Professor Gerald Gill was a quiet, dignified and purposeful man—part teacher, part big brother, part father, protector and friend. Although I never took his class, he was perhaps the individual who had the most impact on my Tufts career, the best teacher I never had.
When I think of the university I usually think of him first, then of VeVe Clarke, and I imagine them presiding over a supreme classroom in the sky filled with African American history and Black world literature (minus the ambitious papers and annotated bibliographies). Perhaps my most poignant encounter with Professor Gill came in my sophomore year. One of my cousins, who did hair as a hobby, braided my hair. Rather than seeing me as Buckwheat redux, Professor Gill complimented me on my “natural look,” he could feel my intention. On a campus and community where Black beauty and certainly even quasi natural hair were neither the norm nor celebrated, his gesture of kindness became a lifeline.
This is not to suggest that Professor Gill didn’t have a tough side. I’ll never forget when he marked down my friend’s grade to a “D” because her paper was late. Not even her diagnosis with chicken pox was enough of an excuse for him. Had she started the paper earlier she would have handed it in on time, before the onslaught of her illness, he reasoned. When I visited her in the infirmary we lamented the grade, but both agreed that Prof. Gill did the right thing. His was a love conditional on respect for self—and for him.
At a recent gathering of Tufts Back alumni at the tony home of a successful alumna, I hobnobbed with former schoolmates, trading tales of the last decades, work, family, the usual. The room buzzed with happy reconciliations, hugs, and remembrances.
After speeches from administrators and a welcome from our host, an alumnus spoke of being the first one of his family to graduate from college. He held up his hand, freezing the spontaneous applause that erupted in the room in mid-clap. Most of childhood cohorts had not made it, save a football star, he went on to tell us. He wanted to know how we could give a hand up to those left behind. His earnest, pain-filled words cut like a knife in the party atmosphere. Our pretty clothes wrinkled just a little bit, the carefully applied makeup concealing time’s ravages cracked just a smidge.
I couldn’t help but wonder what professor Gill would have felt about this gathering and others like it. Would he have thought that we had done enough with our collective privilege and power, as slight as they may be?
Mention was made of mentoring Tufts students in the ensuing comments. But although Tufts was not the easiest environment for those of us brave enough to admit it, at the end of the day anyone who gets into Tufts has already won the lottery. It seems that what we need is some sort of national movement, an each one reach one grassroots movement that is as basic as basic can be, targeting those who have been left behind. Still you, still me, the words in a poem in one Ms. Ammons’s myriad feminist-lit classes.
I go up to the passionate young man and squeeze his arm. I give him the pep talk that I am giving myself: “Don’t be discouraged, this is not the place to solve this problem; it’s too big for here, let’s talk offline.”
Professor Gill’s name is invoked during this gathering and he is described, once again, as “not just” a Black professor, a nod to his dedication to any student who wore the blue and brown. I like to think of him as especially a Black professor.
That we haven’t been able to get the fund in his name moving at the pace it should be may be in and of itself an answer to the question the earnest brother asked. Many of us can barely keep our own heads above water. We wear the mask.
The evening begins to wind down and I swoop past our host’s security detail, and stifle a giggle as the doorman asks me the obligatory, “Ma’am can I call you a cab?” I find a park bench, swap the shoes that are like nails in my feet for sneakers and jump on the MTA. In the cooling air, I quietly rededicate myself to Gerald Gill’s principles of excellence, self-love and community. Lessons from the best teacher I never had.
The Gerald R. Gill Professorship, an endowed fund, would support the recruitment of a new faculty member or provide special recognition to a current faculty member. This endowed fund would make permanent his academic legacy, research and scholarship at Tufts. While it wouldn’t be the first such group effort to create a professorship – it would be the first named for an African American professor. The goal is $2 million. Please join me in supporting it. Please visit http://giving.tufts.edu/feature/september2013.html or contact Kosta Alexis in the Tufts University Advancement office at firstname.lastname@example.org or (617) 627-4978.