Gibson, Donald Bernard 1933–
Donald Bernard Gibson 1933–
Educator, author, scholar
Almost every serious scholar hopes to create a lasting legacy in his field. At the very least, most would be happy to be able to say that he or she has contributed in some small way to the level of scholarship being studied by university students. Few can say that they have helped to create a new course of study. As a scholar, author, and critic, Donald Gibson, is one of the very few men who can make this claim. Through his 40 years of teaching and scholarship, as well as through books, essays, articles, and public lectures, he has helped to establish the study of African American literature as a legitimate university course of study.
Gibson was born on July 2, 1933, in Kansas City, Missouri. As the sixth and youngest child born to Oscar J. Gibson and Florine Christine Gibson, Donald Bernard Gibson was born in the midst of the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce and life was difficult for many people. But that was not the case for the Gibson family, where Oscar Gibson was able to provide a comfortable life for his family. He had worked in a tailor shop from the time he was 16 years old, and although he began as a janitor, soon enough, his employer saw a willingness to learn. Gibson’s father quickly advanced and learned a new trade—that of tailor. Although he was the youngest employee in the tailor shop, he eventually became a sort of shop steward, negotiating with the owner for raises on behalf of himself and his fellow employees. Gibson’s father was the only black man in the shop. In “White People: An Autobiographical Fragment,” Gibson described the tailor shop and his father’s determination to improve his situation there. Gibson recalled that “all his life my father imagined rising in the world, working himself into wealth.” The tailor shop gave him that opportunity. Even though Gibson’s father had no education beyond eighth grade, he read voraciously, helped his children with their homework, and worked hard enough to be able to buy a home in the part of Kansas City where the black professionals lived. With his father’s example, it is little wonder that the youngest Gibson was willing to work so hard to better himself.
When he enrolled in school, Gibson entered the same elementary, junior, and senior high schools that his older siblings had attended. As the youngest child in his family, his siblings had prepared the way for their youngest brother to succeed. The teachers knew the family and knew what to expect when another Gibson child enrolled, and thus, as Gibson described in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), he “did not attend public school as a stranger.” Gibson attributed his easy transition to elementary and high school as “one bit of luck” in what would turn out to be a very positive school experience.
When Gibson was a student, during the 1940s and 1950s, Kansas City was entirely segregated, and so all of Gibson’s teachers, the school staff, and even the janitors that he knew, were black. So that white and black students might have some means to come together, the superintendent of schools created the All-City Student Council, an organization composed of representatives of all the city high schools. Gibson
At a Glance…
Born on July 2, 1933, in Kansas City, MO; son of Oscar and Florine Gibson; married Jo Anne Ivory, December 14, 1963 (divorced 1974); children: David and Douglas. Education: University of Kansas City (now University of Missouri at Kansas City), BA, 1955, MA, 1957; Brown University, PhD, 1962.
Career: Brown University, instructor, 1961-62; Wayne State University, assistant professor, 1962-67; University of Connecticut, associate professor, 1967-69, professor, 1969-74; author, 1968— Rutgers University, professor, 1974-2001, emeritus professor, 2001–.
Awards: Study grant, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1970; research grant, American Council of Learned Societies, 1970; Postdoctoral Fulbright (Cracow, Poland), 1964-66; fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1992-93.
Addresses: Home—170 Linden Lane, Princeton, NJ 08540. Office —Department of English, 520 George Street, Rutgers University, NJ 08903-5054.
would eventually become president of this organization. Many of Gibson’s teachers were products of some of the best colleges in the United States. Many also felt a keen sense of responsibility to teach their students about race, as a result, Gibson knew about the culture, history, and literature of both the white and the black world. Gibson told CBB, “the whole effort of the system and of our teachers was to prepare us to attend college and to be successful there.” He did well in school and was president of his class each of the four years that he attended high school. By the time he had completed high school, Gibson had made up his mind that he was going to attend college. The University of Kansas City, later to become the University of Missouri at Kansas City, was becoming integrated at the same time that Gibson was completing high school. The university was seeking black students, and Gibson was invited to apply. He was awarded a full scholarship and enrolled at the University of Kansas City after graduating from high school in 1951.
