Herb Boyd, Nelson Stevens, John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez and Maxine Roach Credit: Contributed

To be in Professor John H. Bracey, Jr.’s presence was a learning moment, an experience of warm, compassionate, scholarly friendship. He was as gregarious and thoughtful as he was ready to dispense a fresh insight on a pressing issue. Memories of his camaraderie will have to suffice upon learning that he is now with the ancestors. 

Bracey, according to a statement from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, died over the weekend. He was 81.

At the onset of the Black Studies movement in the late 1960s, Bracey was a vital and vibrant force, most notably during his long tenure at UMASS, where he helped formulate one of the first doctoral programs in African American studies in the nation. Many of us, beyond the academic

circle at UMASS, where he was a faculty member in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and chaired and directed the graduate certificate in African Diaspora Studies, learned of his formidable knowledge at various conferences and from his essays and books.

Rumors about his intellectual wit and profundity resonated with additional authority when “Black Nationalism in America” was published in the early 1970s and in seeing his name with co-authors August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. 

This was grist for the mill for the coterie of radical students at Wayne State University, and he gained a loyal and fervent following among labor activists as general editor of “Black Studies Research Sources on the Black Power Movement,” especially his discussion of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. He cited the League’s material as a “rich collection of manuscripts that increases access to documents essential for further research and analysis of one of the most influential African American labor organizations in the 1960s and 1970s…The League took the impetus for Black Power and translated it into a fighting program focusing on industrial workers.”

Bracey was born in Chicago and grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother taught in the Howard University School of Education. He attended both Howard University in DC and Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he earned his BA in 1964. He performed graduate work both at Roosevelt and at Northwestern University. During a decade in Chicago (1961–’71), Bracey was active in the Civil Rights, Black liberation and peace movements as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Chicago Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Revolutionary Action Movement.

On a personal note, I was privileged to participate in events with Bracey on several occasions, none more exciting than with him at UMASS for a tribute to Yusef Lateef and later for Max Roach. His expertise in music—particularly jazz—was vividly expressed in his award-winning essay about the music of John Coltrane. He concluded, “John Coltrane left a lot more music than words. One quotation that I came upon a few years ago sums up my experiences: ‘The main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.’ I was fortunate enough to witness some of the most magnificent and moving of John Coltrane’s ‘pictures’ as he painted them with sound. John Coltrane died in 1967, on July 17, my birthday.”

What he said of Coltrane of delivering soundscapes—wonderful images of things he knows of and senses in the universe, conforms perfectly to Bracey’s mastery of the written word, the stellar research so poignantly inspirational.

Two years ago, UMASS Chancellor Dr. Kumble Subbaswamy established an endowed graduate fellowship in honor of Bracey. It coincided with the school’s Black Presence Initiative that sought to explore and document experiences of Black students at the institution, and it was an honor that personified Bracey’s dedication and devotion to the students and the academy.

During an interview with a reporter on the UMASS student newspaper, Bracey said education is not vocational: “You don’t take my class to get a job. You take my class to learn something.” He explained that his definition of teaching “was to have people to use their minds, and to develop their minds, and to develop the ability to critically analyze the world around them, confront differences, and understand the complexity of the world and to figure out where they fit in and where they wanna go.”

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  1. John and I have been colleagues at UMass for as long as I can remember—and we shared lots of memories of our work in Civil Rights–mine from the perspective of a white volunteer. We were both in Mississippi as SNCC workers—where I taught Freedom School at True Vine church. John represented a special view of that history—emphasizing, among other things, the singular role of women in the movement often as behind the scenes advisors.
    And John was fun–full of humor, easy teasing—and he made UMass a more
    human place. We will all miss him

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