This weekend, Prof. Emeritus James Turner was honored in a two-day celebration of his life and commitment to Africana Studies as founding director of the department at Cornell.
Prof. Riché Richardson, African-American literature, chaired the programming committee.
“We thought that it would be interesting and special to be able to honor Prof. Turner, because he’s given so much to help shape and energize the field of Africana studies,” Richardson previously told The Sun.
The celebrations commenced on Friday at the Africana Studies and Research Center with panel discussions about working with Turner as a colleague and a student. Additionally, there was a screening of films and videos of Turner led by Eric Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library.
The events continued on Saturday with a panel discussion on student activism and lunch. The keynote address was given by Prof. John Bracey, current co-director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a friend and former classmate of Turner.
Bracey and Turner attended Northwestern University together for graduate school in the 1960s and helped students launch an African-American studies program at Northwestern.
Prof. Russell Rickford, history, introduced Bracey at the event, acknowledging the importance and historic moment. However, he expressed disappointment at the lack of undergraduate students in attendance, calling it a “missed opportunity.”
Bracey thought it was “fitting” they honored Turner for the contributions he made to Cornell because of how he changed the Africana department.
“Cornell was not seen as an academically interesting place for African Americans until after [James Turner] got here,” Bracey said. “Now when you mention African American studies and the study of African American people, then Cornell is the top of what people think about and that’s because of Jim’s efforts and Cornell is overdue in acknowledging that,” he told The Sun before his speech.
As he began the speech, Bracey noted the different approaches Northwestern and Cornell took towards commemorating the activism that occurred on campus.
Northwestern tried to characterize the takeover that happened there as a “Northwestern event” when it was actually an “anti-Northwestern event,” Bracey said. He contrasted Northwestern’s actions with Cornell’s by saying Cornell is “smart” to honor the work that Turner himself did.
“Jim Turner did this. He got the people in this room, not Cornell,” Bracy said. “Cornell is smart enough to stay away and get people what they deserve.”
At the time, Turner and Bracey were in graduate school. They were in a position that was unique compared to other students, Bracey said, as they were creating “black studies” as their careers progressed — despite many detractors saying it wouldn’t last.
“We never taught a class that we didn’t make up ourselves,” Bracey said. “How many white scholars can say they created a discipline? A discipline.”
“We are still here, 50 years later, we are still here,” he added.
What led him and Turner to fight for a black studies program was the undergraduates at Northwestern at the time, he said. The treatment that the black undergraduate students were facing was what “made [them] move.”
At Northwestern, the issues stemmed from black students unable to change roommates to plantation-themed Greek parties where black women were supposed to wear aprons and serve guests according to The Daily Northwestern. Additionally, the students wanted better resources and opportunities for their fellow black students.
Thus, in May 1968, a group of students locked themselves in the Bursar’s office at Northwestern and did not leave until their demands were addressed, according to The Daily Northwestern. Turner took on the role of negotiating between the students and administrators at Northwestern.
Graduate students also adopted the role of mentoring and guiding students rather than leading them, since it was the undergraduates’ “issue,” Bracey said. He also explained how it was their goal to protect the undergraduate students who were fighting.
After the Northwestern takeover, Bracey and Turner went their separate academic ways, leading budding Africana departments at different institutions — Turner at Cornell.
One thing Cornell may not have realized was the type of candidate they were hiring. Bracey said that Cornell thought Turner, who studied sociology at the time, was an “institutional candidate” — however, he said, that was far from the truth.
“They thought they were going to get an institutional brother to fit into the Ivy League,” Bracey said. “We want a department, we want a budget, we want a library, we want our own space.”
Turner was true to himself and continued to fight for better resources and a stronger department throughout his time at Cornell.
“Jim didn’t leave because they burned down a building. Jim said build another building. They didn’t know,” Bracey said.
Bracey concluded his talk by mentioning the importance of Africana Studies as a discipline, noting the many accomplishments black people have made and the historical significance of Africa that isn’t highlighted in a Eurocentric curriculum.
He explained that in sociology, many white sociologists at the turn of the twentieth century were focused on eugenics and pseudoscience, whereas W. E. B. Du Bois was conducting empirical studies. According to Bracey, Turner was making sure people knew the accomplishments of black people and the history of contributions to society that have been made.
“Where are the white sociologist you have to read? I hear you have to read the Souls of Black Folk, The Philadelphia Negro … Du Bois is the father of sociology, not some white people,” Bracey said.
Additionally, he said that as students are advocating for themselves in the future, it is important to recognize that the problems he faced 50 years ago are different than the problems now. The benefit of Africana studies is that it is about deciding what you want to change and changing it, Bracey said.
“I can’t tell you what to do. I can help you do what you want to do,” Bracey said. “But you decide what you want to change what you see. That’s what is Africana studies, not dictating the ideology.”
He concluded his talk by acknowledging the hard work that Prof. Turner had and how he never stopped fighting and was a “warrior,” even during his time in academia
“You job is to fight,” Bracey said. “Your life is to move towards that and that’s why we honored Jim.”
“The regret would have been not fighting,” Bracey concluded.
After the keynote speech, there was a panel discussion with current and former professors sharing their own personal reflections on the life and character of Turner. Among those in the panel included Prof. Emeritus Robert L. Harris, former director of the Africana Center at Cornell.
The event closed with tributes from members of Turner’s family that were in attendance, led by his wife Janice Turner, and a closing ceremony for the weekend.