This semester I had the honor of interviewing and meeting Dr. James E. Walton, a highly recognized professor and past Chair of the English Department at Fresno State. Interviewing Dr. Walton was a privilege; it allows one to reflect on his legacy, as he will be retiring this semester. Dr. Walton proves to be a living testament to the notion that we all have agency as human beings despite how difficult the circumstances we have to face in life. From the trials in the early years in his life, to his success today, Dr. Walton has proved to be an inspiration to all, especially, young men and women of color, as he continuously and constantly breaks down the stereotypes that attempt to limit him.
Dr. Walton came from humble beginnings growing up in Canton, Ohio. After graduating high school in the 1960s, Dr. Walton saw his future laid out in front of him, feeling as if a script had been handed to him that said: he had no job prospects, had to leave home, and his only choice was joining the navy. His stepfather emphasized his need to leave home, as he would say, “‘Boy, when you turn 16 years old, there are 18 ways to get out of my house’…He was counting all of the windows along with the front and back doors.” He then turned to the military hoping it would provide him with some security in his life. In turn, college seemed to him to be an impossibility, as it required both money and access, neither which he had. His life so far seemed to mimic many of those around him, even his own brother, as he said that he too received the same social script after he graduated from high school a year before; as troublesome and convoluted his future was at the time, Dr. Walton emphasized that it was not an individual, exclusive experience, but rather it was the fate of many young African American men at the time.
Life suddenly took a different turn as two weeks before joining the military, Dr. Walton decided to perform in a play through his local church. Everything seemed like happenstance that his pastor couldn’t perform due to illness and Dr. Walton took his place. He traveled throughout town in many churches and one day met a young man, Dr. Nozaki. The doctor sparked up a friendly chat, asking Dr. Walton how his school was going, to which he replied he was currently not attending college and claimed it not be an option. Dr. Nozaki’s simple question: “How’s school going” caused a chain of events that changed the course of Dr. Walton’s life and future. Dr. Nozaki contacted him again and offered to get him an admission at the University of Michigan if he would not join the military.
Though still feeling unsure, Dr. Walton agreed to go up to Michigan. After many difficulties: multiple jobs, lack of resources, and once almost having to quit college for being unable to pay his fees, Dr. Walton managed to graduate from college. All during this time however, he lost contact with Dr. Nozaki, but again through happenstance, he happened to meet him in Fresno, CA many, many years later. Today, they are close friends and see each other often. Dr. Walton received many awards for his hard work in life including being promoted to the Chair of the English Department at Fresno State, along with being awarded the title of Chair of Emeritus of Africana Studies. He specializes in African American literature. Dr. Walton’s narrative proves that those scripts that are provided to us by society can be altered, as we all as individuals have agency and power.
Though I had never taken a class with him before, I had heard much about Dr. Walton as an English student. I emailed him describing the nature of this assignment, and as I expected he was very gracious enough to agree to the interview. We corresponded via email for a couple days before I finally had the honor of meeting him in person. As I walked into his office that afternoon, he said he had expected me to be a man, as he had previously known a young man named Amrit Singh. We laughed about it and he said with a smile, “well I guess this is an example of the stereotypes that cloud our minds, some preconceived notions.” Our discussion went smoothly from there, a perfect transition into discussing the nature of progressive black masculinities and their relationship to stereotypes of black men in America.
I thought it would be a good idea to begin our interview with a simple question: “What are some of the stereotypes of black men in media today?” Reflecting back to his childhood he states that he initially thought his ticket to college would be a sports scholarship; however, that dream, a dream that many young African American men have even today, was not possible in reality. We discussed how many of the images of black men in America are of sports stars, depicting a sort of single means to success for young black men. Another stereotype he mentioned was that of the “criminal.” Dr. Walton argued that rarely is a black man featured in the news unless it was related to crime. Therefore, journalism and media is often a force that perpetuates and maintains negative stereotypes of black men.
My next question revolved around the examples of progressive black masculinity, asking what are some ways to identify what is progressive. First, Dr. Walton stated that progressive masculinity can be categorized as one that shatters stereotypes, something that is unexpected but powerful. He stated that many aspects of his own life, identity and experiences qualify as such because people see him outside of what “should” popularly constitute the life, identity, and experiences of a black man. Particularly, he says that regressive black masculinity can be seen across the globe—his travels, particularly his stay in Japan. He described the ways in which his people in both in Japan and the US expressed extreme surprise at his ability to speak Japanese. Through his stories and examples he argued that there was, and is always a sense of empowerment when it comes to be a progressive black man, outside of the limitations set by stereotypes.
One of Dr. Walton’s greatest legacies as a professor, and more simply as a human being, has been to influence and inspire many students of color. Dr. Walton stated that he recognized his role as a man of color in power, particularly as a man of color in academia, where there seem somewhat less people of color to look up to. One of his mentees is a young woman from Egypt, who was writing her dissertation on African American literature. Though she was not black, she proudly identified as African, and Dr. Walton helped her counter any negative, regressive stereotypes that were thrown her way. Therefore, Dr. Walton’s progressive role as a professor, and a person of color, was not limited to benefiting people that simply looked like him, but rather he hoped to help anyone that was being pushed aside by preconceived notions. Our discussion came full circle, as again we discussed his initial reaction to me being a woman as he argued that what makes us progressive individuals is not that we have preconceived notions of each other, but that we have the power and ability to come past them and relate to one another as human beings.
Transcript (Paraphrased from notes)
Question 1– I would first like to ask you is: what are some of the most common representations of black masculinity in media and the hegemonic US society?
Answer- One of the main representations of masculinity for black men in America is that of the athlete. African Americans are very much present in sports like NBA. I also wanted to go into sports when I was younger, and thought that would be my ticket into college. The problem with that is that it’s sort of a single dream for many young black men. That’s one of the main images they see. Another image is that of the criminal. For example in the Fresno Bee, Black men are rarely featured and when they are its only as criminals. So in journalism too, you see misrepresentations and stereotypes.
Question 2-What do you think constitutes a progressive black masculinity?
Answer- We all fall prey to stereotypes and preconceived notions, I thought you were going to be a man before I saw you, but what we need to do as individuals is find a way to get passed our judgments. One time when I was in DC, a couple of Japanese women passed by and I asked them in Japanese if they were Japanese. They were so shocked to see a black man speaking Japanese! I have also been to Japan, along with Cuba and Paris. It’s difficult for people to see past their expectations, but it’s a great thing when it happens.
Question 3– What are some examples of progressive black masculinity in media?
Answer- The problem with what we consider progressive black masculinity is that if its popular with the black community it is negative in the larger popular media and visa versa. One of the larger problems with the most popular folks representing black masculinity is the problem they have with language and grammar. They act and talk the way that people expect them too based on stereotypes. Specifically, I think there needs to be more presence of black scholars in academia. In the English department I am the only African American professor and I will be retiring this semester. In comparison to the amount of minorities present in the Central Valley, there’s not enough professors of color for students of color to connect with. It is always inspiring and motivating for students to see professors like themselves in these positions. Makes them feel like they have someone to look up to.