Gerald Early’s St. Louis Walk of Fame induction ceremony talk

Gerald L. Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis, delivered the following address during his induction ceremony into the St. Louis Walk of Fame April 11 on Delmar Boulevard in The Loop.

Also speaking during the ceremony was Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Joe Edwards, founder of the St. Louis Walk of Fame and owner of numerous Loop businesses, including Blueberry Hill and the Moonrise Hotel, where the ceremony took place.

St. Louis Walk of Fame induction ceremony talk by Gerald Early

It is difficult to give an appropriate response to receiving an honor like this. To say that you don’t deserve it assails the judgment of the people who chose you for it. To say that you deserve it is an admission that you don’t know how to judge yourself objectively. So, as with any gift, it is best simply to accept it with gratitude.

I wish to thank Joe Edwards for establishing the Walk of Fame and for his kindness. Of course, I thank all the people who voted for me to have this plaque. It would not have been possible for me to have won this award without the support of Washington University, which has been so central to my career. I am indebted to the leadership there, Chancellors Danforth and Wrighton and to the various deans of Arts and Sciences who helped me.

I am exceedingly grateful to various colleagues and friends in the English department, in African and African-American Studies, at the Center for the Humanities, and in other departments and schools around the university for what they have done for me. I have the pleasure of working with many fine, very smart, and honorable people. I’ve learned a great deal from my peers.

I regret that the late Jim McLeod is not here today. He was very important to my development during his years as director of the African and African-American Studies Program. He would have been pleased to see me get this sort of recognition. He always believed in my possibilities.

I serve on the boards of several nonprofits in St. Louis and I am grateful to them for permitting me the opportunity to work with them in fulfilling their missions. To do such work is a privilege.

In particular, I wish to thank Bob Archibald, former president of the Missouri History Museum, for permitting me to do two major projects: the Miles Davis exhibit and the Seeking St. Louis writers project, which resulted in two of my most important books, Miles Davis and American Culture and Ain’t But A Place: African American Writings about St. Louis. I am proud of these books and humbled that Bob thought I had the skill to do them.

I owe much to my family, my daughters Rosalind and Linnet, who have grown up to be such mature, responsible adults, my son-in-law, Stan, a good father, husband, and scholar, and my grandsons William and Stanley.

If anyone deserves a plaque like this, it is my wife, Ida, for all her civic work, for her path- breaking leadership of the Junior League, for all the difference that she has made at Washington University, and for her devotion to St. Louis’s nonprofit world. She has always been my model citizen. I wish I had half her zeal and commitment, half her moral clarity and common sense sympathy.

I am so very glad that my mother, my sister, and my cousin are here from Philadelphia for this occasion. My mother, a widow during my childhood and adolescence, provided me with a wonderful childhood and gave me a set of tough, realistic values by which to measure and criticize life. My sister introduced me to books and music. I was the only kid in my neighborhood who had a sister who read to him stories by Charles Dickens and played for him records by Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta. And my cousin was with me when I first became a published writer while I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

I am pleased as well that my in-laws from Dallas, Texas, are here: My mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my niece-in-law. They are all such good and generous people who have been so supportive of me over the years. I am honored that they took the time to be here today.

It is clear that many can make a claim to a small piece of this plaque. No one does anything solely through his or her own efforts. No one is his or her own invention. We are rather cobbled together piecemeal by a network of unexpected influences. These influences do not even sort themselves out in the end as good or bad but rather as those we need, those we like, those we think we understand, and those we crave to exorcise but can’t.

I grew up in what today might be called an inner-city neighborhood in South Philadelphia that was made up of African Americans and Italian Americans almost in equal number. The adults were all working class and, no matter their race, they were all conservative people.

Mine was the generation of the Baby Boomers and our parents went through their childhood and teen years during the Depression and World War II. It was those years that formulated their conservative views, their belief in the power of the Christian church, in the necessity of school, the sanctity of marriage, the shame of teen pregnancy, the need for a man to earn enough to support a wife and children, the need for a woman to be a good mother and housewife and to keep an eye on the neighborhood during the day, the wonders of home ownership.

