1996-Blyden Jackson

Report of the Hubbell Committee

The members of the 1996 Jay B. Hubbell Award Committee were Jonathan Arac, Jackson Bryer, John Seelye, Eric Sundquist, and I, this year’s chair of the committee. Official deliberations to select an awardee began in the late summer when the members agreed to continue to follow the standard policy of previous years: i.e., to consider only nominees from among scholars at the end of their careers. This matter has been an issue of concern for the committee during my entire tenure as one of its members. This year, as in others of which I am aware, there was a strong feeling among some of us that the current policy deprives some groups, women in general and minority group scholars, most of whom have come into the profession only in recent years and will be ineligible for the prize anytime soon. Others are equally strongly in favor of continuing in the spirit in which the prize was first conceived. And while this latter group agrees that the end-of-career designation is a problem for women and minority groups at this time, given their large influx into the profession, their productivity, and the impact they are making in the field, the problem will disappear before long. I suspect that this will not be the last time the matter will be discussed by this committee.

From this starting point, I circulated the names of unsuccessful nominees from previous years among committee members and invited them to make deletions and/or additional nominee suggestions as they saw fit. When the names were assembled, there were two rounds of voting: the first to establish the top five candidates, the second to establish the nominee with the largest number of votes. In the second round, each committee member allotted points, from five (highest) to one (lowest) to each nominee on the list. The winning nominee this year is Professor Blyden Jackson, Professor Emeritus, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. E-mail and facsimile communication greatly facilitated the process this year and enabled me to move it to a successful conclusion very speedily.

Following the voting I communicated the result to Professors Susan Belasco Smith (Executive Coordinator) and William L. Andrews. Unfortunately, a serious illness in Professor Jackson’s family made it very difficult to communicate with him directly, but through the efforts of Professors Smith, Andrews and me, he was appropriately informed of the award as soon as that was possible.

Nellie Y. McKay
U of Wisconsin, Madison


This award is named for Jay B. Hubbell, who in the 1920s, with the help of a group of other visionary scholars, became perhaps the person most responsible for the establishment of the professional study of American literature distinct from British literature. Professor Hubbell, a native of Virginia, received his Ph.D. from Columbia U and after teaching first at Bethel College in Kentucky, Wake Forest U, and Southern Methodist U, he went to Duke U for most of his career. It was there that he founded and edited the journal American Literature. That journal, we know, continues to provide one of the most important forums for the dissemination of American literary scholarship. The Hubbell Award came into being in 1964 when it was established by the American Literature Section of our profession. It honors scholars for lifetime contributions to the field. The members of the 1996 Hubbell Prize Committee are Professors Jonathan Arac, Jackson Bryer, John Seelye, Eric Sundquist, and I, who served as chair of the Committee. It gives me great pleasure to announce that this year’s recipient of the Hubbell Award is Blyden Jackson, Emeritus Professor of the U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Blyden Jackson was born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1910. His mother was a librarian in the “colored branch” of the local library; his father, a school principal and history teacher. Although his grandparents were born slaves, by the time young Blyden knew them, half a century after emancipation, both of his grandfathers were African Methodist Episcopal ministers. In 1914, he moved with his family to Louisville, where he attended public school through the 12th grade. He earned his A.B. From Wilberforce U in Ohio in 1930 and entered Columbia U as a graduate student. In 1932, without money or the degree he had hoped to achieve, he left the university, although not Harlem, and had an opportunity to witness the final phase of the Harlem Renaissance, even to live in the same building as, only two doors away from, poet Langston Hughes. From New York, Jackson went to the U of Michigan, where he received his M.A. in English in 1938 and his Ph.D. in 1952.

Following in his father’s professional footsteps, Jackson has had teaching as the consistent thread running through his career of almost 50 years. His colleagues consider him a “crackerjack” professor; his former students report that he seemed to have read everything, was always animated and full of fast recall and sharp anecdotes. However, his career began humbly, with Works Progress Administration night classes and junior high school English classes in Louisville 1934-45. During those years he led the fight that ended a two-tier salary system in which black public school teachers in Louisville earned 15 percent less than their white counterparts. In 1945 Jackson left Louisville for Fisk U in Nashville, Tennessee, for a position as assistant professor. Later, in 1954, he became an associate professor there. At Southern U, his next stop, he was Professor of English and Head of the Department of English 1954-62; then, while still teaching, he served as the Dean of the Graduate School until 1969. In 1969 he accepted a position at the U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where, from 1973 to 1976, he continued to teach and was Associate Dean of the Graduate School. In 1976 he became a Special Assistant to the Dean before retiring from active teaching and administrative duties in 1981.

