Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Late last night I received the sad news that Winston Napier had died from a brain hemorrhage. Winston was known to the world as the E. Franklin Frazier Chair in the Department of English at Clark University in Massachussetts. In my memory, though, he will always be the impressive, bright and delightfully eccentric Philosophy grad student I knew at Howard University back in the 80s. I was an adjunct in English at Howard, sharing an office in Locke Hall with fellow poet Calvin Forbes. I was somewhat unusual in the department of that time as a poet/critic with an abiding interest in philosophy and theory. Winston stood out, even in Howard's Philosophy Department, for sharing Alain Locke's twin interests in philosophy and literature, and for an interest in the debates over "continental" philosophy. He used to stop by my office regularly, not only to pore over my journals and books, but to involve me with his internal debates in theory. Winston also invited me to give a talk in an interdisciplinary series he organized, one of the first such invitations I was to receive.
When I moved to a tenure track position in California, I much missed those frequent visits from Winston. He had been a wonderful interlocutor and an encouraging fellow writer and thinker. From time to time I would get a phone call, or later an email, from him as he finished his degree program and went about locating a faculty position of his own. Later still, he was in touch with me as he finished work on his wonderful anthology of AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY THEORY. Following in the path broken by Angelyn Mitchell, Winston broadened and deepened the syllabus of black literary theory and philosophy, and I have often used his book in my courses.
Anyone who thinks deeply about the word, about race, about America, will feel this loss. Winston Napier was still young, still working, still teaching and still, as always, seeking out friends to debate as he worked his way through the questions that press in upon us.


Anonymous said...

My knowledge of Napier was only through his really important collection African American Literary Theory. So, your remembrance of him here was especially helpful in terms of painting a touching and broader view. Thanks.

H. Rambsy

tyrone said...

And I never even knew such an anthology existed...thanks for the pointer and for this touching memory...


T. Sutton Jr. said...

I have live(d) next to Mr. Napier for about 2yrs here in Worcester, MA. I knew very little of the awkwardly large and peaceful fellow. He dressed overly warm and comfortable, usually in high rubber boots, carrying a black leather satchel and pushing a bicycle to and from the apartment elevator. Only in passing did we share a smile or a brief conversation about the weather.

I regret never reaching out and getting to know him as a friend. Only until his unfortunate passing, have I learned so much about a scholar, and a man that may have changed my life. Only until now, have I found, that for 2 years I lived next to a professor, and writer (aspirations of my own) that was highly regarded in the community of his peers.

A glimpse at his bookshelf on Friday, accompanied by family members, resembled my very own. The simplicity of his earth-toned, midtown bachelor pad was a mature version of mine next door. And I could not resist imagining the conversations we could have had, or the friendship we could have shared.

In a way, I guess Winston did change my life. Yesterday, a family member I've gotten to know knocked at my door, and asked If I'd care for a mint condition black leather satchel! The same one the large guy in rubber boots carried. I can't explain the humbleness and gratefulness that took place. I gladly accepted alone with a nice pen.

Since the home-going of Winston, I've taken the time to shake hands and get to know another neighbor. This is a small world, and Winston has changed my life through his passing. We need each other. To grow, to share, to love and care.

He is in a better place now, and my prayers are with him and his family, alone with all those he inspired, encouraged, or just passed on his bicycle. May he rest in peace. God Bless.

T. Sutton Jr.

Georgia said...

Like many others, I have found myself quite devastated and shocked by the news of Winston's sudden passing. Having spent three of my four semesters at Clark in classes with Winston, I find it all but impossible to imagine a campus without him striding around with his perpetual, infectious grin and sunglasses perched atop his head.

When I think of Winston, I remember how he always encouraged students to push beyond the boundaries of their previous experience, both in their studies and in their lives as a whole. He instilled in us a keen sense that we, as students of literature, are the future of literary theory and study. We are the ones who will break new ground, create new terms, and embrace new philosophies. We are the ones who will inspire and encourage future students through our discoveries and our writing, and he made us understand both the importance of and the joy in that responsibility. Winston's boundless enthusiasm and unparalleled ability to break new ground critically were instrumental to my growth as a student at Clark, and I am sure most of his other students could say the same. He will no doubt be greatly missed, but there is no doubt in my mind that his work and his indomitable spirit will live on through the many lives he touched during his tenure at Clark.