When Gibson enrolled as an undergraduate in college, he found that for the first time he was a member of a minority group in school. He had white teachers and most of his classmates were white. There were some students that he knew, students from the All-City Student Council and some students from his high school, so he did not feel a complete stranger. In his autobiographical essay, Gibson described this period as a time when he and his friends “believed ourselves to be budding intellectuals.” Gibson cared deeply about social problems, which led him to join a group called The Panel of Americans. He and other members of this group spoke out about racial and religious prejudice, and about the need to acknowledge people for who they were. Gibson also joined the student branch of Americans for Democratic Action.
During his freshman year of college, Gibson met an English professor who would eventually become his academic mentor and a motivating factor in Gibson’s decision to attend graduate school. In his interview with CBB, Gibson explained that he “became a college professor by virtue of modeling myself on my mentor, Hyatt Waggoner.” This man’s influence was important, stated Gibson, because, “without ever saying to me what my goals should be” he supported “my academic endeavors.” After he received his bachelor of arts degree in English in 1955, Gibson continued his studies at the University of Kansas City. Two years later, Gibson completed a masters degree in English and was ready to begin work on a doctorate.
While Gibson was still an undergraduate, Waggoner had taken a position at Brown University. He continued to support Gibson by advocating his admission to Brown. Waggoner also helped Gibson find financial support and later directed his dissertation. At Brown, Gibson was more alone as a black student than he had been at Kansas City. There were few other black students and only one other black student enrolled in the graduate program. Most of his friends at Brown were fellow graduate students from the English department. In his autobiographical essay, Gibson described his friends from this period as “leftists or outsiders of some order.” Like Gibson, they were intelligent and motivated. Five years after his arrival in Providence, Gibson completed his dissertation, The Fiction of Stephen Crane, and received his doctorate in English in 1962.
Gibson had been an exemplary student at Brown, as he had been throughout college, but superior grades and strong recommendations did not lead to many job offers. It was 1962 segregation and some of the first rumblings of racial unrest resulted in limited job opportunities for black men, even well-educated black men. The only job that Gibson could find was as an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Shortly after his arrival in Detroit, he began to date a young woman, whom he described in his autobiographical essay, as “the woman who was all I wanted in a woman.” In December of 1963 Gibson and Jo Ann Ivory were married and began to build a life together. Following his marriage, Gibson was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Cracow, Poland, from 1964-1966. When his two-year fellowship ended, he returned to Wayne State to teach.
While at Wayne State, Gibson wanted to teach courses on African-American literature, but the undergraduate curriculum was fixed and did not allow for deviations. He had been prepared to teach this subject for years, since elementary school really, and all through graduate school he had been steadily building an extensive collection of books by African-American authors. Now that he was at Wayne State, there was no room in the curriculum for a course that involved a new perspective for examining literature. Gibson continued to push for African-American literature classes and was finally permitted to teach one class in African-American literature at the graduate level.
After five years at Wayne State, in 1967, Gibson took a position at the University of Connecticut, where he began teaching as an associate professor. The following year, his dissertation, The Fiction of Stephen Crane, was published, and Gibson was promoted to professor in 1969. While at the University of Connecticut, Gibson was encouraged to teach classes in African-American literature. The publication of several articles during the late 1960s and early 1970s complimented Gibson’s teaching of this subject. Among the articles that he published were “Richard Wright and the Tyranny of Social Convention” and “Richard Wright’s Invisible Native Son.” In 1970 Gibson was awarded a study grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a research grant by the American Council of Learned Services. He also accepted an appointment to the editorial board of the Langston Hughes Society Journal. At the same time, Gibson was in the process of editing two books. The first was a collection of essays, Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes and LeRoi Jones, which was published in 1970. The second book, Black and White: Stories of American Life, a collection of short stories, jointly edited with Carol Anselment, was published in 1971. With these books and several new essays including “Is There a Black Literary Tradition?,” “Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin,” and “The Good Black Poet and the Good Gray Poet,” Gibson was establishing himself as a notable scholar of African-American literature.
Starting in 1972 Gibson began to teach at Harvard University as a visiting professor, in addition to his teaching responsibilities at the University of Connecticut. Gibson was also busy editing another book, Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Modern Black Poets, which was published in 1973. Then in 1974, Gibson accepted an appointment at Rutgers University, where he would teach in the English department. At the same time, he accepted an appointment to the editorial board of the Black American Literature Forum. The move to Rutgers also coincided with the end of Gibson’s marriage. During their eleven years of marriage, two sons had been born, and Gibson’s wife also completed law school.
