One evening in East Campus in the late 1980s, a group of students begin to dance. Illuminated by the sprawling lights of East Harlem and warmed by a home-cooked dinner, a young professor Marcellus Blount watches from the sofa. “Dance, professor Blount, dance!” one student insists. Blount, characteristically modest, replies: “No, no, no, I don’t think I’ll do that.” But now everyone is insisting. Then, “out of nowhere, all of a sudden,” one student remembers, he stands and begins to move.
Marcellus Blount loved to dance. He was a trained modern dancer and often travelled downtown to dance on weeknights. Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and the current director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, remembers one Sunday in Morningside Park when Blount danced in the rain.
Blount, who passed away this May after battling a persistent chronic illness, was a professor at Columbia for 33 years. He first arrived in September 1985 as an assistant professor of English with a specialization in African-American literature and poetry. At only 25 years old, he became the first black, openly queer junior faculty member at Columbia and the first full-time black faculty member in the English department.
Friends describe Blount with a constellation of adjectives––bright, kind, youthful, joyful, and sociable, the list goes on. But what all of them seem to remember most from their interactions with him is his physicality.
Stephanie Smallwood, an associate professor of history at University of Washington and a former student of Blount’s, says that he was “alive in a very embodied way. You could see the dance in him.”
In many ways, Blount danced through Columbia, maneuvering quietly around institutional barriers and boldly in the face of campus-wide injustices. His was a deft, energetic waltz; he swooped up many students as a mentor and twirled others around as a compelling educator. Through his pedagogy of inclusion, expansion, and generosity, he worked to broaden and deepen whole fields of academic knowledge.
At Blount’s funeral, Robert O’Meally, an English professor and the founder and former director of the Center for Jazz Studies, described and impersonated a gesture that reminded him of Blount: arms down, palms up, fingers about to jig. The audience instantly recognized the motion: this was Blount chatting with a colleague on the sixth floor of Philosophy Hall; this was Blount raving about the New York City Ballet (he adored ballet); this was Blount teaching Melvin Dixon’s Trouble the Water.
Blount’s vibrant presence diffused into his teaching; former students remember how he moved around the room with rhythm. Winston Grady-Willis, director of the newly formed School of Gender, Race, and Nations at Portland State University and a former student of Blount’s at Columbia, describes how Blount’s hand gestures in class moved like those of an orchestra conductor’s. He remembers, too, how Blount constantly changed positions, never staying in one place for very long.
As a Literature Humanities teacher, he was dedicated to the Core Curriculum, teaching a traditionally white, male, Western canon. As a feminist, he allied with female scholars to agitate for an expanded study of gender at Columbia that culminated in the founding of Institute for Research on Women and Gender in 1987. That same year, as the only non-tenured black faculty member in a university with only six black professors, he would help found IRAAS and serve as one of its first co-directors. He would later become a faculty fellow and director of the graduate program in African-American studies.
Blount’s professional mode was dance-like. He deliberately yet playfully moved between these vastly different communities at Columbia. Blount’s navigation was especially impressive because he negotiated structures that were hardly built for vocal, openly queer black men.
Many colleagues considered him an administrative genius with bureaucratic savvy, as he seamlessly skipped around opaque and often intimidating bureaucratic red tape. While some agitate for change through power and authority, Blount agitated from the inside through friendship, persistence, and a deep knowledge of the institutional innards of Columbia. He quietly conversed and carefully lobbied. He followed proposals from one office to another and then back to the first office, again.
“He could steer things through,” Griffin says. “I don’t think we have an official title for this gift.”
A testament to this quiet gift is the many faculty members that he recruited, including: Farah Griffin, Robert O’Meally, Joseph Slaughter, and most recently, Jack Halberstam, who currently serves as IRWGS faculty director. According to Farah Griffin, Columbia is now, thanks to Blount’s hires, the premier institution in the country for the study of African diaspora literature.
His quiet, behind-the-scenes work is also reflected in the role he played in the founding of IRWGS and IRAAS. Blount is featured in IRWGS’ Oral History Project as an ally––women and African Americans were equally underrepresented at Columbia in the 1980s––integral to the Institute’s formation.
“I was not bereft of community, it just looked different,” he said in the interview with IRWGS.
Never satisfied with incremental institutional change, Blount integrated his work for IRWGS and IRAAS into his pioneering scholarship on queer black studies. Before terms like LGBTQ entered the field and long before the Institute for Research on Women and Gender added “sexuality” to its name in 2008, Blount and George Cunningham, a professor of Africana studies at Brooklyn College, edited Representing Black Men, a collection of essays, in 1996. The book, which Griffin says is still considered critical in the field, was one of the first volumes on gender, race, and the sexuality of black men in literary and cultural works.
