figures, including boxers Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and slain civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but also ventured into his ideas regarding as seeming divergent topics as multiculturalism and baseball. The Culture of Bruising earned Early the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The mid-1990s also saw Early finally get personal. Whereas his previous efforts were characterized by “the intellectual rigor of carefully examining whatever life in America throws into his path, “according to the Chicago Tribune, Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood was a much more intimate book. Jill Nelson noted in The Nation, “Early knows that in the life of a family, it is the small, often predictable moments-a long car ride, a family vacation, a change of hair style-that bind us closer to one another, and, sometimes, liberate us from our notions both of ourselves and each other.”
Confronting some tough issues in Daughters, Early confessed in Harper’s Magazine, “By describing myself as true and loyal to a black wife and black children, by portraying myself as a black Ward Cleaver [fictional character on television’s Leave It to Beaver], I made myself into the man I imagined myself to be—and into something far more wonderful than I actually was. “Early admitted to the differences—in experience and expecta-tion-between him and his children, one of whom suffered from a learning disability and both of whom were growing up in a middle-class, white neighborhood.
Early wrote of his discomfort and guilt but also, more positively, of his hopes and self-awareness. Reviewer Darryl Pinckney, in The New York Review of Books stated, “Early’s program of sharing experience is also a form of giving his daughters something he didn’t have as a child.” For Early, who grew up fatherless, Daughters was ultimately a close look at the personal history of two lives he helped bring into the world and an accounting of the personal responsibility with which he was imposed as a father.
Switching gears entirely, Early published One Nation Under a Grooue-described by The Nation’s Mary Elizabeth Williams as Early’s meditation on Motown within a social and personal context. The Motown of the 1960s, nicknamed Hitsville, had proclaimed itself “The Sound of Young America.” As Williams expressed, “That Hitsville’s danceable brand of pop should serve as the score to a generation fueled by unparalleled civil unrest might seem ironic. Early, however, grasps how appropriate that motto was, with its interracial subtext and the unifying appeal of an insistent hook.”
Thus, rather than giving the reader a history of Motown, Early instead commented on the record label’s relationship to blacks and whites. He contended, “We have had over 35 years of recognized integrated national experience in this country, and in that period the success of Motown stands as the most shining hour of the American black in popular culture.” Motown Records, according to Early, was “the most successful independent record company and the most successful black-owned business in American history.”
Early chronicled the 1959 formation of Motown Records by Berry Gordy, Jr., after Gordy’s failed boxing career, once again tapping into Early’s love of the sport. After describing Gordy as, “not merely a CEO, a boss, a leader, or even a visionary, but ... a father, an older brother, an uncle, a coach, a teacher, a guardian, [and] an authority figure motivated by something other than making money,” he then explained how and why this family image made Motown important in the black community. While discussing the progress of Motown, Early reminds readers that a young John F. Kennedy had just been elected president and that a young Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching a message of change, both men portrayed an optimism for blacks. Early concluded that the “story of American popular music is the story of American democracy at its best and its worst.”
Early persistently strives to grasp the broader meaning of events extraneous to his life, while delving into his own existence as a means of relating to the world. For instance, when he reviews or edits the works of others, Early is willing to confront himself over why he wants what he wants and how it fits into what society wants. Critiquing David Hajdu’s Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn for The New Republic, Early opined: “One validates one’s blackness only when one validates one’s individuality, one’s humanity. What any black person wishes finally to be, in this land of tragic and comic minstrelsy, is himself.” One is led to believe that Early is no exception to the “rule” he has postulated.
Similarly, when reviewing Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People: A Memoir, for The New Republic, Early called the book “the latest in a series of autobiographical works by noted black baby boomers-ex-Black Panthers, first-generation school integrators, former and current social service and government agency administrators, journalists, educators-the group born between 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, and 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated public schools are illegal. “Early knows that group well because he, too, is a baby boomer.
Though he usually drums up his own material, many of Early’s writings are, in fact, commissioned. The editor of Civilization, Stephen G. Smith, asked Early to write an essay on Afrocentrism; in 1996, the essay was singled out by the National Magazine Award judges for its excellence, and the essay was selected for representation in The Best American Essays of 1996, edited by Geoffrey C. Ward and Robert Atwan.
Later, Smith sought Early’s impressions on the issue of integration because, “I was impressed by Early’s rhythmic prose, his balanced approach to race, and the wonderfully human way he wrote about his family.” At first Early was reluctant to write the article, joking that it would ruin his career, but after his research, he was eager to tackle the complex subject. The results were well received. Smith revealed, “As he did with Afrocen-trism, Early has written about integration with honesty, intelligence, common sense, and courage-ingredients that, sad to say are in short supply when blacks and whites try to bridge the gulf between us.”
In “Understanding Integration” as published in Civilization Early suggested, “The idea of being the first Negro’ in any area, especially after the example of [baseball player] Jackie Robinson, fascinated and moved both the black and the white public.” For Early, Robinson stood as a foremost example of the promotion of integration until the rise of social leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Early, claimed that King understood several things: that the social and economic situations of human beings were thought to be influenced by external conditions; that symbolism, such as in civil-rights activities, was powerful; and that fear among many Americans due to continued tension between the races was prevalent. But other influential blacks such as jazz legend Miles Davis and respected actor Sidney Poitier were not to be overlooked, either. Early reflected on a childhood of viewing Poitier’s movies at his mother’s insistence. “One consequence,” he explained in Civilization, “is that I became an ardent believer in integration, the theme of most of Poitier’s films in that era. I associate integration with dignity, courage, [and] proving your mettle as a black person.” In the essay Early went on to explain “the undoing of integration as a social ideal” despite the fact that integration has opened doors.
50 years after Jackie Robinson and more than 100 years after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, Gerald Early continues to open doors for his readers and students, provoking them to look beyond the surface of what they see or experience. In 1996, Early was named the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University. That honor simply added to the list of those he has received over the years, including a $25,000 cash prize as part of the Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award.
Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture, EccoPress, 1989.
Editor, My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings ofCountee Cullen, Doubleday, 1991.
Editor, Speech and Power: The African-American Essay and Its Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit, Ecco Press, 1992.
Editor, Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, Viking-Penguin,1993.
The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, EccoPress, 1994.
Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
How the War in the Streets Is Won, Time Being Books-Poetry in Sight and Sound, 1995.
One Nation Under a Groove, Ecco, 1995.
Contemporary Authors, Vol. 133, edited by Susan M. Trosky, Gale, 1991, p. 106.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1994.
Christian Century, August 28-September 4, 1996, pp. 816-820.
Civilization, October/November 1996, pp. 8,10, 51-59; December 1996/January 1997, p. 12.
Harper’s Magazine, February 1992, pp. 33-34; December 1992, pp. 62-64; December 1995, pp. 22-25.
The Nation, December 19, 1994, pp. 770-771; July 3, 1995, pp. 26-28.
The New Republic, July 15 & 22, 1991, pp. 30-41; July 4, 1994, pp. 33-36; September 30, 1996, pp. 42-45.
The New York Review of Books, May 11, 1995, pp. 27-33.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from correspondence with Gerald Early.
—Eileen Daily and Lorna Mabunda