Joseph A. Brown
Office: Faner 4024
Office hours: By appointment
B. A. St. Louis University 1968
M. A. Johns Hopkins University, 1969
M. A. Yale University, 1983
Ph.D. Yale University, 1984
From my earliest pre-school days I have been fascinated by the stories old people told, all around me. What else is “history”? Listening to the story telling and the jokes we shared around the supper table, and in the living room and at family gatherings, I delighted in how people used words to achieve countless effects. What else is “poetry”? Learning to read I devoured history stories, not making much of a distinction between what was most factual and what was decidedly myth. I wonder how many people could make an effective distinction between the two, nowadays? When I was old enough to travel around East St. Louis by myself – from about the age of seven, I would delight in the ritual of going to the movies by myself. Sometimes my father took me, and sometimes my older sister took me; but usually I went by myself, thoroughly seduced by the images, the sounds and the visual rhythms flickering on the large screen.
By the time I got to high school I was reading classical literature of every era, plowing through periods of history and feeling as if I had hit the jackpot when I could find a movie that either brought a specific book to light, or commented on some period of history that had already been my focus. And by then, I was studying the actors who floated in the darkness up on those screens. Actors, in westerns, musicals, film noir, comedies—the genre didn’t matter. I studied them, in the movies houses or on the television late at night and early into the morning.
My research interests were formed as early as my consciousness: literature, from Egyptian mythology to Norwegian fiction; creative writing; film studies; and the subjects of theater, history, psychology, music, sociology and religion. I was awash in all of them, on the front porch, the backyard; in the movie theaters, in church and in the libraries that I practically inhabited. I would have had to establish the interdisciplinary arenas of African American and American Studies if I had not been so fortunate as to discover them in the academy.
Sitting on my bookshelf in my office in my home are two rather poorly protected paper-back anthologies of high school poetry. “Young America Sings”, published in 1959 and in 1960-61, these two collections are my earliest publications. The 1959 volume contains a poem I wrote in my high-school freshman English class. The 1961 volume has my contribution from my junior year in high school. After I joined the Society of Jesus in 1962, the acclimation process was intense enough to put a slight pause in my publications, but during my third year in the community, I took the plunge and submitted poems to “America” magazine, and to “Thought” a journal of philosophy and literature published at Fordham University. By that time I had decided to publish my poetry with the name, “Luke,” which I had chosen as my “name in religion,” as part of the private devotion we still followed, even though we were never known formally by those names, as would have been true for most of the religious men and women who were our ancestors and contemporaries.
More poems were published while I was a graduate student in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Much like the high school poems, my publications during my time at Hopkins were initiated by a teacher: Elliot Coleman, a true mentor and inspiration. Mr. Coleman had the habit of informing me that some editor or another had called and asked for contributions and he had suggested me. It has been a habit, over all these more than fifty years. I am nominated for publications, called and solicited; sought out. Except for the occasional poem in America or the National Catholic Reporter or some other magazine or journal, most of everything I have ever published has been solicited by an editor or sponsored by a teacher or colleague. Charles Rowell asked me for the poetry manuscript that became Accidental Grace (1986). Editors at St. Anthony Messenger Press and at Orbis Books called me within weeks of each other and requested the manuscripts that became A Retreat with Thea Bowman and Bede Abram: Leaning on the Lord (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997) and To Stand on the Rock: Meditations on Black Catholic Identity (Orbis, 1998). An advisory board recommended that I produce a set of pamphlets for adult religious education, which became two of the series published by Renew 2000, both of which focused on renewal in the Black Catholic Church. St. Anthony Messenger Press contacted me, years along, and asked for Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Prayer Services from the Black Catholic Church (2006), which I compiled with the assistance of my dear friend, Fr. Fernand Cheri, III, OFM. In 2008, a long time friend, the deeply respected scholar, poet and publisher, Dr. Frank Chipasula provoked the publication of The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems Dr. Chipasula argued that my putting together small editions of selected poems for Christmas and other occasions seemed a decidedly ineffective way of sharing my poems. He was right. Through all of these years, I have continued to write essays, reviews and chapters for everything from art exhibition catalogues to reflections on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. The themes and subjects of many of my poems since 2011 have surprised me. Written as commemorations and dedications to friends who have advanced in our religious community through the pronouncement of vows or by ordination. Giving homage to those whose deaths have touched my heart deeply and trying to find the “words too deep for tears,” when confronting some social crisis or the death of children, newer poems have become commentaries on passages of Scripture that echo many of the meditations found in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.
