The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Calling All Black People

Celebrated scholar honored for life-long contribution to black studies
  • Afro-Am chair John Bracey holds his new book in front of a colorful mural painted by an alumnus

Bracey's latest endeavor SOS: Calling All People, A Black Arts Movement Reader co-edited with the renowned poet Sonia Sanchez and Afro-Am colleague James Smethurst is set to be another groundbreaking book.

Few scholars can boast the academic pedigree of Afro-American Studies professor and chair John Bracey. His family comprises four generations of teachers. Bracey’s grandparents were teachers and his mother taught at Howard University. His sons teach, as does his wife, sister, aunt and several cousins. “I have two uncles who were college presidents. In my family, if you don’t teach we forgive you,” chuckles Bracey.

Growing up on Howard’s campus in the 1940s and early 1950s, Bracey was surrounded by a body of the leading black intellectuals of the 20th century – John Hope Franklin, Sterling Allen Brown, E Franklin Frazer, Dorothy B. Porter and others. He has autographed first edition books from these scholars that were given to him as a child. “They tolerated me. They were very brilliant people so I learned from them,” says Bracey.

This background, as well as a genuine love for teaching, led Bracey on his way to becoming a pre-eminent scholar of black history and the black arts movement in which he was both a witness and a participant. He wanted to be involved in this area of scholarship, he says, because “this is where the field was going. I was convinced the most important scholarship would be the role of black people in general and black women in particular. I think that’s been correct.”

Bracey had gone to school at Howard with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a founder in 1970 of the campus’s W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies Department, one of the first of its kind at a public research university and the second nationally to offer a PhD program in 1996. When Thelwell called Bracey to ask him to teach in the budding department while they needed to fill a vacancy, he agreed.  “I said, yeah I’ll come for a year and I’ve been here 42,” smiles Bracey. 

Bracey’s comment about his UMass Amherst tenure mirrors how early black studies programs were viewed. Considered a “flash in the pan,” black studies were often formed as programs rather than departments because they were not expected to last. “We wanted a department because we knew better,” says Bracey, who with Thelwell and others successfully lobbied campus administration to do just that. The group had foresight to understand the importance of black studies would persist beyond the heyday of black social movements.

“In every major discipline the study of black people and now the study of black women is the … dominant topic,” says Bracey. 

During Bracey’s early years he was in involved in “radical” movements - civil rights black liberation and later a supporter of the women’s movements. On campus, he became active in seminal projects within that context that would take black arts and black history scholarship to the next level.

Bracey recounts a “crisis on campus between black students and Jewish students” in the late 1980s and early 1990s over a visit by Louis Farrakhan. To address this, he and Maurianne Adams, a colleague from the College of Education, led a faculty seminar and then an undergraduate class on black-Jewish relations. The research and teaching that resulted from this effort led to the creation of a massive volume edited by Bracey and Adams, Strangers and Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks and Jews in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press). Though the book is an exceptional source on the subject and groundbreaking in nature, Bracey notes it is not the definitive resource nor the end of the story. “It’s a problem solving book,” says Bracey.

More recently, Bracey has focused on shepherding a new African American Studies series into existence at the UMass Press. As part of the series, he did much to bring Meyer Weinberg's The World of W.E.B. Du Bois back into print and his newly released work SOS: Calling All People, A Black Arts Movement Reader co-edited with the renowned poet Sonia Sanchez and Afro-Am colleague James Smethurst is set to be another groundbreaking book in the field. Created because of a dearth of academic material on the black arts movement, Bracey, Sanchez, and Smethurst needed a resource for faculty who wanted to teach the subject.

“We wanted to get in one place, between one set of covers, all the things you needed to know to get through the black arts movement.  We did a lot of thinking, a lot of arguing, and a lot of conceptualizing,” says Bracey.

Over the last year alone, John Bracey's honors and accomplishments have been many.  Leading younger and older scholars honored Professor Bracey for his lifelong contributions to the fields of African American Studies and History in 2013 in a featured plenary session at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He collaborated with Sanchez on a haiku mural project in Philadelphia involving thousands of poets, scholars, students, and community members from across the country. A haiku of Professor Bracey was chosen to appear on the final mural in part as a tribute to his work on the project in particular and the community in general.

Bracey received an honorary doctorate from the College of Wooster for his lifelong work in building African American Studies and for his work as a social historian. And according to friend and colleague James Smethurst, his invited lectures across the country are too numerous to list. “And this is only in the past year,” notes Smethurst.

When asked what he thinks about most when he reflects on his accomplishments and career, he talks about teaching and the impact those who teach can have on students. “I would have taught for free because it’s one of the most important things you can do,” says Bracey. “Helping young people to open up their minds and comprehend the world is what’s important.”

Karen J. Hayes '85

Photos: Kayla Setters'15