Gerald Early

Gerald Early, editor of The Common Reader and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, professor of English and of African and African-American Studies, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Early is a native of Philadelphia and earned a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his MA and PhD from Cornell University

Posts by Gerald Early

What Our Campaign against Smoking Can Teach Us about Our Attitude toward the Unvaccinated

    In thinking about the current controversy between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, who have emerged as America’s latest special-interest identity groups, it might profit to think about the history of the conflict between smokers and non-smokers. Smokers are not precisely analogous to the unvaccinated but there are important similarities. Smoking and COVID-19 are associated […]

Happy Birthday, Chico Hamilton, Drummer of the Age of Integration

    I think I was thirteen years old when I first heard drummer Chico Hamilton. It was the summer of 1965, when I was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, that my sister bought a brand-new jazz album called El Chico. I think she bought the record for two reasons: first, it was themed as Latin […]

Leon Spinks Once Blew Up the World

    On September 15, 1978, forty-three years ago on this day, Muhammad Ali, at the age of thirty-six, became the first heavyweight champion to win the title three times.  This is a mixed distinction, as, while it may indicate tenacity and longevity to win a title three times, it also means Ali had the […]

Larry Elder’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

  Larry Elder, the Republican candidate in the California gubernatorial recall race, was chased from a homeless encampment yesterday, one of his campaign stops. The first question is, why would Elder, a conservative, fish for votes among the homeless. Any campaign operative would say that is a waste of time for him: how many of […]

Happy Birthday, Elvin Jones

    On this day (September 9), 94 years ago, jazz drummer Elvin Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan, to a musical family. He cut his teeth as a professional musician in post-WWII Detroit, a hothouse of great Black musicians that included his brothers, Thad, a cornetist, who went to considerable fame as co-leader of […]

What the Unvaccinated Can Teach Us

    The unvaccinated have been called stupid, selfish, dangerous, everything, as my mother used to say, but children of God, which, of course, whatever else they are, they are that too. Their disobedience casts a shadow that makes the virtue and rationality of the vaccinated shine all the more brightly. This reminds me of […]

The Rise and Fall of Robert Kennedy’s Mission to Save America

Rising Justice is a magisterial book by a master historian, an epic sweep of Robert Kennedy and his time as a public figure. It is not a standard biography, but it has the narrative drive of a good biography. There is precious little here about Kennedy as a father, a husband, a son, just a few bits. Much testimony but little gossip. Yet one learns a great deal about Robert Kennedy person as well as Robert Kennedy the politician.

The Wonder World of Whiteness

I am not so sure if Williamson is a conservative as much as he is a contrarian, at times a kind of White Stanley Crouch, though less verbose. At times, a kind of Hunter Thompson but less gonzo. I did not always agree with his interpretation of the world as he saw it, but I always found what he saw stimulating and more than occasionally trenchant.

The Alabama Boy Makes Good

Hank Aaron was an incredible player. He lived a long life. And he got his due, his accolades, his recognition, while he was alive. That is good. So many Black players from the Negro Leagues never did. Those Black barbers from my boyhood knew more than I did.

Think of One: A Holiday Memoir

It was Christmas and Bobby was a good boy and we worked hard for our money. All of that must mean something. What is the point of a God and His Son if this hardship does not mean anything, you know, the hardship of this life, the grinding of it cannot be pointless, can it?

Sean Connery is James Bond

Connery had achieved his fame as the definitive film version of a pulp adventure hero in a film series that became not simply successful but mythical and went out of his profession portraying a decent version of another pulp adventure hero in a vastly inferior film. His presence is the only reason the film will not ever be completely forgotten. It happens that way with actors. It happens that way with their fans too.

The Twilight’s Last Gleaming

These essays are not necessarily despairing, although they would have every right to be; rather, they are, in some ways, expressions of hope as much as they are affirmations of how the struggle of Black humanity has so deeply enriched and empowered much that is good and worthy, profoundly moral and artistically innovative about American life.

Remembering Bill Danforth

What does it mean to be great, after all?  In taking Bill’s measure, I think about Freedom and Fate, the poles around which all human lives orbit. Most of us keep them in a poor balance, misusing, abusing, and wasting our Freedom, cursing and railing against our Fate. Bill kept such an equipoise of these Lords of our Life, an easy meshing of the exuberance of Freedom and the acceptance of Fate.

The Story of the Black People Who Will Vote for Donald Trump

How can remedies for Blacks, because of their unique subjugation, be colorblind and still work? Will they not be simply co-opted by the White majority? To this, the Black conservative responds that Blacks let their race over-determine their views and their fate while intensifying their sense of alienation, failing to understand that they are Americans too and benefit from policies that are good for Americans on the whole.

Rhythm-a-ning: The Art of Knowing a Policeman Well

I was nine months old when my father died. After his death, my mother remained a widow until December 29, 1979, when she married Cooper, who, by virtue of this fact, became my step-father, although I was twenty-seven at the time and hardly in need of a new parent. But Cooper was not new to me.