Even after Gibson’s move to Rutgers, he continued to teach at Harvard each spring semester, as he would do for the next several years. He also accepted an additional editorial responsibility when in 1976, he was invited to serve on the editorial board of the journal MELUS. While he was busy teaching, Gibson also continued to write, publish, read papers at conferences, and give public lectures on African-American literature. During the next few years, he published several books, including The Politics of Literary Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers in 1981 and The Red Badge of Courage: Redefining the Hero in 1988. Gibson also wrote the introduction for a new edition of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.
Gibson received yet another honor when he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 1992. Of course, Gibson was still in demand as a contributing writer, writing the introductions for new editions of Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Even as he neared retirement, Gibson continued to publish. His last published essay, “Ethnicity, Race, Education and Empire: Booker T. Washington and Heinrich Pestalozzi,” was printed in Africana Studies: An Introduction and Study in 1999. He followed this essay with entries on Booker T. Washington and Richard Wright in The Oxford Companion to United States History.
When he had first arrived at Rutgers, Gibson found that there was already an established Africana Studies department, and thus, he found a welcome forum to teach about African-American literature. However, Gibson also taught African-American literature in the English department. For most of the years that he was at Rutgers, Gibson taught a course on African American literature while on loan from the English department. When CBB asked about Gibson’s role in the establishment of African-American literature as a legitimate course of study, he provided an excerpt from his forthcoming book project, tentatively titled, My Africa: An American Black Narrative. In his book, Gibson wrote that, “as I see it, I took a leading role in showing how to deal in a literary yet contemporary way with black writers and in getting broader attention focused on them by the literary establishment.” For Gibson the significant event in legitimizing the study of African-American literature occurred when, back in 1970, he had edited Five Black Writers. At that moment in literary history, he was editing one of the first collections of critical essays on black writers to be published by a major university press. As Gibson himself noted, there were few African-American critics of his age—most were a generation or two older or much younger and just beginning their work.
After nearly 40 years of teaching, Gibson retired from Rutgers University in 2001. In the years since, he has traveled and begun work on another book, a journal that will explore his two-and-a-half month visit to Senegal in 2001. In his interview with CBB, Gibson was asked about the importance of racial identity in defining self. His reply spoke to his own experience moving from the segregated society of his childhood as he moved toward identifying both himself and his loving partner as individuals, rather than as a black man or a white woman. Gibson pointed out that “if we realize the historicity of race, then it might be possible to see the limitations of such constructions, and if we are aware of these limitations we will be less likely to act as though they have reality beyond their social context.” Donald Gibson never saw limitations in being black. He only saw his own possibilities and they were great.
The Fiction of Stephen Crane, University of Illinois Press, 1968.
(Editor) Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes and LeRoi Jones, New York University Press, 1970.
(Editor with Carol Anselment) Black and White: Stories of American Life, Washington Square Press, 1971.
(Editor) Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Modern Black Poets, Prentice-Hall, 1973.
The Politics of Literary Expression, Greenwood Press, 1981.
The Red Badge of Courage: Redefining the Hero, G.K. Hall, 1988.
(Contributor) The Souls of Black Folk, Penguin, 1989.
(Contributor) The House Behind the Cedars, Penguin, 1993.
(Contributor) The Red Badge of Courage, Washington Square Press, 1996.
(Contributor) The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul Boyer, et. al., Oxford, 2001.
Essays and articles
“Richard Wright and the Tyranny of Social Convention,” CLA Journal, volume XII, June 1969, pp. 360-65.
“Richard Wright’s Invisible Native Son,” American Quarterly, volume XXI, Winter 1969, pp. 728-738.
“Is There a Black Literary Tradition?,” New York University Education Quarterly, volume II, number 2, Winter 1971, pp. 12-16.
“The Good Black Poet and the Good Gray Poet; The Poetry of Hughes and Whitman,” Langston Hughes: Black Genius, Therman B. O’Daniel, ed., William Morrow & Co., 1971, pp. 65-80.
“Ethnicity, Race, Education and Empire: Booker T. Washington and Heinrich Pestalozzi,” African Studies: An Introduction and Study, Leonard Bethel, ed., Kendall Hunt, 1999.
Information for this profile was obtained from the personal essay, “White People: An Autobiographical Fragment;” an excerpt from the upcoming book, My Africa: An American Black Narrative; a curriculum vitae, all provided by Donald Gibson on April 15, 2003, and email interviews with Contemporary Black Biography on May 12, 2003, and May 16, 2003.
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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