Washington University professor Gerald Early was born and raised in the Italian area of South Philadelphia known as Southwark. It was the setting for the story of Rocky Balboa, a nobody-boxer—played legendarily by Sylvester Stallone—who overcame the odds to become world heavyweight champ. The movie was pure fiction but Southwark neighborhood was a very real place, and the professor is one of its real-life over-comers. “I did have this integrated background with these Italian families whom I admired,” he remembers. “They were working-class people, mostly shop-owners, who were trying to get ahead. They were connected to the old country, and the older ones still spoke Italian. I learned a lot about this other culture.”
Early’s father died suddenly when Gerald was less than a year old, leaving behind a young wife with three small children. Early says despite the fact that some of the people in the neighborhood had typical 1950s racial views, his family felt encouraged and embraced by the community as a whole. “The old Italians would tell me, Look, in this world, you can either be on the menu or you can order from the menu. Gerry, you’re one of these people. You can eat—you don’t have to be eaten.” He chuckles as he thinks back. “They would say, Oh you’re not like those other black people. All you could do was laugh.” His mother made a modest living as a teacher’s aide but made sure all her children went to college. His sisters went to Temple University and became early Civil Rights activists. Gerald graduated from Pennsylvania and earned his doctorate from Cornell.
For the past 32 years in St. Louis, Early has distinguished himself as a writer, essayist and respected professor of English, and African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University. In August, he and his wife, Ida, will have been married for 37 years. They have two grown daughters and two grandchildren. Last year, Early was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the board of the National Council on the Humanities.
In other words, Gerald Early is the real deal. He has written books on music and musicians, boxers, baseball and American culture. Even famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns credits Early as an inspiration for his own work, citing this quote from Early: When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They're the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created. Burns has said his documentary work is an attempt to “honor that statement.”
Early is as admired and respected as anyone in our town, yet he realizes that his life is an exception to that of many African-American men. He has seen much change but racism still is pervasive, and part of his work today is trying to understand why. “If it was fully understood…the extent of what happened to black people in this country…then there would be this all-out effort to correct it,” he says. “What makes black people different in this country is that we were slaves—slavery is an awful institution. It degrades people so much, and it’s still a real effort by African-Americans to overcome the degradation that came with that.”
And just like the Rocky character, even Early sometimes wonders if he really has been able to rise above. “Sometimes I think I have, and sometimes I think I haven’t. There are times when you think to yourself, Maybe I’m not as good at this as a white person might be. And you begin to have doubts about yourself based on your race, and you get angry about certain things. You think things are caused by your race, even if they aren’t.” He uses a borrowed boxing comparison to make his point. “The writer Ralph Ellison once said sometimes black people have been so conditioned that they start ducking even when nobody is throwing any punches.”
As we sit in his book-filled office, we both wonder why Americans don’t cheer more for black underdogs the way we pulled for Rocky. To that, he says, “Using the Rocky metaphor, I would say you do have to prove something, you feel like you are the constant underdog and things are working you.”
Even an accomplished man like Early has self-doubt. The stone walls of Washington University are a long way from South Philly, but the memories of that kid from Southwark are still strong. “I saw a lot of boxing. I grew up in a neighborhood where both the Italians and blacks thought a guy should know how to handle his dukes,” he explains. “I wasn’t very good at it, I got beat up—I tried.”
In spite of his pugilistic shortcomings. I think even Rocky Balboa would be inspired.