James de Jongh
I am James de Jongh, professor emeritus at the City College and the Graduate Center English department. I was also director of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC) for about a decade. The late Professor Jerry Watts followed me as director of IRADAC, and Distinguished Professor Robert Reid-Pharr now ably occupies the position. When I was appointed to the Graduate Faculty, I knew Professor Jon-Christian Suggs in a general way as a colleague at another City University of New York campus, and a reliable CUNY stalwart. I had run into him at faculty governance activities I attended during several terms as Chair of the City College Faculty Senate. But it was here at the Graduate Center, where we both held appointments in the Ph.D. program in English, that I had a chance to interact with him in detailed and granular ways.
Chris Suggs and I joined the Graduate Faculty at about the same time, roughly a quarter century ago, served on some of the same academic committees, and participated in oral comprehensive examinations and dissertation defenses together. We shared similar intellectual and cultural interests, tended to show up at the same Friday afternoon presentations and chatted afterwards over wine and cheese. After the move from the 40th floor of the Grace Building on 42nd Street, we also shared a communal office across the corridor here on the 4th floor. We collaborated most intensely on our common commitment to African-American and Africana studies, however, and so it is to the informal but very productive leadership role that he played in the collective effort to bring Africana Studies to the Graduate Center as a programmatic field of study that I want to address my brief remarks today.
The pursuit of graduate programs in Black Studies at the City University was not a new initiative. Teaching and studying the lives of people of color at the graduate as well as the undergraduate level had been one of the explicit demands of the Black and Hispanic student uprising on the City College South Campus in the late 1960s, before either Chris or I was hired as junior faculty. In the mid 1970s, the Graduate Center had been on the verge of creating an advanced degree program in Black Studies—an MA program conceptualized by Professor Ofuatey Kojo and others. The initiative was highly controversial and the financial crisis that ended free tuition at CUNY was an easy excuse for denying the proposed MA Program.
Resistance to the postgraduate study of the lives and experiences of people of color persisted all through the 80s and 90s and into the new century. Nonetheless, because of the committed efforts of a number of faculty and students, a Certificate Program in Africana Studies exists today at the Graduate Center. As director of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC), I had the privilege to witness the outstanding role Chris Suggs played in that effort over the course of more than a decade. Professor Suggs was one of the active participants at the foundational gathering of faculty and students in the late 1990s (Colin A. Palmer and the late Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. were others) that reestablished postgraduate Africana studies at City University as a strategic mission for IRADAC, which had recently been created. Chris was there again a few years later to support the creation of the Africana Studies Group (ASG), a new student-led organization, along with its first co-chairs, Lise Esdaile and Jonathan Gray.
At the memorial at John Jay College a couple of weeks ago, President Travis described Chris Suggs as his “president whisperer.” It’s also an apt description of the role Chris played with IRADAC and the ASG. He never held a formal leadership office in either group but he was always there whenever he was needed as the ASG took the lead and IRADAC provided logistical support in cultivating the intellectual context on the ground, articulating a rationale, and advocating for the programmatic necessity of Africana Studies at the Graduate Center. And when it was time for ASG to navigate the parliamentary and administrative labyrinth of CUNY governance, the technical expertise he had gleaned from his time in the Office of Academic Affairs at 80th Street proved to be invaluable. ASG’s successful effort to establish the concentration in Africana Studies laid the groundwork for the current Certificate Program in Africana Studies that was established only a few years later. If our never abandoned goal of a full Ph.D. Program in Africana Studies is ever finally realized at CUNY, whether at the Graduate Center or in some other configuration, Jon-Christian Suggs will deserve a significant part of the credit.
There was a singular quality of grace about Chris Suggs. He always projected a welcoming and inviting spirit. He was always eager to do what was needed. His quiet suggestion was often just the thing to resolve an impasse. A few minutes of small talk in our shared office before a committee meeting, after class or whenever usually made me feel so much better. And I know I was not alone in this response. Others would light up when he appeared on the scene just as I did.
Chris, we mourn the loss of your warm company but the lasting imprints of your generous spirit will be “the living record of your memory.”