An Interview with Lucius Outlaw and Arnold Rampersad
On October 19, 2000, Arnold Rampersad, Sara Hart Kimball Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University, delivered the fourth annual Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture, "Biography and African American Lives," at Vanderbilt. The author of critically admired biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson, Rampersad is also a respected critic of African American literature.
Owens: Would you say that reading each other's work has propelled some of your ideas and interests?
Outlaw: Yes. The crossing of paths happened for me when I read one of Arnold's earlier works, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois. As a philosopher, I have come to have tremendous respect for biographers because they help to overcome a deformation that professional philosophers often suffer from -- namely, the tendency to concentrate wholly on ideas and to consider most other aspects of a philosopher's life as extraneous. Arnold's work on Du Bois allowed me to gain a perspective that I lacked. As a result, I found that I had to rethink how I should situate myself professionally in conversations regarding Du Bois. I might add that during a conference, Arnold confronted me with an important critique of my work, and I had to contend with it. He sets high standards, both in scholarship and in personal integrity.
Rampersad: I have great respect for the investigations of philosophers, and I think that Lucius takes on extremely important questions about the relationship between Western philosophy and African American philosophers -- the significance of such figures as Alain Locke, for instance. I learn a great deal from his work.
Owens: Professor Rampersad, what motivated you to begin writing biographies?
Rampersad: As a student, I was always interested in literature, but I was also interested in history and in fiction writing. I discovered that the one field that combined all these interests -- English, history, a little bit of psychology, and the business of constructing a narrative -- was biography. My first study was intellectual biography. I remembered being deeply, deeply moved by W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903 and probably had more of an impact on African American intellectual life than any other single book. Then when I looked at what other people had written about Du Bois, I came to suspect that he was not being properly understood. How did this rather severely trained historian and sociologist come to write these fantastically artistic and human essays about black life? It was my search for answers to this question that launched me into biography.
Owens: Does it seem that Americans have become more interested in biography recently?
Rampersad: Americans have always been interested in biography, from the eighteenth century to the present. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, for instance, was a major text in America during the revolutionary era, and subsequent generations, having an undecided sense of who they were and how they constituted a nation, also looked back to this and other classical texts to see how men and women led exemplary lives. Even so, I think that there is a real revival of interest in biography today. Biographies do not sell enormous quantities compared to novels or self-help books, but they sell respectably. And there is even a biography channel on cable television that has become popular.
Owens: Would it be fair to say that your experience growing up in the United States as an African American has contributed to the direction you have taken in your books?
Rampersad: Actually, I grew up in Trinidad -- but I came here many years ago, in 1965. We had a not entirely dissimilar social and political situation in Trinidad, and I became interested in writing books about groups of people who had not been adequately represented or understood. I decided that the best contribution that I could make to the movement for social change was to be a historian and biographer of African American life. Although I also teach American literature more generally, I have always maintained my interest in what I see as a neglected area, African American culture.
Owens: Professor Outlaw, has there been something similar in your past experience that compelled you to study race and philosophy?
Outlaw: Yes. Growing up in Mississippi and coming to Fisk University as an undergraduate in the 1960s played tremendous roles in my intellectual development. I was utterly perplexed by the racial ordering of the society that I knew, and I set about trying to find a particular set of reasons for it -- first as a philosophy and religion major, and then later as a philosophy major (forsaking the study of religion) when I realized that I preferred, so to speak, the broad and crooked to the straight and narrow. I find what Arnold just offered to be very moving, because I came to almost exactly the same conclusion about what my contribution to the movement, to the struggle, should be. My teaching and scholarship have revolved around exploring questions that were not being explored, making room for people who had not been included -- or were even explicitly excluded -- before. I try to keep faith with this commitment even today.
Rampersad: I find it wonderful that someone could connect the political struggles of the 1960s to philosophy. It is important, I think, for those of us who believe in universities and believe in education to assert that we, as teachers, play an important role in social change in our lives -- an honorable and efficacious role.
Owens: Professor Rampersad, how did you come to write your biography of Jackie Robinson?
