by Zeb Larson
It was around seven AM when Prexy knocked on my door. I was already awake and dressed, so I quickly opened it up. “We gotta go catch that squirrel. Grab something to scare it out,” Prexy said, already holding a broom and walking toward the stairs. The third floor of the house was being rented out to a young couple, and at some point in the last few days, a squirrel had snuck in through the chimney. I grabbed a dustpan and a large wooden cooking spoon, and thus equipped, we headed upstairs.
We met the husband in the entrance, and he pointed us toward the closet where it was holed up. “Once we get it out, we’ll just herd it toward the door,” he said once we were in front of the open closet, the husband pointing at the shelf it was hiding on. Prexy and I looked at each other: clearly, neither of us wanted to take lead in dealing with it. He had put me up for the last week, so I decided to bite the bullet. I removed the box that it was hidden behind and had a split-second view of the squirrel as it dived right into me, clambering up my chest and down my back before heading for a radiator. All I could think was that this was uncomfortably close to the Griswold family’s Christmas Vacation.
For the next half hour or so, we chased it back and forth, trying to get it to head for the hallway but inevitably leading it under another piece of furniture, cursing the whole time. Finally, the husband managed to drop a laundry hamper on it, and we carefully scooted it to the door and flung it down the stairs. Exhausted, Prexy and I went to go some breakfast, joking that we should have just shot and eaten the squirrel.
* * *
Prexy Nesbitt was in some ways the launching off point for my dissertation. I was interested in Americans who spent time in Africa in the 1960s and who later became activists, with a particular focus on the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. His name was one of the first that I came across while doing some early research, and he was one of those figures who was ever-present in the U.S. movement: work with the American Committee on Africa, founding committees to support Angola and Mozambique, serving on the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism, and serving as a teacher in Chicago.
By an incredible coincidence, I also happened to have a connection to him through a friend, who introduced me to him for a series of phone calls and interviews. In one call, Prexy asked me if I would be attending the African Studies Association Conference in November 2017, and when I told him yes, he offered me a spot in his house to stay and do some research. I’d been wanting to carry out some research in his papers at Columbia College and in Dennis Brutus’ at Northwestern, so I leapt at the chance.
That particular moment was a low one for me in grad school. I knew from the get-go all of the statistics about the job market and applications, but actually going through it was still profoundly discouraging. I was burnt out as an instructor. I was starting to think seriously about something outside of academia, but like most grad students, I didn’t have concrete ideas about where to start. In the wake of Trump’s election, I felt dissatisfied with myself for not being more politically active; studying activists who were also scholars shined an uncomfortable light back on myself. I felt disconnected from most of my peers who were more focused on the tenure-track. For the first time in grad school, I also had writer’s block: the last chapter of my dissertation had been a two page document for the whole semester.
In the wake of Trump’s election, I felt dissatisfied with myself for not being more politically active; studying activists who were also scholars shined an uncomfortable light back on myself.
Prexy taught as an adjunct at Columbia College and invited me to meet him at one of his classes, where he wanted me to talk to his students for a little bit about my research. I showed up early enough to listen to him talk for a while, and was struck by just how easily he was able to engage his students. It seemed so effortlessly conversational on his part, and his students responded: they were actually eager to ask questions. What’s more, when it came time for me to talk, they had even more questions, and wanted to try and make connections to other movements. They wanted to connect it to the present, and to go out and fight. After feeling unenthusiastic about teaching for a few months, it felt invigorating just to see that kind of energy present in a class.
I spent the next few days shuttling back and forth between Prexy’s house in Oak Park and the conference. While I was able to spend time at the conference approaching a few people I’d been meaning to interview, I spent more of it talking with Prexy. For all the time I spent poring over documents and reading interview transcripts with my subjects, I’d never really had the opportunity to actually get to know any of them. It turned out that Prexy and I basically had the same taste in music: one of the first things I noticed among the many books that populated his house was Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk, which got us talking about Jazz.
We also had our own frustrations with academia, and at that moment I was particularly willing to put mine on the table. Columbia College’s part-time faculty were about to go on strike (bless him, Prexy had even talked to his students about it and why they should think carefully about crossing a picket line), so we griped about university administrators and the exploitation of academic labor. Neither Prexy nor I really cared for parts of the conference: something about the pretentiousness of some of the people rubbed him the wrong way, which is about the same way the proceedings felt to me. Presenting papers and getting feedback felt more like a chore in service of academic job applications, a checkbox to fill that didn’t matter because the competition was so fierce. Having somebody to just acknowledge that with was liberating.
The trip was in no small part an opportunity to reflect on my dissertation. Every grad student and every scholar goes through a period of isolation when they’re writing, and the trip presented an opportunity to talk through my thinking with somebody who knew the details more intimately than I did. This made some of the fact-checking easier, as I could sit down and comb through minutiae with him, a process he was surprisingly patient with. It was also a chance to reflect on the conclusions I was drawing about why the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. was as successful as it was.
Toward the end of the conference I sat in on an activist panel where Prexy was one of the discussants. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was the elephant in the room: people wanted to find ways to recapture some of the old energy from the anti-apartheid movement. There was, to be sure, a considerable amount of pessimism about trying to solve foreign policy, domestic racism, and climate change (in addition to a little millennial-bashing that had me rolling my eyes). As Prexy reminded the audience, white supremacy had created Trump, and it had to be fixed: Trump was just a symptom of the problem. For all of that, however, Prexy still offered up a striking amount of optimism about what could be done. He didn’t think that millennials were difficult to motivate, and if anything, thought that they were far more open to anti-racism and meaningful solutions to imperialism than their parents.
Presenting papers and getting feedback felt more like a chore in service of academic job applications, a checkbox to fill that didn’t matter because the competition was so fierce. Having somebody to just acknowledge that with was liberating.
That part stuck with me in part because of an earlier conversation we’d had over the phone, when Prexy discussed his time working as a consultant for the government of Mozambique in the ‘80s. When describing what his work was like to me, he off-handedly muttered “Goddamned Manafort…” I initially assumed that he was just referring to Manafort’s role in the 2016 elections, but when I asked, he reminded me that Manafort had served as a paid lobbyist for UNITA and Jonas Savimbi, the group that embroiled Angola in a civil war for a quarter of a century and remained closely tied to conservatives in the United States and Britain. The connections between the present and my own work seemed a little less remote: the utterly amoral adventurism of a few mercenaries and the attempts to craft a respectable image for South African apartheid and racism didn’t feel very far away at all. It all seemed to run together. I wanted to try and understand one so I could focus on the other.
* * *
I spent Thanksgiving regaling my in-laws with tales of the squirrel and the chase around the apartment, all of which was good for a few holiday chuckles. I still wake up in the middle of the night and start laughing about it. That being said, the trip reenergized me. I felt better about my own scholarship, and wanted to continue it. Moreover, I determined to start drawing more connections to the injustices I saw in the present. A few days after I got home, I started writing again, and finished the last chapter of my dissertation a month later.
Zeb Larson is a PhD candidate
at The Ohio State University.
He studies the history of
the anti-apartheid movement
in the United States and is interested
in contemporary grassroots movements.
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