The Driving Lesson

I had driven a few blocks, but pulled the car over. I looked at my daughter for a moment and realized that God does indeed give only ironic gifts.

The Way Some People Lose

Pipes’s book works hard at making Nixon-in-winter a true conservative as he emerged from his worst days of physical and emotional wreckage after leaving Washington to become a kind of consul without portfolio, the eminence grise of the Republican Party.

Take Me Out to The Ball Game

The faith Willie had in me to protect him from anything untoward, even from being hurt by the elements, mirrors the faith I had in my grandfather to protect me from the street gangs when he took me to a game over fifty years ago.

Hooray for Hollywood

To our Puritan, “agrarian” instincts, Hollywood is all that is wrong with America, the decadent city, the sin factory that has warped the culture beyond repair. Here is the trope of American declension.

Tales of a Working Girl

Day’s characters seemed to give her fans not only a coping fantasy but a sense of inspiration. One of the problems with the intelligentsia is that it will not respect or take seriously any fantasy that is not built on some idea or resistance to hegemony, which Day’s fantasy clearly was not.

The Myth of the Good Son

I suppose mothers are always trying to save their sons. And sons are always making their mothers suffer, always making their mothers need to save them. Despite my stupidity, my unworthiness, my mother was determined to save me anyhow.

Seasons of the Southpaw

The basic facts are here, from Spahn’s upbringing in Buffalo to his last year in baseball with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, as well as some useful quotes but there are two problems with Freedman’s book.

Pow! Bam! Biff! Tales of the Comic Book Wars

Slugfest is a fun book for anyone interested in comic books, in American popular culture generally, or in the obsessive and sometimes pathological nature of business competition. But it is not the incisive book about this industry that still awaits its author.

An Origin Story of the Black Elite

What we have in Black Fortune is not just a proto-black version of the Rich and the Famous, although it is on some level precisely that, but also another kind of origin story of the black elite or of a black economic elite or leisure class and how it saw its racial duties, this last being a major obsession with successful blacks.

Mothers’ Day

There was a time when I had dreams, infrequently but strikingly, that my mother had died. These occurred some years ago when I did not talk to her very regularly or see her often.

Tales of Fortress America

Corrigan’s book is well-conceived and well-executed, written with a polemical chip on its shoulder, to be sure, but with an earnest intelligence that makes it a compelling and at times even absorbing read, revealing a striking self-awareness of the stakes and the drama of the psy-war that prison custodians and their prisoners engage in.

Colin Kaepernick, Kneeling, and the Meaning of Gratitude

In some ways, the current wave of African-American football players kneeling during the national anthem replicates the Bebop revolution that changed the public persona of the black male jazz musician. Now it is black players demanding that audiences recognize that their attitude is not the same as their white peers.

Winning One for the Gipper

The story of the rise of Reagan is the story of the successful rise of movement conservatism through rebranding the Republican Party. As Shirley writes astutely, if somewhat glowingly, in Reagan Rising: “In fact, the party was broadening the base by narrowing the appeal. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the GOP, with Reagan’s gutsy leadership, was becoming one thing to all people.”

My Mother, The Star

I now think about my mother every day. I did not do this before she came to St. Louis to live. There was, in fact, a stretch of years when I did not think about her much at all …

A Tough Cop’s Patriotic Gore

Cop Under Fire is a rambling monologue, aggressively expressed if not always cogently persuasive as a set of arguments. It would serve Clarke adequately as a campaign book as it expounds his policy views in a number of areas, some only tangentially related, at best, to law enforcement.

Editor’s Note

Maybe money changed us a long time ago and there is really nothing it can do for us now as it is, in the human mind, both everything and nothing.

The Conservative’s Dilemma

Trump’s slash-and-burn march to the White House, one of the most stunning accomplishments in the annals of American politics no matter how loathsome the man may be to so many, ended the dynastic claims of two powerful political families: The Republican Bushes and the Democrat Clintons.

The King of Panama

Roberto Durán made and spent millions, winding up broke, as most poor boys who became successful athletes do. During his salad days, he had a huge entourage, manzanillos, the “Panamanian slang for people who leech off the rich and famous,” as Durán puts it in his autobiography, to whom he gave away thousands a day. He drank, ate, whored, had children out of wedlock for which his wife forgave him. He apologizes for none of it. His autobiography is a defense of his life, an apologia, not an expression of contrition.

Lady and the Trump

For Schlafly, Trump, as a personality, is clearly a break from the moderately conservative Republican nominees of the last few elections like Romney and McCain, which is part of Trump’s appeal. His crudity, his bluntness, and his bouts of incoherence are signs of authenticity, of an utter refusal to submit to the sensibilities of liberal/leftist zeitgeist.

Who is the Tall, Dark Stranger there in My Living Room?[1]

In the days when it was a piece of furniture, TV was both the dark mahogany stranger in the house and the loyal companion, both threatening and familiar, something that seemed to control and something that seemed to transport. The mistake people today make is assuming that television audiences of 50 years ago were more naïve than they are today.

