Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teshome Gabriel and Peter Brunette

Yesterday's afternoon email brought the sad news that my dear friend Teshome Gabriel had died. When I went to the web to find more information, I learned that another friend, Peter Brunette, had also died.

I first came to know of Teshome Gabriel when I answered the phone in my San Jose State office one day more than two decades ago. Teshome introduced himself, and told me that he had just finished reading my first critical book, Reading Race. I had never before gotten a phone call from a reader, and I have never gotten such a phone call again. I was particularly impressed that a film scholar had chosen to read a book about racial discourse in American poetry. Teshome had immediately seen the relevance of what I was doing to his own continuing work in cinema. As we spoke that day, I learned that he knew people I had met in my days at Howard University, including Mbaye Cham and Haile Gerima.

In my usual way, I followed that conversation with a trip to the library, where I found the essay Teshome had contributed to a collection Mbaye had edited. Then I got busy on line and tracked down a copy of Teshome's own important volume Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetic of Liberation. Still, even after reading his path-breaking work, I had no idea that Teshome would soon become such a part of my life.

It started at the end of that phone call. I was later to learn just how generous Teshome Gabriel was to students and colleagues alike. That day, he told me that he was part of a group starting a new journal, Emegences, and asked if I might be willing to contribute an essay. Thus appeared the first of my published works on C.L.R. James, and I was proud of the company I found myself in when I saw the hard copy of that first issue of the journal.

A few years later I had moved to Los Angeles, and got a chance to meet Gabriel in person. He quickly became a family friend as well as a colleague. I treasure memories of meeting him for dinner in Westwood, or in one of his favorite Ethiopian restaurants on Fairfax. At one point I had the good fortune to receive a year-long research fellowship at UCLA's Center for African American Studies. Teshome served as my official "mentor" that year, and I spent many afternoons talking over my research with him. That year, and later when I was teaching briefly at UCLA courtesy of the department of English, I knew I could always drop by Teshome's favorite table at Luvalle Commons and talk things over as his students, friends, and people from Ethiopia who had never met him but had been sent his way would stream by.

In later years, Teshome Gabriel co-edited such vital works as Otherness and Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged and Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers. I have missed Teshome, his wife and family since moving to Penn State, and had hoped to see him in Westwood again soon. The last time I saw him he was, characteristically, sitting on a wall on campus sharing his time and insights with students and friends, and even a stray passerby like me.

Contemporaries of Teshome's, such as Haile Gerima, led a revolution in film. Teshome undertook the hard task of making a revolution in the way we think about film.


I didn't know Peter Brunette nearly as well as I knew Teshome, but I'd known him longer. Back when I had just graduated and was an adjunct at Howard, Peter and I met on a panel held on the campus of George Washington University and broadcast on C-Span. (I got many more letters and phone calls in the wake of that broadcast than I have ever gotten in response to my writings.) The panel was on the subject of Student Activism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Peter and I looked to be the voice of yesterday, having been at the scene of the 60s. In fact, as I explained to the audience, I had been one of the many people driven from that very room by a massive launch of CS gas in the course of antiwar demonstrations during the Viet Nam conflict.

It turned out that Peter and I had both been drafted for the panel by the same young woman, a family friend in his case who also happened to work in an office with someone I knew back in the day. Peter and I enjoyed the experience of that panel, and again I made a point of looking up his work.

As I continued to do over the years . . . I would once in a while run into Peter at a conference, but I knew him primarily through his work. Of real use to me was a book he co-authored with David Wills on Derrida and film theory. Peter also published on such figures as Rossellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, even Wong Kar-wai. But my favorite memory will always be a talk Peter once gave at a conference, a talk on Fatty Arbuckle: "The Ontology of Fat."

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