Monday, October 19, 2015

"Anybody Ask You Who I Am..."

18 October. The Feast of St. Luke.
The birthday of Floyd Brown.

It began the night of my father’s funeral, in February, 1978, as I was sitting there on the altar listening to his voice in my head, pushing me to return to school. And then other voices intervened with an entirely different injunction: you will not apply to graduate schools. The priests in Milwaukee who moved to thwart my desire gave three reasons: first, I was not academically prepared to be successful in graduate school; second, my psychological state was not stable enough for me to continue in graduate studies, if by chance a school would accept me; and third, (and this will be a verbatim quotation), I “had not displayed sufficient discipline in the exercise of my ministry.” The first objection was quickly dismissed. My transcript from Johns Hopkins was as good as a plantation pass, in that matter.

A psychiatrist friend in Omaha challenged the second impediment. She said, quite forcefully and clearly, that most of my psychological difficulties seemed to stem from the treatment I had been subjected to, for over a decade, by those same priests or their predecessors.   And the third objection was explained as a response to my never having entered the process of becoming tenure-track while I was teaching at Creighton University. The irrefutable fact that the Academic Vice-President at Creighton had asked me to sign a contract as an instructor because he was campaigning to reduce the number of tenure-track contracts given to Jesuits seemed, somehow to render that last point forever moot.

Because I was bound to the promise of entering the academic contest, yet again, and at the age of 35, I knew very well that no obstacle would be insurmountable. The ancestors are never idle.

Moving on to refresh my spirit and expand my talents during a six-month sojourn in Spokane, Washington, under the guidance of one of the legendary Jesuit spiritual directors, Fr. Joseph Conwell, I cast my applications into the winds of change and put my mind to the renewal program in which I was engaged.  When the rejection letters arrived from Harvard and New York University, I was still calm and undisturbed. When the acceptance letter from Princeton arrived, I remained watchful and hopeful. My heart was really set on going to Yale because it had the library resources that excited me beyond all bounds.  So the letter from Yale stunned me, telling me that due to an oversight, my application had been misplaced and not found until after their deadlines had passed; and that I was therefore not eligible for any financial assistance and should apply for the next year’s entrance into the Afro-American Studies program.  I had originally applied to the Department of English, not knowing that there was a subtle tradition of segregation well-rooted at Yale:  African American literature was not part of the curriculum of the English department. A most solicitous member of the English faculty took it upon himself to forward my application to Afro-American Studies, where, he thought, I “would be happier.”

That initiated the letter that told me the bad news.  The poor, unsuspecting professor who mailed me the letter had no way of knowing that I was supposed to be at Yale in the fall of 1979.  The conversation I had with Professor Robert B. Stepto, as he waited for a technician to arrive at his house to repair his furnace, was without any doubt whatsoever the single most important act of mentoring he may have every performed.

He listened to me.

He reversed the decision. The priests of Milwaukee found the funds necessary to enable my first year of study in New Haven. And I drove East, seeking a few wise men. (In 1979, gender balance was not part of the alchemy at Yale…)

Robert Stepto never eased up in his belief in and support of me.  At our first meeting he asked me why I had turned down Columbia and Princeton. “Because you have the library and the faculty I have dreamed about, for years. And if things don’t work out for me, you will be the first to know.”  He smiled and said, “I don’t doubt that at all.”  And then he told me to sign up for the class that Robert Farris Thompson was teaching and the seminar that was being conducted by Charles T. Davis.  Outside of my family circle I have never been more at home than I was when he said, “Come in and be at peace.”

Within a few months, he learned me and I learned us.  His advice was unerring. “For your thesis, and your dissertation, write two pages a day. That way it will never seem too big a task.”  He and Charles Davis told me that funds would be found to keep me in school and that I would be enrolled in both the M. A. in Afro-American Studies and the Ph. D. in American Studies, as soon as I finished applying for the doctoral program. And then they said, “And we never want you to be treated badly again by the ‘priests in Milwaukee' [and by extension, in Omaha], so we will find you a job when you are finished,” It was then that Robert Stepto told me the heart-wounding secret that had been wrapped up in my file. Some of my priest-brothers had written letters suggesting that I would indeed not be successful in graduate school.  The pain he felt in telling me that was deep. And the love and appreciation I felt for him was even deeper.

He treated me like I was a Child of God.

My spring semester’s total mental spasm, during which I cried – for no apparent reason – for almost two days was an opportunity for him to drop healing oil into my spirit. “Well, you got it out of the way, early; good for you. It took some of us a lot longer to fall apart. So you won’t have to go through that again.”

Then I finally thanked him, for facilitating every promise; for leveling the path through the academic thicket; and for being as gentle and steady a support as I had ever received – joining the seraphim who had been at each oasis of my struggle to learn: Leonard Waters, SJ, in the early days of my Jesuit career; John Knoepfle, that wonderful summer of 1967 in St, Louis, who heard a surety of voice in my poems that I could not at that time discern; and Elliot Coleman, who transported me to Hopkins with a wave of a fountain pen.

“Oh, it is easy to ‘go to bat’ for someone when they hand you the bat,” he said. And smiled.

One very chilly day in New Haven as we were in his office, talking about my dissertation, he asked me what I knew about the University of Virginia. “Oh, they have a successful basketball team, I think…and didn’t Thomas Jefferson have something to do with it?”  By now it should be apparent that he never failed to find a reason to smile at me. It is easy, I guess, when someone displays himself a thorough fool.

He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. He would arrive with a junior faculty associate and a senior graduate student. And then Yale made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. So he remained at Yale and I wound up in Charlottesville, awakened finally to see the dream that many people saw within me – me, who wanted to do nothing but be a high school English teacher for the rest of my life.

On the feast celebrating the man whose name I have taken for my poetry -- “a Gentile among the Jews”; the faithful companion of Paul on several of his dangerous journeys; the word artist who dwelt upon the gentle grace of the mother of Jesus and who brought to our hearts the stories of the poor, the outcast and the culturally and religiously “other” – on this Feast of St. Luke, I see the gift a mentor gives, no matter the situation, no matter the ages of those involved.

One afternoon as I was leaving Robert Stepto’s house, a teenage girl was drifting down the sidewalk. She stopped and boldly interrupted our conversation with, “Are y’all brothers?  You sure do favor each other.”  Is that not the point, finally, and primarily?

We should favor one another.  As often as we can, and for all the right reasons.  To accept the other. To give and receive trust, with no violations by anyone. To see a promise that has to be nurtured into strength and independence.  To know. To know who and what matters.

My father said, “Go.” Robert Stepto said, “Come, be with us.”

And the evening before the 1985 commencement at Yale, at a reception hosted by members of the Afro-American Studies extended family, my mother, upon meeting Robert Stepto, looked back and forth, from him to me, and said, “But Joseph, he looks younger than you,”

“He is, Mama, he is.” 

And that has made this friendship all the more precious.