ASWAD joins colleagues around the world in mourning the loss of our beloved Sterling Stuckey, who passed away on August 15, 2018. But we also celebrate his extraordinary life and contributions. As a founding member of ASWAD, Sterling committed time and personal resources to help launch the fledgling organization. But as important as he was to ASWAD, his long career of service and scholarship went well beyond his involvement with ASWAD.
Born on March 2, 1932 to poet Elma and Pies Sterling Stuckey, Sr. in Memphis, Tennessee, he was part of the massive northern migration of Black Southerners. Arriving in Chicago at the age of 13, he would go on to complete the BA, MA, and PhD at Northwestern University. This was the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and Sterling was highly participatory, an experience that would inform his scholarship and humanitarianism. His involvement, focused and intense, included his co-founding and chairing Chicago’s Emergency Relief Committee (ERC) from 1960 to 1962, which sent food, clothing, and money to Fayette and Haywood Counties in Tennessee, where voter registration drives had met with reprisal. In fact, the work of the ERC was the model later adopted by other Chicago civil rights organizations, with August Meier and Elliott Rudwick observing that the ERC was “the most active” of CORE chapters at that time. In addition to chairing the ERC, Sterling chaired the Chicago Freedom Rider Committee in the spring and summer of 1961, and also served as Mid-Western Regional Director of CORE from 1960 to 1963. It was also in 1963 that he and Ralph Wright, Jr. were elected to co-chair the Chicago youth wing of A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Now, and throughout the 1960s he would work alongside such figures as Bob Moses and Amzie Moore in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana.
An early example of how Sterling’s scholarship and activism merged was the Amistad Society, “A Committee on Afro American History and Culture” that he co-founded and chaired from 1962 to 1965. A vanguard organization paving the way for the rise of Black History and Black Studies programs, the Amistad Society sponsored talks by figures that included Sterling Brown, John O. Killens, August Meier, Malcolm X, John Hope Franklin, and Lerone Bennett, Jr. Yet another example of his activist scholarship was his co-authoring the history section of the Mississippi Summer Project Curriculum in 1964, with Staughton Lynd and Beatrice Carpenter Young. Sterling was also part of Vincent Harding’s Atlanta-based Institute of the Black World in the late 1960s. Sterling was immersed in the Movement all while attending graduate school, and would remain at Northwestern as a professor until 1989, when he became Distinguished Professor of History at University of California, Riverside.
Sterling amassed too many awards and honors to enumerate, but to mention just a few, he was twice named Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1980-1981 and 2002-2003; he was a recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College, Chicago in 1999-2000; he received the Distinguished Humanist Achievement Award at the Center for Ideas and Society at University of California, Riverside in 1999; he was selected a Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1987-1988; and he was designated the W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Research Professor at UCLA’s Afro-American Studies Center in 1975-1976. In 1994, Professor Stuckey was named to a Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside.
Far beyond context, Sterling’s activism is critical in explaining his remarkable scholarship. His research interests encompass the realms of North American slavery, cultural history, and intellectual history. In all three categories, Sterling’s work has proven seminal, characterized by innovative method, precision, and an inimitable idiom of style. Methodologically, Sterling pioneered an interdisciplinary approach to the study of slavery that combines folklore, art history, politics, material cultural studies, anthropology, and theories of music and dance. In analyzing folkloric and literary materials with respect to music and dance, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to translate what has been previously recorded/penned into multi-dimensional representations, all within the idiom of the written word.
Sterling’s initial, indelible imprint upon the scholarly community came in 1968 with the publication of his seminal article, “Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery,” while he was still a graduate student. This article was crucial in setting the paradigms for the emerging community-studies school of thought on slavery. Through a careful analysis of folklore and slave narratives, Sterling successfully argues for cultural agency among the enslaved and acknowledgment of the Black voice. This pioneering article has appeared in at least nineteen different publications. In 1972, Sterling Stuckey edited The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, recovering the philosophical, political and social thought of major antebellum activists and offering a sweeping interpretation. Both the article on slavery and the collection on Black nationalists laid the groundwork for Sterling’s 1987 magisterial magnum opus, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, republished in 2013 in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Incomparable in achievement, bold in its interpretive analysis, Slave Culture remains among the most important works on slavery to date.
Slave Culture’s opening chapter, “Slavery and the Circle of Culture,” evinces a methodological dexterity that provides the basis for a powerful demonstration of cultural linkages connecting an African past with an African American future. By way of inquiry into West and West Central African contexts, Sterling pioneers the study of the Ring Shout and its foundational role in the development of blues, jazz, and jazz dance. Moreover, he articulates the Ring Shout as the symbolic manifestation of Black unity—a circle of culture sustaining bonds of nationalist attachment and communalism which was the heart of the practice historically, contemporarily, and cross-regionally. This is daring, singular brilliance, such that Margaret Washington would conclude: “Slave Culture, a work of major proportions, is gracefully written and thoroughly documented. Detractors wishing to challenge Stuckey’s thesis must confront his superbly disciplined scholarship.”
Sterling did not stop with this milestone, as his work on African cultural persistence in Albany, New York, and New York City has been nothing short of extraordinary. In his explorations of Moby Dick (1851) and Benito Cereno (1865), he unveils how Herman Melville was influenced by Black dance and music, and in identifying African themes and influences and motifs in Melville’s work, he requires Melville scholars to reassess long-standing interpretations. His book on Melville, African Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, was published in 2008, but Sterling was far from finished, and remained hard at work on the definitive study of Paul Robeson. We are still in the process of determining the state of that work, as well as his other ongoing projects.
In sum, P. Sterling Stuckey was the exemplar of scholarly achievement and academic and community engagement, a model of erudition. We knew him as mentor and colleague, but more importantly as friend. Possessed of a wonderful, and at times biting sense of humor, his warmth and humanity, his magnanimity, his poise, his quiet and graceful dignity, were as dependable as the sunrise.
We are forever in your debt, Sterling. We miss you. Thank you for passing this way.
Michael A. Gomez and Margaret Washington