The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Blurring the Boundaries: Afro-American Studies

Steven Tracy has made a career of mixing music and literature
  • Afro-American Studies professor and blues musician Steven Tracy plays harmonica

“Steve’s helped to build the literary standard of Afro-American scholarship and literature on such figures as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Sterling Brown."

Afro-American Studies professor Steven Tracy is a man who blurs boundaries. A writer and editor of works about African-American literature and culture and an accomplished blues musician, Tracy’s made a career of mixing music and literature and of “being in places he shouldn’t be.” While in high school, Tracy won a national harmonica competition that landed him on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. With just a year of playing experience, Tracy was given an opportunity more seasoned musicians only dream of – the chance to launch his musical career on one of the most popular television shows of the time. “I really had no business being there,” laughs Tracy.

The “Tonight Show” experience was the beginning of Tracy’s love affair with music, especially the blues. His love would take him to places other people said he shouldn’t be, like Cincinnati blues clubs where he was the only white kid in the crowd, and to the University of Cincinnati where faculty raised eyebrows at his desire to pursue Afro-American studies. But his love of Afro-American music and the culture that gave birth to it gave him the courage to keep showing up, to keep blurring the boundaries.

As one of the few white African-American scholars in the ’80s, Tracy’s search for an academic position wasn’t easy. His desire to blend African American literature, history and music also presented challenges. He now believes he’s right where he should be. His scholarly pursuits and musical interests are a great fit for the campus’s very diverse W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies.

According to Amilcar Shabazz, professor and chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, Tracy deserves to be in the Spotlight. He is known for his comprehensive, highly technical, and thorough analysis of Afro-American writers and musicians. “Steve’s helped to build the literary standard of Afro-American scholarship and literature on such figures as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Sterling Brown. His work on these great writers as well as on African-American culture in his hometown of Cincinnati drives his national and international reputation as an Afro-American studies scholar,” says Shabazz.

A singer and harmonica player, Tracy’s comfortable in the spotlight. He’s recorded with his own band, Steve Tracy and the Crawling Kingsnakes, as well as Cincinnati blues legends like Pigmeat Jarrett, Big Joe Duskin and Albert Washington, and he’s appeared and recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He’s opened for B.B. King, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Canned Heat and other blues greats. Tracy’s literary accomplishments include authoring books about the blues and about African-American literary giants Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Sterling Brown. He’s also written liner notes for more than 50 music CDs.

Tracy has presented and performed at conferences all over the world. Most recently, he’s given keynote addresses and a series of lectures on American and African American literature and music at a number of universities in China. To break the ice with the Chinese students he met, Tracy would pull out his harmonica and play. Once connected, Tracy was able to feel the infectious enthusiasm these Chinese students had for Afro-American literature and for his work.

Thanks to Tracy’s visits, word was getting around in China that UMass Amherst has a great Afro-American Studies program. Each time Tracy went back to visit, more students wanted to connect with him. “Dr. Tracy was hailed as a great star among the students, both graduates and undergraduates here,” says Luo Lianggong, professor of English at Central China Normal University (CCNU) in Wuhan. “He has awakened the academic interest in African-American literature and culture among many Chinese scholars and young students by his eloquent and inspiring lectures and lively performance of the blues,” Lianggong says.

“The students I met in China have a love for Afro-American literature,” says Tracy. That love has led student Fangfang Zhu, whom Tracy met at one of his visits to CCNU, to enroll in the department’s Ph.D. program. According to Zhu, her interest in Afro-American literature was enhanced by hearing Tracy’s perspectives of history, politics, literature and culture during his lectures. “Professor Tracy’s own research on music and Afro-American literature opened a new field for me,” said Zhu. A second Chinese student has since applied for acceptance into the department’s graduate program.

What’s next for Tracy? He’s been working with the Office of International Programs to set up a more formal collaboration between the campus and these Chinese universities. His designation this year as a Fulbright senior specialist will help. “When you are put on the roster by the Fulbright Foundation it means you can be invited by participating universities to spend time at their school teaching a class or lecturing,” says Tracy. “I hope to do that and to facilitate visits to our campus by Chinese faculty who are also on the roster.” Tracy has two teaching-lecturing projects with Chinese universities under initial development for Fulbright approval.

While things jell here at home, Tracy continues to blur the boundaries. He is scheduled to return to China in January for a keynote address at the International Conference on 20th Century Literature in English from a Cross-cultural Perspective to be held at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang, China.

A member of the Afro-American Studies department since 1995, Tracy is the author and editor of more than 30 books about Afro-American history, culture and music, including “Langston Hughes and the Blues” (University of Illinois Press, 1988), “Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City” (University of Illinois Press, 1993), winner of Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ award for outstanding volume on blues, jazz, or gospel music, and “A Brush with the Blues” (Rep House, 1997). Tracy received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Cincinnati Blues Society in 1996.

Karen J. Hayes '85