Graduate Reflection: The Experience of Heath Pearson, Ph.D.

Written by
Heath Pearson
Nov. 22, 2019

What does it mean to belong to the African American intellectual tradition?

Professors Eddie Glaude and Imani Perry asked this question as we sat in the first session of “AAS 500: African-American Intellectual Tradition.” It has stuck with me. And in September, when I begin a fellowship at the University of Michigan, with an appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, it will be my turn to help others explore this question. 

You could likely ask fifteen people this question and get fifteen different answers. The tradition I learned at Princeton has not given me one answer. It has given me an approach. And this approach is best understood through jazz. 

New Orleans Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah calls his recent music Stretch Music. When asked to elaborate on Stretch as genre-bending jazz, he said, “everywhere we toured in the world, all these younger kids kept telling us we created stretch music. We didn’t know what...they were talking about.” But it was exciting and giving courage to all these kids who were making music right where they lived. As I have come to see it, Stretch Music does more than extend the boundaries of jazz or meld together dissonant sounds in a form that we academics might call “interdisciplinary.” It invites the listener to stretch out, to pause what you should know or what you have come to expect, and to stretch your ears to the music, to stretch your soul to the vibrations that are created when material struggle meets New Orleans jazz meets futuristic creativity meets collective celebration meets, to quote aTunde Adjuah again, “motherfuckers play[ing] in their neighborhood[s].” Stretch Music is not a genre to be picked up and put down. It is not memorizing scales. It is a way of being in the world. A creative and expansive way of getting along that is invitational, that enters into unfamiliar spaces with others, and that sits firmly within and at times honors and remembers tradition, but strictly refuses legalism to the tradition’s own definitions and boundaries. 

The tradition I learned as a graduate student in AAS taught me to stretch. To stretch into conversations and across disciplinary boundaries in order to collaborate in the creating of spaces for liberation. Universities can be highly legalistic institutions where new ideas get pulverized in an environment clinging to its racist, sexist, and classist culture. The practices of Stretch, however, bring with them the unthinkable possibilities of expanding disciplines and genres rather than simply reproducing them. Stretch also includes a rigorous attention to the world, almost a prescription for loving the world, that requires a re-engagement with the past while crafting *new* visions for many futures. Very explicitly not the academic in the ivory tower. And finally, Stretch demands the shimmer of brilliance. Not merely brilliance in the construction of an argument, but brilliance in how an argument moves, how it moves us, how it moves light that we might see differently. Brilliance that is diamond-like. Not didactic-like. 

My time as a graduate student in AAS, with Professor Imani Perry as my dissertation advisor, taught me to stretch. May I embody that stretch in all facets of my life, academic or otherwise, as I carry these lessons elsewhere, inviting others to bring with them the music of their neighborhoods as we continue writing songs of the tradition.