By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
I met John Hodges for lunch on a pleasant fall afternoon at Sitar Indian restaurant. John retired from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville in 2010 after teaching for 28 years. We have both shared our delight of Indian food in previous lunches. Today, I wanted to talk to him about the reception of his book, Delta Fragments: The Recollections of a Sharecropper’s Son.
John said that he had been doing many personal appearances and talks about his book since it was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2014. He indicated that the book had actually been a bestseller for UT Press. I asked him how the book had been received in his hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. He noted that he had given a talk at the local bookstore in 2013; however, only African-American residents attended the presentation. He wondered how much attitudes had changed in his hometown even after all these decades.
How African-Americans have overcome the obstacles of racial tension, poverty, and illiteracy is the theme of his book, and it also reflects the journey of his life. After graduating from Greenwood High School, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1963. He went on to earn a Master’s in English from Atlanta University, and then a Master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, majoring in both religion and literature. His dissertation topic reflected an early interest in self-reflection of African-Americans: “The Quest for Selfhood in the Autobiographies of W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X”. He had various college administrative positions before coming to UTK.
How African-Americans have overcome the obstacles of racial tension, poverty, and illiteracy is the theme of his book, and it also reflects the journey of his life.
I asked John his favorite courses to teach. He felt that his African-American Religions and Black Literature Survey courses were heavily attended over his three decades at UTK. However, he particularly enjoyed a course he taught in American Studies on Dissent in American Culture. This course let students explore how effective criticisms of American society led to significant changes from the abolition of slavery to women suffrage to the civil rights movement.
Had he noticed more acceptance of African-Americans on college campuses? John said there was more integration of minorities into college life since he started teaching. He felt, however, that there was lots of progress that could be made. He noticed that students often clustered together by ethnic group for certain activities. In the broader community, he commented that different races often live in close contact but never seem to come together except around episodes of violence. His observations certainly parallel the racial tensions that have been prominent in American society in the past few years.
Delta Fragments took many years to write. John said that this experience not only let him explore his past and even reconnect with friends and acquaintances in Greenwood, but also allowed him to reflect on important civil rights issues that had defined him as a person. As we parted, I wished him the best in retirement and suggested that we try this Indian buffet again soon.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.