Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

In memoriam: John Bracey

Longtime professor of Afro-American studies, dies at 81
Robert Rigo/ Daily Collegian (2015)

In 1972, John H. Bracey Jr. arrived at the University of Massachusetts, at the invitation of Professor Mike Thelwell, to help build one of the first Black studies’ programs in the country. A titan in his field, Bracey, passed away in early February at the age of 81. He spent over 50 years teaching in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies.

Several of the department’s early faculty members consisted of prominent figures that Thelwell gathered from the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s. Notable members included James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe and Max Roach. Bracey and Thelwell met in a more humble setting, as freshmen undergraduates at Howard University in 1959.

Bracey was born in Chicago and raised in Washington, D.C. by a mother who was also a professor at Howard. This upbringing contributed to the great passion he had for teaching.

“He was a guy who did a lot of study, a lot of thinking, a lot of learning, had a lot of experience over a very long period of time. He had a lot to give to people, and then he would be very good about figuring out what was the best way to bring it to them,” said Jim Smethurst, a professor of Afro-American studies at UMass.

“If he thought you needed to be pushed, he’d push you. If he thought you needed to be encouraged, he would encourage you,” Smethurst said. “If you needed to be drawn out, he would draw you out.”

Stephanie Evans earned her doctorate from UMass in 2003, where Bracey served as her advisor. She is currently a professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality studies and African American studies at Georgia State University.

“I asked him to serve as my chair because he was an educator’s educator — he centered Black women in his work because he came from a family full of Black women educators,” Evans said.

David Goldberg, a former student of Bracey, emulates his manner of teaching as a professor of African American studies at Wayne State University.

“I learned from him how to listen and the importance of being there for people,” Goldberg said. “In my job now, I actively sometimes will be like ‘well what would we have done at UMass?’ When a student is in need, I try to go the extra mile.”

Bracy was a prolific scholar; over the span of his career he co-authored dozens of books on all different areas of Black studies. His work was well-known in the field, even before he came to UMass.

Goldberg, who wrote his dissertation about the history of Black firefighters, said, “I wanted to come to UMass because I wanted to study with John Bracey. Because he studied Black nationalism and Black radicalism and I knew of his work, and I had tremendous respect for him already.”

Bracey was described by many as having an encyclopedic brain and a photographic memory. The wealth of knowledge he held extended beyond the classroom as well.

“We would sit in the office and just chop it up about everything, about all aspects of black culture and black history. We talked about basketball, life in general,” Goldberg said. “I learned probably more from John after class than I did in class, and I learned a lot in class.”

Steven Tracy, a distinguished professor in the Afro-American studies department, said of Bracey’s intelligence, “You always knew when John said something, you couldn’t afford not to listen to it.”

Early on, Bracey knew the importance of creating Black academic institutions in conjunction with social justice movements. He led the effort to establish a PhD program in the interdisciplinary field of Africana Studies; in 1996, UMass became the second university in the country to do so, after Temple University.

The ongoing pushback against teaching African American history, illustrated by Florida’s recent ban of the Advanced Placement African American Studies course, proves the necessity of the type of work that Bracey was doing.

“The fact that some groups are still trying to outlaw education in African American studies is a testament to the vitality of the information, and the institutionalization at UMass has ensured that critical education will continue, despite the efforts of some,” Evans said.

Bracey is also widely remembered for his sense of humor. While he didn’t consider himself to be a performer, “John was a quintessential entertainer. He was a storyteller par excellence,” Tracy said.

Some of Smethurst’s fondest memories of him consist of time they spent on the road together with poet Sonia Sanchez, traveling for book talks following the 2014 publication of their anthology, “SOS: Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.

One memory he recalled involved a tire on the truck driving next to them catching fire on their way to Philadelphia. “It rolled off the truck, and there was this burning tire rolling across the New York state throughway, and John was driving. [He] just kind of calmly drove around it,” Smethurst said. “If it had been me, I would have been screaming my head off.”

Bracey’s only reaction was to say, “Flaming tire rolling across the highway, kind of weird when you think about it.”

For both students and fellow faculty members, Bracey was a pillar of the Afro-American studies department and will be deeply missed.

“The last time I talked to him, I wanted him to know that I love him,” Goldberg said. “He meant that much to me. And I think amongst the people that graduated from that department around my time, when he was very active, we consider ourselves Bracey-ites. That is our lineage and we’re very proud of it.”

“It’s very hard for me, after being here for more than 20 years, to just picture the Du Bois department without him,” Smethurst said. “I mean in a sense we’re not without John because he’s so much a part of what you call the DNA of the department. His physical presence is gone but he’s here and is going to be here for a long time, in that sense.”

The University recently established, and is raising funds for, a graduate fellowship in Bracey’s honor. A tribute to his legacy is also currently being planned.

In an interview for the Black Presence Initiative, a project which he created, Bracey said, “When I was 19, I wanted to make a world where black people could walk free and equal, and not be looked down upon, and have all the resources they need. And that’s what I spent most of my life doing.”

Kami Nguyen can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @kamihnguyen.

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