The Robert Milton Young Memorial Lecture

Robert Reid-Pharr

In March, The University of Alabama Department of English hosted the Robert Milton Young Memorial Lecture, a bi-annual lecture that pays tribute to Dr. Robert Young, a beloved professor who passed away in early 2010. This year’s speaker, Dr. Robert Reid-Pharr (photo above) presented his keynote lecture at The University of Alabama on “Pagan Spain.” The organizer and host of the Robert Milton Young Memorial Lecture, Dr. Yolanda Manora, was a colleague and friend of Dr. Young. She offers a unique perspective on Dr. Young and the Memorial Lecture.

What is the Robert Milton Young Lecture Series?

The Robert Milton Young Memorial Lecture in African American Literary and Cultural Theory was established by the Department of English in the fall of 2010 to honor the work and legacy of the late Dr. Robert Young, a professor in the Department of English who passed away earlier that year. The inaugural lecture took place in January of 2011.

How did The University of Alabama come to host the yearly lecture, and how has this impacted The University and the English Department?

The lecture actually takes place biannually (i.e. every other year) in January (which was both the month of Dr. Young’s birthday and his passing), and it really is an effort that has had University-wide support, most especially within the College of Arts & Sciences. Along with the Department of English, the Department of Gender and Race Studies has been a standing co-sponsor, as has the A & S Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the A & S Diversity Committee. Other past co-sponsors have included New College and the Office of Community Affairs.

Since 2010, the interdisciplinary and interdepartmental advisory committee for the lecture has identified potential speakers for the event. We have selected them on the basis of their works’ intersections with Professor Young’s, and their facility in presenting complex ideas about social class and race in an engaging manner to a diverse audience.  All three of the speakers have brought just that sort of energy and engagement to the university campus.

Dr. Vincent Odamtten of Hamilton College, Dr. Young’s undergraduate mentor, colleague, and friend, gave the inaugural lecture. The title of his talk was “The Pleasures of Reciprocity,” a particularly fitting first lecture as it was both thoughtful and personal, centered upon his and Dr. Young’s evolving relationship as professor and student and then, later, as colleagues and friends. Our second speaker was Dr. Maryemma Graham of the University of Kansas. Her talk, entitled “The Post-Gaze: New Domains for Literary and Cultural Theory,” did a really wonderful job of locating the ways that Dr. Young’s theoretical work serves as a critical point of departure for the intellectual inquiries that she herself is engaged in, including her transnational scholarship. Dr. Reid-Pharr, this year’s Young Memorial Lecture speaker, in a talk entitled “Richard Wright in the Girls’ House,” continued this intellectual extrapolation in really rich ways. Like Reid-Pharr, Young had done work on Wright, and, as Dr. Nirmala Erevelles, Young’s widow expressed, he had begun, before his untimely passing, to do work that intersected with that being done in Queer Studies and Sexuality Studies. It’s been really wonderful to see how these three very different talks, in keeping with the purpose of the Young Memorial Lecture, have allowed Robert Young’s work to remain vital, relevant, and alive by bringing it into critical conversation with the scholarship that’s underway right now.

Can you give us a story or account of Dr. Young’s personality or a time where he made an impact on you?

Honestly, I’m not sure if I can offer up just one story or account. Robert Young’s brilliance as a scholar and teacher were only matched by his congeniality and generosity of spirit as a colleague. As I entered the department, a brand new Assistant Professor, I found in him a mentor and unfailingly supportive presence, from sharing his syllabi, to scheduling my classes, to observing my teaching, to advising me on publishing venues. In the African American community, we’re known to offer “how I got over” testimonies. Well, in my career as a professor, Robert Young had everything to do with that, and would be central to that narrative for me.

How does the lecture series reflect Dr. Young or his work in the Department of English?

Professor Young spent his career as a scholar and a teacher—examining and guiding others in the examination of issues related to constructions of racial difference, hierarchies of class, and the impact of these constructions and hierarchies upon the lives of those in disenfranchised communities. With its focus on the interactions of social class and race, the lecture series is designed to perpetuate Professor Robert Milton Young’s gift for teaching and to celebrate his commitment to realizing the critical communal potential of intellectual work.

Dr. Robert Reid-Pharr presented the lecture this year, titled “Richard Wright in the Girl’s House.” What did you take away from his lecture and what was your favorite part?

I’m so very glad that, after having had a weather-related cancelation of the talk in January, we were able to bring Dr. Reid-Pharr to campus in March! I enjoyed his talk on so many levels; from his tone, in which he brought a rare combination of intellectual rigor, personal engagement, and humor to the podium; to his frankly revelatory work on African Americans in Spain (I work on Nella Larsen and never knew of her Spanish connection) to his provocative critical reading of Richard Wright’s underexamined Pagan Spain. It was a rather tour de force talk, I thought.

What is your favorite topic to study or write about in African American Literature?

My work has revolved around African American women’s literature of the 20th century. However, in recent years, I have begun to expand my scholarly territory. I’ve moved into the 21st century! And I’ve started to teach and write about works by women of color throughout the African Diaspora. In fact, one of my current projects is on 21st century transnational travel memoirs by women of African descent.

How does your work in the Department of English reflect your passion for African American literature?

I think my passion for African American literature is a facet of my lifelong passion for literature. When people ask me how I came to be a professor of English, I always tell them that it started when I was six years old and got my first library card. I can still remember how breathlessly excited I’d get standing in the “stacks” of the children’s section of the beautiful Lawrence Street Library in Montgomery, Alabama. The reading I did as a child helped me to dream a bigger world. As an adult teaching American literature, and more specifically African American literature, I think it’s always in the back of my mind that perhaps I can create the kinds of classroom spaces in which students can have that experience. I’d like to think that students, having been encouraged to read more widely and challenged to think more deeply and critically, leave my classes having perhaps moved just a bit beyond their known world. That’s why I’m here, that’s what I love about the work I do.