I wonder if my grade school classmates would consider what I did to be teaching as I performed my frequent service of reading aloud to them the balloons of the comic books we collected, while we sat on the playground of St. Augustine Grade School, back in 1951 and 1952. Or would my classmates in our program of studies in the early days of our Jesuit training, call it teaching when they reflect on the tutorials I organized before we had to face one of Fr. Waters’ daunting examinations in whatever phase of English or American literature he gleefully taught us. I am sure that the fourth-grade students in my Saturday catechism classes in New Ulm or the same age group of Lakota children during our summer religion classes in South Dakota have mercifully forgotten whatever it was I did when I was thrust before them in a well-meaning but debatable exercise in “sharing the faith.” When I was contacted, two weeks before the beginning of the academic year, and offered a graduate teaching assistantship at Johns Hopkins, my real teaching career was shot out of a circus cannon. I am still in orbit, I think. My classes at the University of Virginia (1984 – 1991) were blessings of the highest order, for me. From the modest beginning of sixteen students in the fall of 1984 to more than 185 in the spring of 1991, my classes in African American literature and the Spirituals and the Harlem Renaissance were the opportunity for me to drink deeply from the well of all the literature that had nourished me – from Phillis Wheatley to Herman Melville to Zora Hurston to Gwendolyn Brooks to Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison. “Go back, please go back and discover that our ancestors hid the key to our resilience and triumphs in the songs and stories and intuitions that visit us in the night, or at the idle moment when insight erupts.” And then, I say, ask: “Who defines the terms by which we live?”
And performing and directing and writing for the theater, I admit that my abilities were called out of me when I was most unaware of what gifts my ancestors had rooted in me. Because faith means listening to the call of the community to be more and more than I could ever imagine in the shadows of my doubt and fear, I am always grateful that I could believe what others saw in me. Learning that, I am able to draw out the talents of generations of young ones who wander within my orbit.
Or who are placed in my care, for however long we might journey together. For years I have described teaching as the vocation of being a “conductor on the Underground Railroad.” Believing in the deep truth of Frederick Douglass who told us that literacy was the pathway to freedom. Freeing the mind means knowing with utter certainty that whatever cage in which the world might imprison us, the imagination within us can establish a horizon of freedom that is boundless. And so we teach as we have been taught.
Joseph A. Brown, S. J., Ph.D. a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, is a Catholic priest with an extensive academic and pastoral career. When he graduated from St. Louis University with the BA in Philosophy, he attended Johns Hopkins University, where he gained a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. After his ordination to the priesthood (1972) he taught Theater and Poetry at Creighton University for several years (eventually becoming artist-in-residence in 1978). Later, after receiving both the Master's degree in Afro-American Studies and the Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University, Fr. Brown taught at the University of Virginia and at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Presently he is a Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. h
In the Fall of 2009, he was the holder of the MacLean Chair of Jesuit Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. During his fall semester residency, he was a member of the SJU Department of English. Beginning in 2014, Joseph A. Brown, SJ; Ph. D., became the founding Chair of the 1917 Centennial Commission & Cultural Initiative, Inc. The Commission which coordinates activities commemorating the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots, bringing to light the circumstances and aftermath of the bloody pogrom which was one of the most significant examples of domestic terrorism in U. S. history. He is the author of “The Sankofa Muse.” https://sankofamuse.blogspot.com/