He was my very favorite professor in college, and one of the most of influential people in my life. He was also a piece of history at the University of Arkansas. I didn’t fully grasp this while he was my professor.
Professor Jordan was just a teacher who demanded the highest level of work from all of us. To disappoint him with subpar work, was a fate I could not stomach. To make him laugh, was brilliant.
I found some videos of when he was awarded the Silas Hunt Legacy Award four years ago. We are still officially in a fight that I didn’t know about this in advance, so that I could have been there. What a night that must have been.
February is Black History Month, so it’s appropriate to share these stories of his place in history. But more than that, I feel like sometimes we think that because we’ve come so far that we think we’ve come far enough. That’s simply not true. And before we get too haughty with ourselves, we need to remember how recently segregation was the norm and discrimination didn’t have the good manners to know to speak in low tones. (FYI – If you whisper it, it’s still racist.)
So in his own words, telling his own story, Gerald Jordan:
Because I don’t want you to miss these words, in case you don’t watch the video:
Those persons of faith will understand me when I talk about the afterlife. And I stake no claim to a place in Glory. But I do hold fast to Randall Ferguson’s heeding that one day, we’ll face our ancestors, and they’re going to ask us, “What did you do with your freedom?”
So with great pride of accomplishment, I’ll tell them that I learned to read and to write. And it was legal.
I’ll tell them that I graduated from the University that they couldn’t fathom or even dream of entering. And it was challenging.
I’ll tell them I voted. And nobody clubbed my head as I entered or left the polls. And one day when the votes were counted, I’ll tell them we elected a man whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was Kansan. And it was amazing.
I’ll tell them that I wrote for some big city newspapers. And it was a blast.
I’ll tell them that I taught the progeny of those with whom we once were told we couldn’t drink from the same water, we couldn’t ride on the same bus, we couldn’t dine in the same restaurant, we couldn’t live in the same neighborhood. I taught their progeny. And it was just.
I was one of those students, part of that progeny. So much of who I am is because of this man. I am a writer because he believed I could be, or at least he told me that I could be, and I believed him. He wrote the recommendation that got me into grad school. Professionally, that set everything else in motion.
I don’t know what I’d be if he hadn’t been brave enough with his life to go to the University in 1966. I sometimes wonder if I’m brave enough with mine. Or at least brave enough to pay it forward.
And I think he’s right that one day we’ll all have to answer the question, “What did you do with your freedom?” Part of my answer will be, I learned from a gracious man how to tell my truth.