Christine A. Pinnock
I was sitting on a bus when I received a text message informing me that Jerry Watts had passed. I burst into tears and started sobbing uncontrollably. People got off and on the bus, and when it came to my stop five minutes later, I leapt off the bus anxious to put my feet on solid ground. All I could think was, “I can’t imagine my world without Jerry.” What kind of Graduate Center will it be without Jerry Watts? Jerry is the reason I stayed in my doctoral program; he’s the reason I had decided to enter academia. He told me I was needed in these spaces.
He was right.
The Graduate Center, like any other academic institution, is filled with pretentious scholars. Jerry Watts was, on the other hand, the real deal who couldn’t be pretentious even if he tried. He lit up any room he entered, and his authentic presence ensured that you noticed him, simply because as one of his students or mentees walked through the door, Jerry, despite efforts to whisper quietly, would whisper loudly in his gravelly tone, catching your attention: “Oh Lawd! I KNEW there was gonna be trouble!” Laughter would erupt reminding you of the joy of life, and depending on your day, it would remind you that you were still human. Jerry would then say, “Good God! What you been up to?” You always knew that Jerry’s concern for your well-being and progress in life was sincere, because it was. That was Jerry.
Jerry had the unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life. I cannot recall a time during all my years as a student at the Graduate Center, when he did not greet the security guards, inquire about their lives and their families. He did the same for all the Graduate Center staff—especially the staff from Restaurant Associates (from many quick stops on the way to an evening class). He always knew which staff member had a new grandchild or whose mother had passed away. Jerry could catch-up with you briefly and make you feel like you were all right with the world, that your sanity was indeed intact.
I was never fortunate enough to take a class with Jerry. But he was my mentor, friend, and sometimes a father-figure. He had a wonderful way of correcting you and keeping you focused on your larger goals in life.
When Jerry penned the open letter to students, re-published in this issue, it was a result of listening to me and other students talk about the challenges we faced in our doctoral programs. It was also a result of Jerry’s intimate understanding of the deep psychological toll doctoral study takes on students—especially students of color.
When we would complain to Jerry about the racial micro-aggressions we encountered daily as students and instructors, Jerry would remind us that our goal was not to be life-long adjuncts or doctoral students; our goal was to get our degrees and move on with our lives. He couldn’t have been wiser when he chided us for thinking so much about how much time we’d spent getting into our doctoral programs that we forgot that our goal was to finish. “Y’all so damn happy to be here,” he’d say, “y’all keep forgetting that the goal is to get out!”
As a person who applied to doctoral programs three years in a row and received over a dozen rejection letters, I knew Jerry was speaking to me, but also so many others.
Jerry was the first scholar who really made me aware of the power of my presence in the classroom as an Afro-Caribbean woman. He told me not to take for granted my politics or my contributions to African diasporic studies and anthropology, but also to the students I encounter. As a woman of color, I enter academic spaces not as a token, but rather as an anomaly and exception to the typical pedagogical experiences offered to most undergraduate students.
He also made me aware of how extremely difficult it is to write and complete a dissertation and teach multiple courses. He assured me it was okay to take non-teaching jobs in order to finish. That is what he had to do when he was at Yale.
Jerry was the consummate mentor, not just to students of color but also to all students who had the privilege of being around him. He provided practical strategies to completion during the times when you fall out of love with getting a PhD, writing your dissertation, or just grappling with institutional hurdles.
When one of Jerry’s students would complain that they weren’t finished because he was taking too long to respond to chapters, I would always laugh. I recognized that the student wasn’t serious about finishing, that it was easier to pass the buck and attribute a lack of progress to Jerry’s laid-back demeanor. When one of his students was truly focused on getting to the finish line and successfully defending their dissertation, Jerry was there. He was was equally, if not more committed, to helping students succeed. Having attended and taught at other prestigious institutions, Jerry had seen it all and was determined not to be a gatekeeper. He facilitated growth and progress of students in every way he could.
I remember spending many late night hours with friends, colleagues and Jerry, talking in his office about our research projects. Jerry was one of the most well read, insightful scholars I ever knew. His ability to intellectually engage theory across disciplines was truly amazing. He helped so many of us untangle, clarify, and accurately apply theories to our research in order to help us move forward. At the same time, he encouraged and supported our own theoretical creations when we couldn’t find a suitable theory to engage our work. I am truly grateful to his wife and partner, Dr. Traci West, for sharing Jerry with us. Memories of those late night intellectual jam sessions will remain with me forever.
