Saturday, February 28, 2009

Belletristic: A Tribute to Professor Winston Napier

I've said this before, but I spent the last two days at a conference at Clark University (my lovely school that you should come to 'cause it's great and you'd get to meet me, duh!) entitled "Evolutionary Momentum in African American Studies: Legacy and Future Directions." This conference was a great experience in that I got to meet a bunch of successful Clark alumni (including a guy who-- I'm not making this up-- is an actual beekeeper for a living) and some crazy-intelligent professors from outside Clark like Allison Blakely (I ate lunch next to him!), Karla FC Holloway, Amritjit Singh, Mark Anthony Neal, and Bert Ashe (he has INSANE dreds and he asked me where I got my M&M brownie). It was also a great experience because part of the reason we had this conference was the death of my former professor, Winston Napier.

Professor Winston Napier passed away when my first year at Clark had just ended. I had taken two classes with him, African-American Literature I and African-American Novels of Satire, and let me tell you something, he was one of the most intimidating intellects I have ever in my life been in the presence of. Not only was he an indisputable expert in the field, he was incredibly quirky. He usually had his PDA at hand and a strange little case hanging from his neck. He wore this odd leather hat and would whip out an oriental fan when he got too hot. I remember his voice so distinctly: a tinge of his Jamaican heritage layered underneath the music of an astounding vocabulary and what I can only describe as what I think a Harlem Renaissance poet sounds like. When I first met him, I knew that someday I would want to write about him. He was like a character from the pages of a book, too fantastical to be real.

I have a few of distinct memories of him, memories that I never thought I would think of as precious to me.

I remember him going over the syllabus in African-American Lit I and uttering the words "I will not allow you to linger and twist slowly in the wind." I jotted it down immediately. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

I remember when I talked to him after class about Invisible Man and if he saw part of the ending as a reference to Heart of Darkness. After our brief conversation about my insight, he said "I hope you'll speak up in class more often. You have good ideas." I was still chronically, cripplingly shy in his presence, despite his confidence in me.

I remember when my Satire class was set in a giant chemistry lecture hall, complete with periodic tables and graduated seating, but there were only twelve of us, so he decided that we would move, immediately. When we left the building to go over to the English house, he asked "you all know where Leir 1 is?" We did, and the twelve of us set off. Not halfway through our walk, Professor Napier pedaled by on his bicycle, scarf flapping.

I remember when the Satire class arrived to an elaborate spread of cheeses, fruits, crackers, and chocolates. We sat down, bewildered and unwilling to touch the food that was surely not for us. When Professor Napier came in he explained that he had been allotted a budget for his classes, and he had decided to use it on providing us a little feast.

I feared Professor Napier because he had a unique approach to teaching. Many teachers wish to hear their students opinions. Many teachers wish to lecture their students on their opinions. Not many teachers come to class expecting that their students will challenge them. Professor Napier wanted his students to have bold new opinions, and to defend them, too, tooth and nail. He respected us most when we were willing to go out on a limb and not be intimidated by his incessent questioning of why we felt that way, where did we find that in the text, and what do you think. According to Professor Napier, as long as we had the text and a willingness to ask questions, we had all the answers. One of my greatest regrets of my academic career thusfar is that I was afraid to speak up in his classes, afraid that maybe I did not have those answers he had such confidence that I'd have.

Professor Napier was supposed to go on sabbatical this year, but instead a series of truly unfortunate events were set into motion, and they eventually led to his tragic suicide (full story here). When I first heard, I was beyond words at the loss of my most-feared and most-admired professor, and as time has passed, I've become more acutely aware of what a grievous loss it truly is.

I was truly honored to be able to attend the conference held in his honor.

*photos courtesy of pataphysical collage and clark english blog


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Anonymous said...

Hi -

Winston was an English professor of mine at Howard University. I was as transfixed and captivated by him as you seem to be. He also remarked at my writing skills and analytical thoughts - and introduced me to the head of the Philosophy department, as I was searching for a major. He helped shape my success then, and I remember him so fondly to this day. I heard of his passing several years ago, but something today (I can't remember what) brought him to mind. It is so beautiful that his living impacted so many others the same way he did for me. He was an amazing, amazing man. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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