Why I Am Not a Liberal

In There Goes My Social Life Dash believes she can see outside herself because she has placed herself outside the mainstream of her racial group by being a conservative Republican. But this move has given her distance, not perspective.

Tales of the Fight Game

Both the LeDoux and Inoki fights are mere footnotes on Muhammad Ali’s athletic resume. Yet Paul Levy’s biography of LeDoux, The Fighting Frenchman, and Josh Gross’s exhaustive account of Ali vs. Inoki, give readers another way of looking at fights that elevated their importance, if not for Ali, then for the men who opposed him in these bouts.

Horns On Film

Twenty films on, and about, jazz hit every note in the genre. And then some.

Winning is the Only Thing

Pitch by Pitch is exactly what its title states: Gibson describes the first game of the World Series by recounting every pitch he threw in the game and why he threw it. (He also analyzes every pitch McLain and the opposition threw as well.) It is as detailed an account as a reader can ever get of how strenuous pitching is

How the West Was Re-Won

The Magnificent Seven became a defining masculinist film in a way few other films of its era could match. No character emerged more stylized from the film that Brynner’s character Chris, and the film itself symbolized the liberal, consensus, interventionist politics of the Cold War era.

Fate and the City

With New York City’s most iconic mayor and most adored athlete as central characters, Sean Deveney tells us a 1960s tale of missed chances, of rebels with a cause whose success adumbrated their larger failure in an ironic, but unmistakable, way.

Southern Comic Valentine

There was something about Mayberry that evoked a kind of Southern nowhere-ness. It was the not the New South of Henry Grady, not the romanticized South of a natural and benign unequal social order like Thomas Nelson page’s. How could Mayberry be that when it had, amazingly, no black people?

Editor’s Note(s)

I guest-edited an issue of Daedalus on American Music in 2013 and did not think I would revisit the subject quite so soon with this issue of The Common Reader on popular music.  In some ways, it is quite fortunate that I have looked at the subject of music in such different forums so recently.  […]

The Queen of the Kingdom of Swing

Despite a mountain of insecurities and sheer craziness, Peggy Lee remained undaunted. Engaging, and at times challenging, she made remarkably sophisticated music well into the 1980s, refusing to be an oldies act. But perhaps her greatest claim to public attention was that the blonde, North Dakota-born singer sounded black.


Two new biographies reveal that police work is not so simple and straight-forward—cops versus robbers, order versus chaos—as many might think. Those enlisted in the job of enforcing the law are more complicated in their impulses and motivations, more conflicted or contradictory as human beings about the meaning of what they are doing, than partisans of either side willing to concede.

“From Memphis to New Orleans”

A journey down the Mississippi River shows that our search for authenticity recedes forever. Like the horizon at the end of the mind, it is always just around the bend in the river.

The Ripley Effect

As children, all of us thought that what made Believe It or Not so compulsively readable, so seductive, was the strange facts we learned. It was not until I was a bit older, a college student, that I discovered that this was not true, certainly not entirely so.

The Birth of The Coolth

Americans were more fully aware that modern life, urban life in the late 19th century, made heat more unbearable than ever. As Salvatore Basile writes in Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything: “America was realizing that a heat wave was much more unpleasant in cities than in rural areas: the larger the city, the more brick and stone and human bodies, the more hellishly hot it felt.” A man-made heat was being created that could only be controlled, ultimately, by man-made cooling. Slowly, inchoately, but tenaciously, the quest for coolth had begun.

Hearn’s “Memphis To New Orleans”

The Common Reader’s inaugural essay by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the most acclaimed journalists of the 19th century. Born 1850 in Lefkada, Greece, Hearn became most famous for his writings about Japan. Before that, however, he was a well-known New Orleans journalist.

Do The Right Thing

“Most blacks, without question, would rather be successful capitalists, however “exploitative” of land and labor, than wards in an egalitarian socialist state because, in the end, even members of a persecuted group, the dream is to have power, not justice. Or put another way, the acquisition of power becomes its own form of justice. The problem with Riley’s book is not its conservative message, but that the message is not sufficiently framed to appeal to black folk’s sense of racial destiny and pride. In short, it is insufficiently chauvinistic, less chauvinistic than the title promises.”

Prose With A Purpose

Editor Gerald Early welcomes readers to The Common Reader, Washington University in St. Louis’s new interdisciplinary journal, with a full menu of articles about issues of the day, and special events in the future.

Jackie Robinson in his U.S. Army uniform.

Back-Seat Rebel

Jackie Robinson’s famous 1944 court-martial revealed not just the hierarchy of power in language, but also the tension between the U.S. Army’s efforts of integration and the ongoing struggle of black soldiers in their fight against Jim Crow.

The Show of Shows

Kevin Cook writes an informative, insightful biography of Comedian Flip Wilson, the first black entertainer to successfully host a TV variety show. Gerald Early reviews Flip: The Inside Story of TV’s First Black Superstar.