Eighty years ago, a prominent black intellectual disappeared from the historical record. Jeffrey B. Perry rescued him from oblivion. (Interview)





The most exciting and eagerly awaited title in this season’s haul from the scholarly presses is Jeffrey B. Perry’s study Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, just published by Columbia University Press. Well, eagerly awaited by me, anyway.... The world at large has not exactly been clamoring for a gigantic biography of Hubert Harrison — whose name, until quite recently, was little known even to specialists in African-American political and intellectual history. But that started to change over the past few years, thanks to Perry’s decades of research and advocacy.

The two volumes of essays collected by Harrison during his lifetime have been out of print since the 1920s. A major step forward in his rediscovery came in 2001, when Wesleyan University Press published A Hubert Harrison Reader, edited by Perry, who also prepared a thorough entry on him for Wikipedia. (This can’t have hurt: Where a Google search once turned up a dozen or so pages mentioning Harrison, it now yields thousands.)

Last month, Perry sat down with me for an interview, excerpts from which are available here as an Inside Higher Ed podcast. The night before, he had spoken at a Washington, D.C., bookstore; to judge by the warmth of that talk’s reception it seems fair to say that a wider public is ready to rediscover Harrison now. Besides traveling around giving talks to promote the book, Perry is also busy preparing a digital archive of Harrison’s work, to be made available soon by Columbia University....

As luck would have it, I ran into a guy handing out fliers for Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism at a conference at Columbia University last month. He was a retired postal worker (white like me) and prone to considerable animation as he talked about the book, which, it turned out, he had written.

I say “it turned out” because Perry is strikingly unproprietary about his book. He displayed very little ego regarding it. Starting to say something about the thoroughness of his research on this or that topic, he would catch himself, seem embarrassed at the presumption, then insist that younger scholars were bound to discover more than he had. (Having gone over his footnotes, I want to wish them luck with that.)

After a while, this began to seem less like shyness than a matter of absolute concentration on Harrison himself. But I wanted to find out how it had come to pass that Perry discovered Harrison – let alone persuaded Columbia University Press to publish a two-volume biography. (The second part, covering the final decade of Harrison’s life, is now in progress.)

It’s neither a short nor a simple tale. Perry graduated from Princeton in 1968 and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a year or so — making straight A’s, he says, “until I had an opportunity to travel by land through the Americas and took it. I went to Argentina and back.” In 1974, he took a job at the New Jersey International Bulk Mail Center and joined the postal workers’ union. He retired in June 2007....



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