Kennell Jackson, historian of Africa and longtime resident fellow, dead at 64


Kennell Jackson

Kennell A. Jackson Jr., a professor of African history who served as Branner Hall's resident fellow for a quarter century and as director of the African and African American Studies Program for close to a decade, died Nov. 21 of pulmonary fibrosis at Stanford Hospital. He was 64.

A service celebrating Jackson's life will be held in Memorial Church in January. A date and time will be announced later in Stanford Report.

The son of a schoolteacher and a building contractor, Jackson attended segregated schools in Farmville, Va. He earned a bachelor's degree from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in 1962 and went on to win fellowships to study at the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Ghana and Cambridge University, before earning his doctorate from UCLA. He joined Stanford's faculty as an assistant professor in 1969.

History Professor Richard Roberts called Jackson a "pioneer" in the history of East Africa. "He was always interested in the local meanings of changes in popular culture, particularly among the Kamba, [an ethnic group in central Kenya]," Roberts said, adding, "He was especially interested in the interpretation of the first generation of African nationalist leaders," especially Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana, and Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania. Roberts said that Jackson's work in African history provided a foundation for numerous scholars who followed him: "He taught many generations of both Stanford graduate students and undergraduate students." Roberts said some of his graduate students are currently organizing a memorial fund in his honor to support undergraduate and graduate research in Africa.

Jackson is known for his 1996 book America is Me: The Most Asked and Least Understood Questions About Black American History. Another book, Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, which he co-edited with drama Professor Harry J. Elam Jr., will be published this month by the University of Michigan Press.

"Kennell had a rich knowledge of African and African American history," Elam said. "He was incredibly well read. As a historian, he was always thinking about what influenced current trends, and how the past and present came together as culture. He felt that popular culture was something that should be taken seriously."

At times, Jackson's interest in the avant-garde attracted criticism from mainstream sources. In 1992, when he began teaching an upper-class seminar called Black Hair as Culture and History, The Wall Street Journal published a column about the course that was written by David Sacks, then editor of the conservative student-run newspaper Stanford Review.

"[Jackson] wasn't shackled by convention," said psychology Professor Ewart Thomas, a longtime colleague. "He was interested in black hair two years before it became de rigueur. He had a way of picking up interesting threads in popular culture and having a seminar about it."

Jackson's innovative educational programs had a lasting influence on campus life. In the 1970s, as resident fellow of Serra House in Stern Hall, Jackson started "Faculty Night," a program in which students invited faculty to dine with them in their eating halls. Later, the popular event expanded campus-wide. In 1986, Jackson established the "Undergraduate Scholars Program," one of the university's first faculty mentoring programs for students in a format that has since become a central part of undergraduate life. He also created "Branner Presents," a speaker's bureau that invited cutting-edge cultural and political figures to campus during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, throughout Jackson's long tenure on campus, he was closely affiliated with the Program in African and African American Studies, which he directed from 1980 to 1989. In recognition of his university service, Jackson received the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Service to Undergraduate Education in 1972. In 1990, he was awarded the Allan V. Cox Medal for excellence in fostering research among university undergraduates.

Jackson was a father figure, teacher and mentor to generations of undergraduate and graduate students. In 1971, he became resident fellow of Serra House and, in 1980, moved to Branner Hall, the university's largest all-freshman dorm with 160 students. Jackson remained its resident fellow until his death.

"He was a legend in Branner," said Arnold Rampersad, senior associate dean for the humanities. "All his life he was linked to young students. This kept him alive to trends and allowed him to teach very effectively and communicate with students. He knew their culture, but he approached it from a learned, scholarly perspective."

Freshman Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims was an undergraduate in Branner in 1985 and later became one of Jackson's resident assistants. "He had very high expectations about how we should behave," she recalled. "He was inspiring and eccentric. He had little patience for 18-year-olds talking about silly things. He wanted us to be interested in the topics of the day. As resident assistants, he wanted us to infuse a sense of intellectualism in the dorm."

Jody Nyberg, Branner Hall's resident student affairs specialist from 1989 to 1999, said Jackson would buck conventional norms if he thought something was important. "He was very true to what he felt was right," she said. "He was true to himself." As a result, Jackson developed a loyal cadre of students who returned to visit him long after they graduated. "He had a lasting impact on students' lives," Nyberg said.

Jackson was born in 1941, into what he described as a "striving family." He attended segregated schools in Prince Edward County, where petitions by black families for equal education would eventually be included in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Rather than integrate its public schools, however, the county shut them down from 1959 to 1964. White families sent their children to private academies and black children went wherever their parents could find work. In 1962, Jackson had already graduated from college, but his younger brother, Otis, had to move away from home with their mother to attend school. Residence Dean Jamila Rufaro said the move had a profound effect on Jackson. "For Kennell, it symbolized the importance of education and the lengths you would go to get one," she said. "It shaped the importance he placed on education."

Jackson leaves behind an eclectic collection of art and books, which will be given to the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Hampton University and to friends and colleagues. He is survived by his brother, Otis, of Chesapeake, Va. In lieu of flowers, donations in Jackson's memory may be sent to Doctors Without Borders (Africa Section), or to Cornerstone Baptist Church, 16 Horsepen Rd., Farmville, VA 23901.