Later in the same IRWGS interview, Blount remembered how some colleagues resisted his scholarship at the time, asking him, “Why, Marcellus, are you taking on yet another battle?” But, he would explain, he was determined to include queer studies in feminist studies.
Blount was an invisible connective tissue, Chandan Reddy, associate professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington and a former student of Blount’s, says.
“At this place, both students and faculty come, go, and are erased. He left his mark in ways that most people will not know,” James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, says. Shapiro worked in the office next door to Blount for over 30 years.
Blount grew up in Staten Island, NY. He graduated as the valedictorian of his high school at 16. Along with the daughter of the Grimaldi family’s pizza fortune, he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his peers. He graduated from Williams College in 1980 with Phi Beta Kappa honors before studying African-American studies at Yale under prominent scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, and John Blassingame.
Though Blount was used to white institutional spaces, he arrived at Columbia during a particularly tumultuous time for race relations on campus.
During the late 1980s, Spectator followed Columbia’s dismal recruitment and support of minority students and faculty. In 1985, only four black professors taught at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1986, the number of black graduate students at Columbia hit a new low. But in April 1987, two years after Blount arrived at Columbia, faculty voted to approve an African-American studies program. Blount was named a co-director and headed the fledgling program. By way of comparison, both Yale University and Princeton University founded their African-American studies programs 20 years earlier, in 1969. In fact, Columbia was the last school in the Ivy League to approve an African-American studies program.
In addition to a clear lack of minority representation in the college, there was explicit and violent racism on campus. Smallwood describes the pervading atmosphere as a “toxic brew.” Minority students at the time felt deeply unrepresented by the administration and thus unsupported in their efforts for institutional change. Due to this fundamental disconnect between students and administrators, Grady-Willis, who was the president of the Black Students’ Organisation in 1987, describes the relationship between various groups during the decade as “really adversarial” and “ugly.”
On March 22, 1987, racial tensions culminated in a vicious fight between white and black students outside Ferris Booth Hall, the predecessor to Lerner Hall. According to Robert Pollack, then dean of Columbia College, the fight erupted after four white students used racial slurs and threatened a group of black students. The Concerned Black Students of Columbia, a coalition of students formed in the aftermath of the fight, called for the immediate expulsion of the four white students who allegedly instigated the brawl: “It was an attack on the black community as a whole,” they told Spectator.
On April 21, 1987, thirteen days after the Ferris Booth fight, new allegations surfaced, suggesting that then University President Michael Sovern had intervened to protect the white students in question from disciplinary action. In response, CBSC organized a blockade of Hamilton Hall.
Two hours after the doors of Hamilton Hall were chained shut, at 11 a.m., dozens of police arrived on campus to break up the demonstration and arrest dissenting students—the first time police flooded campus since the famous 1968 protests. Many Columbia security guards were specially deputized by the police to act as agents of the law and arrest the protesters.
In the midst of tumult, Blount had just finished teaching a Lit Hum class. He emerged from Hamilton Hall to find police officers forcibly arresting black students. According to Spectator reports, Blount was recording information about arrested students to pass along to lawyers, when he was pulled away by police under the orders of Dominic Moro, then University Director of Security. The police frisked and handcuffed him behind his back. Then, along with almost 50 students, Blount was arrested and detained at the police station for four hours.
What happened next was remarkable, Grady-Willis says. Blount openly denounced the administration and Sovern, threatened to resign, and even spoke at a student protest that same day: “Two Columbia College students will be in jail tonight. What do you plan to do?” he asked the crowd.
Blount was 27 years old at the time. He hadn’t yet finished his P.h.D.
While remarkable, the blockade of 1987 was hardly a singular episode of unrest during Blount’s career; he was consistently fierce and courageous in the face of injustice. Shapiro says that Blount had a “backbone of steel.”
Reddy, who credits Blount with helping him through the New York City AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, recalls how Blount was a crucial resource when many were “experiencing loss and death akin to a warzone.” He also remembers how, in 1996, Blount supported the hunger strike that called for a department of ethnic studies and a reorganization of the Western-oriented Core Curriculum.
Reddy says that in these moments, Blount was outspoken, encouraging students to “think that the change was ahead, that their efforts really mattered, that their demands needed to be made over and over again.”
