Dear Dr. Coleman:
I met you as a quiet, probably a little odd, twenty-year-old college senior from Florida A&M University, crazy about D. H. Lawrence. I had come as a participant in the MURAP program—the Minority Undergraduate Research Assistant Program—scared and unsure of what the ten-week summer would bring. I remember our first meeting. I discussed plans to talk about the psychological underpinnings of Lawrence’s novels. You listened intently, patiently, to my ramblings. (I laugh now, too.) Like many students with “new knowledge,” I had just finished my first critical theory course at FAMU and learned about psychological criticism and Freud, so naturally I thought I could “expand” that knowledge with my own psychological reading of Lawrence, who spoke to that shy, again a little odd, twenty-year-old just finding herself. With a wry smile, you listened to me rant on about my love for Lawrence and encouraged me to explore that love further. Oblivious then, I know Lawrence was not your point of interest when this young African American woman from a small, rural town in North Florida called Jasper (far removed from Lawrence’s world) decided that Lawrence was her new passion, but never did you make me feel like you didn’t want to take the journey with me. Instead, you introduced me to Lacan and read innumerable drafts of my “Lacanian Musings on the Works of D. H. Lawrence.” You championed me and supported me and opened me up to a world of thought and ideas I didn’t know existed. When I was chosen as one of the student speakers for the MURAP conference that summer, I was proud of our accomplishments, but I also remember wanting to be sure to do a good job in tribute to you and all the ways you helped me find my confidence and my voice that summer. For the first time, I felt sure that I could get a PhD, that I could do the work and thrive.
Recently, I was asked to give a talk to a group of faculty and students who had come to Virginia Tech for a summit working to form partnerships between Virginia Tech and HBCUs. I struggled to know what to write or say, not wanting to sound clichéd or trite. I was asked to talk about my “path to the PhD”—a talk I’ve given many times before, but one which took on great significance to me this time. I had invited a group of students and faculty from my alma mater, FAMU, to attend. Their presence and my current work to reach back and help other students get to the PhD, immediately brought up thoughts of my parents and the Depression-era, Jim Crow-era journeys they took to a college degree, and then to you—the mentor, the rock-solid force of support whom I met more than twenty years ago—and your pivotal role in helping me get a PhD. Suddenly, I knew it would be a speech about those who had helped me obtain the PhD more than it would be about me.
As cliché as it may sound, I wouldn’t be where I am today, with the opportunity to reach back and give other students a door to the PhD, if it hadn’t been for you. From the very start, you saw potential and promise in me and helped me to flower. When I entered Chapel Hill as a master’s student in 1997, I came knowing that I could do the work necessary to obtain a PhD. I didn’t know if I would achieve it, but I knew I had a strong force of faith and will in my corner that would do everything he could to help me succeed. When it seemed as if I wouldn’t finish, when others doubted me, you believed in me and helped pull me through. You took my love of Lawrence and helped me combine it with my love of African American Literature in a thesis examining the relationship between the two. When you agreed to serve as my dissertation director, I felt like our journey was only continuing the path ordained for it those many years ago. You made sure that I didn’t abandon my ideas or vision about African American literature, despite those who doubted or contested it. Through all of the ups and downs of obtaining the PhD, your office, your voice was always a haven. You always had a smile, a reassuring word, a firm hug steeling me to face any challenges that came my way. I would see you running in the middle of the day, at the peak of the hot, humid North Carolina sun, or hear you talk about your four a.m. rise to prayer and writing, and marvel at your dedication and discipline. I strove to bring that to my own work and life. More importantly, you were family—so much so that my father and mother, sister, other people in my life, would always ask me, “How’s Dr. Coleman?” You have always been with me, showing me the way.
Even when I decided to take a job in the mountains of Virginia, you were with me. I arrived in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the summer of 2004 to take on a new position as an Assistant Professor of English. One day, while unpacking boxes and arranging items in my new home, I stopped to check my mail. I had received a small manila envelope from a Chapel Hill address unknown to me. In it, another former UNC professor had enclosed a copy of the Daily Tar Heel with a picture of you and me at my hooding ceremony. There you were, placing the hood over my head, the final step toward the PhD. It was the best graduation present I got. It was as if you were giving me one last pep talk, one last sage piece of advice, one last firm hug to steel me as I started the next stage of my journey. That picture, along with another picture of you, my parents, and me at that same hooding ceremony, is one of my most cherished pictures. I look at them in moments when I’m asked to reflect on my journey or when I doubt myself. I am reminded of you and all the people who continue to champion me and pull me through.
I couldn’t have become Dr. Gena E. Chandler without you, Dr. Coleman. I can’t give any talk about my path, my journey to the PhD, without you in it—without acknowledging how an extraordinary man of extraordinary intellect, of extraordinary kindness, of extraordinary discipline and faith, helped me to believe in myself when few did and helped me to be in a place now to help others.
I am eternally grateful, thankful, blessed to have known you, Dr. Coleman. I love you more than words can express.