During these years, Professor Jackon received many awards and other distinctions and gave generously of his time to serve the profession he chose. He was president of the Louisville Association of Teachers in Colored Schools from 1940-42 and president of the Association from 1942-44. From 1947 to 1949 he held a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and was a Fellow at the University of Michigan. He served as vice-president of the College Language Association 1957- 59. I note here that the CLA, an organization founded in the 1920s by black scholars and open to everyone else as well, came into being at a time when black scholars did not feel welcomed by the MLA. Like MLA members, CLA members taught, wrote, and held conventions about English and American literature, as well as literatures in foreign languages. From 1968 to 1969 Jackson was Vice-President of the Southern Association of Land Grant Colleges and State Universities. Over many years he served on the advisory and editorial boards of several journals, including CLA Journal and the Southern Literary Journal. In the 1970s, in the sixth decade of his life, Professor Jackson was especially active professionally. In 1970 he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the National Council of Teachers of English, served as the chair of the College Section 1971-73 and was a trustee and member of its research foundation 1974-77. From 1974 to 1977 he was also a member of the executive committee of the MLA’s Division of Twentieth-Century American Literature (chair in 1976); and a member of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly 1974-76. From 1974 to 1975 he served on the Post-Secondary Taskforce of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; was a member of the board of directors of the Southern Fellowships Fund 1976-81; became the first Portia Pittman Visiting Fellow at Tuskegee Institute in 1977; and again was a member of the executive committee of the MLA’s American Literature Division 1977-79. Still very active in the 1980s, he spent time as a Visiting Professor in several colleges and universities across the country, including the U of Delaware, Wayne State U, the U of Mississippi, Tougaloo College, and Dillard U.

Among his many awards, Professor Jackson received an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Wilberforce U in 1977; an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the U of Louisville in 1978; and a Distinguished Ph.D. Alumni Award from the U of Michigan in 1988. In 1985 the U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

With so much of his time devoted to teaching and service, Professor Jackson yet made room for scholarly activities. Between 1940 and the late 1980s he published close to fifty essays and almost two dozen book reviews. Essays and book reviews appeared in such venues as The South Atlantic Quarterly, The Journal of Negro Education, Negro American Literature Forum (now African-American Review ), Phylon, The Michigan Alumni Quarterly, CLA, Southern Literary Journal, College English, American Literature, and University of Mississippi Studies. His books include The Waiting Years (1976); A History of Afro-American Literature, Vol. 1, The Long Beginning, 1746-1895 (1989); Black Poetry in America (1974); The History of Southern Literature (1974); and two anthologies edited with Louis Rubin and others.

Blyden Jackson spent his life as an academician, an academician of African heritage who was always conscious of race but who also refused to be diminished by it. An activist in the best sense of that word, he ended his long career as he began: breaking boundaries in education–as the first African-American to hold the rank of full professor in one of the South’s most respected universities. As a “first,” in this case, even in the 1970s, his position at Chapel Hill was not always an easy one. Colleagues give him credit for his thoughtfulness and level-headedness, which paved the way for those who followed him. Until serious illness in his family intervened, Professor Jackson had high hopes of completing his four-volume narrative history of African-American literature. The first volume (mentioned above), 461 pages, established his place as an authority in the field. Still, if he never has the opportunity to complete this project, his influence will long outlive him in the influences of the many whom he mentored now wielding influences of their own, some of whom are familiar to most people in our profession–luminaries like William L. Andrews, Thadious Davis, and Trudier Harris.

Although I was never his student, I have great respect for Blyden Jackson as a citizen of the profession and for his scholarly work. In addition, I can verify, first hand, that he was a crackerjack teacher. I met him only once, in the early 1970s. I was a graduate student then on a short visit to Chapel Hill. I was also just beginning to write my dissertation on Jean Toomer. I knew of Professor Jackson and of his early years in Harlem, including his contact with the writers of the Renaissance. Professor Jackson graciously agreed to see me on short notice. I was much younger than he and extremely effusive on the topic of my work. I had hoped that Professor Jackson had met Toomer, but although he had not, that did not dampen my spirits, and I was bent on letting him know how much I knew about Toomer. Then, in the midst of my animated presentation, he stopped me. “Young lady, I know you think of yourself as black,” he said quietly. That was indeed the word I had been using with great gusto to speak about all things relating to people of my racial group in America. “But,” he continued, “I am not black, I am a Negro. My generation fought too hard to have others use the word ‘Negro’ in a way that showed us dignity for me to give it up, I will always be proud to be a NEGRO.” Needless to say, I was chastened, but his manner of “teaching” was such that instead of feeling crushed by his professional authority, I realized that I was in the kind of learning experience I could not have foretold. I have never forgotten that incident; and I repeat it often to my own students who, sometimes confused by the plethora of names by which people of African heritage in America now call themselves, ask me which of these names I would prefer them to use in their papers. I tell them that it does not matter as long as it is one they can use with respect. “As for me,” I say to them, “in my generation we named ourselves BLACK, and I will always be proud to be a black woman.” I will be forever grateful to Blyden Jackson for giving me the fullness of his insight in the manner that he did. On behalf of the Hubbell Prize Committee, I am pleased to award this recognition for lifetime achievement to Professor Blyden Jackson.

Nellie McKay
U of Wisconsin, Madison