Blount dedicated himself to decades of activism. In this way, Reddy says, he modelled to others in academia how to connect “one’s care of bodies that were beloved and dying with one’s concerns as a scholar.”
Blount was a private person: he could talk for hours about the US Open Tennis at Forest Hills, or wax eloquent about the Yankees’ spring season, but he rarely talked about himself. It wasn’t until the end of his life, when he was working on his memoir, Still Here, that he began to openly reflect on his time at Columbia.
“Marcellus never needed the spotlight. His pleasures and his talents were in observation not declaration,” Jodi Melamed, associate professor of English and Africana studies at Marquette University and a former student of Blount’s, says.
In a rare moment of vulnerability in 1987, Blount spoke candidly to Smallwood about his transition to Columbia. When, at the end of her senior year, Smallwood enthusiastically told Blount that she planned to apply to graduate school, he closed his office door. She remembers he spoke carefully and sensitively about how academia could be “very lonely and isolating.”
But Blount was usually an infectious optimist. Griffin remembers disagreeing with Blount about James Baldwin’s Another Country. She argued that the novel was Baldwin at his messiest; Blount replied that it was Baldwin at his most ambitious. In many ways, the same work can be messy and ambitious, but Blount’s default was to read generously.
Griffin describes Blount as a “one-man welcoming squad.” He wanted to make Columbia and New York––both opaque and cold at times––more transparent and welcoming for newcomers.
By contrast, Blount’s classrooms were “sanctuaries,” “places of extreme learning,” and “incredibly human,” according to Melamed. She wonders to herself if the fast-paced culture of Columbia overlooked Blount, before adding that, for those who knew him, “He was a gentle and welcoming center of things.”
Meldmed remembers how, at the end of the semester, he gave each of his graduate students two books of poetry. “Who does that anymore?”
Smallwood recounts one moment that, for her, epitomizes the depths of Blount’s compassion and energy.
In her senior spring, she asked Blount to speak at an upcoming protest. Strangely (Blount always said yes), he hesitated, floundering around some logistical questions. He then explained that he had to defend his dissertation at Yale that same day. Still, he managed to do both, defending his dissertation in the morning and speaking at the march in the afternoon. “He let us turn his dissertation defense into a calendar appointment,” she says.
Smallwood adds that as she spent more time in academia, she increasingly looked back and “marvelled over how generous [Blount] had been with his time and his support.”
Blount’s multi-disciplinary training at Yale prepared him to become essentially a one-man African-American studies department at Columbia; students went to him with questions about everything from black history to politics to culture and art.
“We put a lot on his shoulders,” Smallwood says.
But Blount wasn’t limited by the boundaries of African-American studies. He was concerned about ethnic studies as a broad project. He mentored whole cohorts of students specializing in topics as varied as Asian-American studies, Filipino studies and the Cuban diaspora.
On April 11, 2015, in Schermerhorn Hall, seven panellists sit behind a blue table littered with notes, Poland Spring water bottles, and microphones. They are here to discuss “The Demand for Moral and Ethical Accountability at Columbia, 1985 to 2015,” a conversation hosted by IRAAS. The panellists include one Harlem resident, five alumni, and Blount.
Even before Blount speaks, he stands out because of his bright blue shirt, which serendipitously matches the table cloth, and for his smiley demeanour. (Grady-Willis specifically remembers this smile: an enormous one that erupts at any moment). After half an hour, Blount introduces himself: “It’s so nice to see you,” he says, grinning: “You are all so beautiful.” At this moment, Blount could have mentioned how, in 1987, he supported student protests at the expense of his academic career, he could have named hundreds of minority students who he single-handedly mentored, and he certainly could have talked about his instrumental role in the creation of IRAAS and the IRWGS. But he does not. Instead, he navigates through this moment like all others, with characteristic humility, kindness, and empathy. He chooses to thank Columbia’s long history of student activists.
“It wasn’t sufficient for me simply to watch what was happening. I had to participate,” he says of 1987 Hamilton blockade on the panel. “People said, ‘well, Marcellus, you’re going to get fired.’ And this is very important to me, to say that, ‘Then they will simply have to fire me because my job as a faculty member is to support the students even at risk of what the consequences would be for me.’”
Blount lived an exceptional and significant life in his own right. But from the start, he looked outwards, filling the lives of his friends and colleagues––often the same people––with compassion and the experiences of students with vibrant, yet reassuring, support. He danced at dinner parties and in classrooms, and brought concrete and lasting change to his institution of 33 years.
“We needed to change the classroom,” Blount adds later in the panel. “I was a [small] part of that, and that was very important to me.”