An interview with Dr. J

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 12/22/2011, 2:44 p.m.

Given his celebrity and, ah, notoriety, it comes as no surprise that Dr. Leonard Jeffries is cited nearly a million times on Google.

Of course, Jeffries, fondly and widely known as "Dr. J," has not placed a cursor on any of them, though his friends, colleagues and students keep him informed on what's being said about him. He's been told that much of it is negative, stemming in part from the early '90s when a controversial speech he made in Albany went viral, bringing him unwanted attention and a welter of death threats.

It took the AmNews several weeks to corner the intrepid griot, who had just returned from a Conference of Mayors in the closing hours of the semester at City College, where he planned to meet with some students who had not taken their final exams.

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune of attending one of his lectures knows that to put a microphone in front of him is to prepare for an endless torrent of valuable African-American history and culture, and to think he can be confined to one topic for very long is wishful thinking.

So, as we expected, Dr. J waxed eloquently for a half hour on his family and the early years of his life coming of age in Newark, N.J. His story is so compelling that rather than compress it to one take, we hope you'll appreciate a series of interviews with one of the world's most fearless, outspoken teachers, activists and griots-in short, a Nana of the highest order.

Amsterdam News: In preparation for this interview, out of curiosity, I Googled you. Have you ever Googled yourself?

Dr. Jeffries: No, but I've been told that there are 950,000 items under my name. But soon, on my 75th birthday, on Jan. 19, I'm going on the Internet and entering so much stuff they won't know what to do with it. Ever since I was the point man in the curriculum struggle, they wanted to make sure that whenever something comes up about the Nile Valley or the African origin of humankind, or who was involved in slavery, all the negatives come up. You have to wade through all the negatives before you can get to any of the positives.

AN: But, Dr. J, there are a lot of positive items...

Dr. J: The people who started putting up positive things about me were the Black United Front under the leadership of Dr. Conrad Worrill of Chicago. They put up a website of the masters that included Dr. [John Henrik] Clarke, Dr. Ben [Yosef ben-Jochannan] and me. One of my students told me that if you go to Wikipedia, there is a lot of ridiculous stuff on me. What he did was to go to the site and force them to change a lot of it, but they still didn't get a lot of things right.

AN: One of those items indicates that you were the first African-American member of Pi Lambda Phi, a Jewish fraternity, during your college days at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Is that true?