James Turner, the founding director of Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center and a major contributor to Pan-African studies, died Aug. 6 here in Ithaca at the age of 82.
Turner’s contributions to the discipline of Africana studies are enormous, and some of us as members of Cadre have benefited personally from this scholarship as students at Cornell in Africana classes or with Professors in the department. Turner made immense contributions specifically to the Black Radical Tradition that leftists across the United States and the world have learned from; he was a teacher in the lineage of radical pedagogy.
Turner’s philosophy was shaped by his encounters with Malcolm X at a young age. He would often see Malcolm X speaking on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, an experience that would greatly shape him. That encounter as a student and a young listener to Malcolm X’s teachings imparted lessons that would shape him as an educator. “Malcolm was a master teacher,” Turner once said. “You couldn’t listen to him and not come away with something. It was more than charisma, it was the way he was able to use the language of our people and make (them) understand.” That practice of “Grounding” as elaborated by Walter Rodney remains the best way of conveying revolutionary education.
Turner became deeply involved as a student activist in the Civil Rights Era. As a 26-year-old Northwestern University graduate student, Turner led more than 100 Black students to conduct a two-day sit-in at the university bursar’s office to protest discrimination and improve campus conditions. This radicalism at a young age inspires us all and shapes the specifically radical pedagogy he would impart at Cornell - a strong blend of theory and praxis.
Students at Cornell are very familiar with the events that would precipitate the founding of the Africana Center. The Willard Straight Hall Takeover epitomized the radicalism of the “global sixties”, as Black students occupied the student center with weapons to demand the university address their demands. There was no more time for reformism, and the Africana Center emerged as a response, showing how radicalism can win key demands and foster more critical scholarship. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”.
As the founding director, Turner would invite luminaries like James Baldwin, Eleanor Taylor, Vincent Harding, and Sonia Sanchez to speak at Cornell, again offering students an unparalleled opportunity for learning. He would help advance the interdisciplinary, international scholarship that today takes a look at Africa and the diaspora from multiple perspectives, above all focused on action.
His work outside Cornell also demands note. During the 1970's, he was the national organizer of the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee. In 1974, he served as chair of the North American delegation to the Sixth Pan African Congress, and in 1973, he co-chaired the International Congress of Africanists in Ethiopia. His work in the TransAfrica organization helped expose the secret strategy meetings between the Apartheid South African government and the Ronald Reagan administration and formulate the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. His scholarship on Malcolm X would inform the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize”.
Above all, his legacy is a reminder of the power of radical pedagogy to impact the world. We have benefitted from his emphasis on theory and praxis, and hope to continue his legacy as an educator with our contributions to educating fellow students around the world on the power of radical, revolutionary thought. Rest in Power.
By Joseph Mullen