Many professors work their entire lives and never have a loyal and sincere following of students who admire and support them—not because the students want to be like them and capitalize on their rock star status, but because they find them to be kind, generous human beings. Jerry was a scholar in whose footsteps so many others and I will gladly walk, mainly because of his kindness, generosity and compassionate spirit. Jerry looked out for everyone, even when no one was looking out for him. He always ensured that those around him were taken care of. When I didn’t receive funding to conduct preliminary fieldwork, Jerry Watts, as Director of the Institute for Research in the African Diaspora and Caribbean, gave me funds so I could conduct research and so that I could eat. Jerry looked out for students in ways that most professors didn’t even think of. He did not coddle or leave us to slack off, but gave us the necessary resources so we could finish our degrees. As students of color, from the moment many of us enter spaces like the Graduate Center, we are lambasted with the constant refrain, “You don’t know theory, you don’t know how to write.” We internalize these micro-aggressions, sometimes to the point of paralysis that we listen when our departments tell us to wait a year to take our first and second-year exams and we consequently fall behind our colleagues and peers in the timeline to completion. Jerry Watts made sure that we didn’t lose focus and whenever he called or checked on us, he made sure that we remain in the game. Many times, he even recommended we seek therapy to deal with the emotional and psychological rigors of the doctoral process.
Indeed, Jerry not only looked out for students, he also looked out for the common individual. Over the years, it was not unusual to see Jerry entering the building with paper bags filled with books. If you saw Jerry very early in the day, you knew that he’d be making a trip uptown to donate books to street vendors in Harlem. When he was director of IRADAC, he had books set aside to donate to the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, Harlem street vendors, and for students. He was an avid reader and loved books, so much that there was hardly any place to sit in his office when he was director, and even less when he left IRADAC and moved to an office less than half its size. Jerry was a force to be reckoned with, and he did things his own way and in his own time. He might not have been the most diligent in returning phone calls or responding to emails, but if you needed him, you could be sure that he would be there for you.
Jerry leaves behind an enduring legacy that highlights how mentorship is integral to surviving the doctoral process, especially for students of color and other marginalized students. I began writing this reflective piece wondering what kind of place the Graduate Center will be without Jerry. As I close, I am filled with a conviction that it is a better place just because of Jerry. I know that the kind of mentorship that Jerry offered takes a toll on an individual, and while Jerry carried a lot for all of us, he gave a lot to us too. He gave us valuable lessons on self-care—always reminding us, “Hug Yourself!” Self-love=self-care=love.
Jerry loved candy, cigarettes, Doritos, soda, and large iced-coffees, all of which are the ideal recipe for the massive stroke he suffered. He’d been struggling to attend to his health for years, but Jerry did things his way. And while none of us who truly knew him are shocked at his death, we are reeling from the absence of his wonderful presence.
Many scholars are not advocates for students at the Graduate Center, Jerry was. My last conversation with him was two weeks before he had his stroke. Jerry called me to see how I was doing, and we laughed and talked about how many students of color, many of them his former students and mentees, were graduating this academic year. I invited him to my defense and threatened bodily harm if he wasn’t there. He said he would definitely make it. Jerry then wondered if “there was going to be a cosmic shift in the universe with so many Negroes getting their PhDs and descending on the planet all at the same time?!” I laughed and asked if Jerry was coming to the graduation ceremony, and he replied, “Of course! I’m gonna have to be waving flags at graduation at the sight of so many Black PhDs in one place!” We laughed and then Jerry told me he loved me and I told him that I loved him more, and we ended with Jerry telling me to take care of myself, and reminding me, “Hug yourself woman! You almost there girl, the finish line is in sight!”
This lengthy reflection barely captures the extent of Jerry’s beautiful soul. May the ancestors from the highest realms welcome Jerry home to the resounding sound of ten thousand drums and bells, waving banners and flags, shouting, “Job well done!” He leaves behind an important legacy of friendship, mentorship, and excellent academic scholarship. It was an honor to have been taught in the School of Watts, and an even bigger honor to pay it forward. We cannot be in these spaces of higher learning and not think of those who follow behind us. We cannot continue to walk through these spaces without compassion and care for those who maintain it. For the students who are struggling to finish, please know that you could have no better cheerleader in the ancestral realm than Jerry Watts. Finish your degree and take pride in your work, and know that if we all take a leaf from Jerry Watts’ book, “what a wonderful world this would be!”