Rampersad: Mrs. Robinson, Rachel Robinson, asked me to do it. At first I thought that someone else should write it, someone who had grown up playing baseball. But she emphasized that she wanted it to be about more than baseball -- about her husband's life before baseball and the fifteen years after baseball, until he died in 1972. So I tried to write a comprehensive biography. I took him as seriously as I would any other subject, and that is how he deserved to be approached.
Owens: What was your final conclusion about him?
Rampersad: I ended up with a great deal of esteem for him. Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, chose Jackie Robinson very carefully -- he chose someone who was well educated, morally upright, and religious. Even more remarkably, he chose someone who had a record of standing up to racism. And Jackie continued to be true to his standards, throughout his career and afterwards. I think that he is one of our sporting figures to whom we can turn for an example of how one can live in the spotlight of athletic fame -- and with the money that comes with that fame -- and yet not be distracted from much more profound human concerns. He was strongly opposed to those in the 1960s who urged racial separation -- he rejected violence and threats of violent revolution completely.
Owens: So he would have been opposed to what Malcolm X, for instance, was espousing.
Rampersad: Jackie respected Malcolm X's intelligence, as we all should, but he did not subscribe either to his belief in racial separation or to the slogan "by any means necessary."
Owens: Professor Outlaw, can you talk a little about what your vision will be for the African American Studies program at Vanderbilt?
Outlaw: In general terms, yes. I have a vision, but I want to proceed carefully, as I think it would be presumptuous, problematic, and disrespectful to arrive with a fully articulated vision to be imposed upon an institution at which I have spent only a few months. I need to come to an understanding with all the relevant persons about what might be the best possible venture in African American Studies here at Vanderbilt. It is an extremely challenging venture, this business called African American Studies, because it focuses upon a complicated set of people whose points of cultural reference include the African continent, the Caribbean, and the Americas. To study these people requires the services and expertise of scholars from every possible discipline devoted to the production of human knowledge. How to pursue these studies in a coherent and comprehensive fashion is for me an extremely challenging question. For instance, there are long traditions of African American literature, art, and music, as well as traditions of scholarship regarding these forms of endeavor, but there has been less attention to African American contributions in fields such as philosophy. Moreover, we need to recognize that institutions that have been predominantly white sometimes have tremendous inertia. Vanderbilt's association with the conservative Agrarian tradition, for example, suggests that developing a program in African American Studies with a national and international profile will require reworking Vanderbilt's identity in some ways. That will take courage and will as well as substantial resources.
Owens: Professor Rampersad, you also served as the head of an African American Studies program. Do you have any thoughts?
Rampersad: Yes, I served for three years as the head of an African American Studies program. I would say that even though you, as a director, have multiple obligations, the bottom line is to teach students as much as possible about your subject. Many people do not realize that in many universities, the primary constituency for African American Studies is the white student. One has to see African American Studies as a field no different from English or biology -- as something of value for all the undergraduates who wish to become involved in the process.
Outlaw: I would agree. Having begun my career in historically black institutions, I found the decision to make the move into historically and predominantly white institutions difficult. But I believe strongly that everyone must come to realize the value of African American Studies -- the learning must be there for all to pursue. The most fundamental need is to have an impact upon the production, the mediation, and the validation of knowledge itself. What passes for knowledge? On what terms do we settle whether something is appropriately "knowledge"? Who are appropriate figures to be studied? These questions need to be addressed.
Rampersad: And when you attempt to answer these questions honestly, you ensure that African American Studies will not become a propaganda program. Students do not want to be converted; they can smell attempts to convert them a mile off and they do not come to college for that. What they want is for information and knowledge to be brought to them by highly disciplined instructors and in innovative ways so that they too can enter into the discussion with an open spirit and take away what they deem valuable.
Outlaw: Indeed. These are the ongoing challenges -- and responsibilities -- to be met in developing and maintaining a truly first-class program of studies -- of teaching, research, and scholarship; creative production and performance -- devoted to studies of African and African-descended peoples. These studies must play a substantial role in educating Vanderbilt students for an increasingly racially and ethnically complex and just society.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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