They believed that too much egalitarianism was a form of decadence, and harbored great suspicions of a new trend afoot called credit cards. I was taught it was horrible to borrow money but lots of adults then were buying on the “e-z” installment plan and borrowing from credit unions. Nearly everyone smoked including many of us kids. Everyone was on the lookout for a buck and a little luck, so everyone, black and white, played the illegal lottery. And nearly everyone, black and white, went to the nearby Catholic elementary school every week to play bingo.

Several of the black women in the neighborhood cleaned the homes of some of the white women; and many black teens worked in the small shops owned by the Italians and the Jews. Many of the blacks in the neighborhood lived in housing projects; none of the whites did. There was an overt racial hierarchy and we had our share of racial conflict. But surprisingly people got on with one another reasonably well.

Everyone in the neighborhood believed in unions and voted for Democratic Party every election because everyone could count on Democrat politicians like Rep. Bill Barrett to do favors for you like getting your kid out of jail without paying bail if he had been arrested on a misdemeanor or getting your driver’s license back after it had been suspended for drunk driving, or helping your kid get out of the army without being dishonorably discharged or helping your kid get into the police academy or something like that.

Our politics was the ideology of patronage. This working class conservatism had severe shortcomings as it was partly built on intolerance, superstition, political corruption, and prideful ignorance but there was much about this community’s conservatism that made my childhood stable and warm and rich in the gifts of ordinary life, even if it was narrow in its exposure and unenlightened about the wider world. I am what this neighborhood made me.

A few years ago I took my daughter Rosalind on a walking tour of this neighborhood. She was surprised by how modest it was, despite a few touches of gentrification. She was even more surprised when we ran into people, black and white, who knew me, had grown up with me, and remembered me despite the fact that I had not lived there for over 35 years and had not seen these people in years.

She was surprised as well that I was held in such esteem by them. “I was lucky. The people in this neighborhood always believed in my possibilities,” I said to her.

When we arrived at an old ball field, I told her a story of how I used to play baseball for my elementary school team, how bad I was as a player then, and how the kids and the gym teacher made me a catcher, a position nobody wanted to play. I was afraid of the ball, afraid of being hit by the bat when I was catching, afraid of striking out when I was batting, which I always did. The opposition called me the automatic out, the clown, hole in the glove, and the weakling.

One day I was really struggling, making errors and striking out, and I was getting razed by both the opposing team and my own teammates who yelled at me “Why the hell can’t you hit anything?” So, finally, I simply sat down on the bench, started to cry, and refused to play anymore. I was tired of being humiliated.

The gym teacher was furious with me and told me I wouldn’t amount to much of a man if I couldn’t take adversity, if I couldn’t take some hazing. Look at what Jackie Robinson had to take, he said. That odd appeal to racial pride might have worked but I was only 10 years old and was convinced in my child’s mind that Jackie Robinson could not have suffered nearly as much as I had.

The opposition really gave it to me and called me a sissy, a crybaby, and the like. But my teammates did not raze me or even get mad, they came over and earnestly talked me back into playing. They told me not to let them down and we had to stick together as a team. As bad as I was, they still wanted me.

My best friend, Benny, handed me the catcher’s mask and mitt and said, “God hates a coward.” He grew up to become a preacher and was always a devout kid. So I went back into the game. In the last inning of that game, we were ahead by one run. The opposition had a runner on first with two outs and the batter hits a ball into the gap. The kid on first was tearing around the bases. Amazingly, we made absolutely perfect relays and I got the ball just as this husky kid came barreling toward the plate and he ran right over me, flattened me completely. I actually saw stars. That’s how hard he hit me.

Rosalind thought the story had a sad ending. She thought the opposition won.

Oh no, I told her. The kid was out. I tagged him and held on to the ball. It didn’t matter that he knocked me into the middle of next week. We won the game and I was a hero.

I told her that I learned everything from that game. First, I learned that while I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was. And that I didn’t need to be better than everyone else. I only needed to be the best at the crucial moment when it counted most.

Second, the only way to stop being embarrassed and humiliated was to get better. There is a certain kernel of cruelty in all learning. Third, from time to time, you need someone who believes in your possibilities to tell you to trust your stuff, as they say in baseball, because God does indeed hate a coward.

Rosalind thought it was a good story. She understood the neighborhood was more than she thought it was, it had more to offer than was apparent on its surface.

I also learned one other thing, I told her. Long before Tom Hanks said it in a movie, I learned that there is no crying in baseball.