At 9:30 on a Tuesday morning in the fall of 1991, I took a seat in A202 Tribble Hall. The classroom featured a square seating arrangement. I wanted to sit close enough to appear interested while still leaving a respectable distance, so I took a seat on the side of the room nearest the door, leaving two chairs between me and the head of the table. I had no way of knowing that I would occupy that same chair for two consecutive semesters, or that my life was about to change.
I’m told that senior members of the Wake Forest English department still call this “Dolly’s room.” The walls were carefully decorated with book covers, posters, and other mementos of African-American creativity. Dr. Dolly A. McPherson, professor emerita who died on Jan. 19 (see obituary in the Summer 2011 issue), entered the room that day and every day with a portable alarm clock, a can of Fresca, and a studied reverence for black literature that shone from every word she spoke. To borrow a line from Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel “Jazz,” I didn’t “fall in love” with black literature that morning – “I rose in it.”
Dr. McPherson’s career spanned an era when African-American critics rose to such eventual prominence that a handful of them today are practically household names. But her own training came in an earlier era when names like J. Saunders Redding, Blyden Jackson, and Darwin T. Turner were known perhaps only to people in the field. These scholars created an intellectual foundation through their unrelenting work ethic and through a commitment to the celebration of art above personality. This is why, to people who do research in black studies, their work still matters. As literary executor of the Maya Angelou papers, Dr. McPherson always seemed much more invested in and jubilant about the success and prominence of her dear friend than in acclaim for herself.
My notion that I had come to Wake Forest to major in accounting is a point of personal biographical trivia that I suspect even my parents now have forgotten. My choice of seat varied only twice the whole year I spent in Dr. McPherson’s class, the two mornings on which I led discussion. Each time Dr. McPherson taught, I felt that I was watching someone do what they were born to do. On my best days, I flatter myself that on those two mornings when I sat at the head of the table, maybe Dr. McPherson had the same thought about me. The posters and book covers that adorned the walls 20 years ago are still there, though almost irretrievably faded now. Maybe the only things that really last forever are the love we have for life’s great luminaries, and the tears that cling to the heart when they are gone.
J. Ken Stuckey is senior lecturer in the English and Media Studies department at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. He teaches courses in African-American literature and American cinema.