Age of retirement

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 23, 2024

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn June 30, 2024, I will say farewell to Wellesley College, a place at which I have taught for 38 years. I have taught at several elite institutions in the United States such as Harvard, Cornell, Ohio and Fordham universities, but Wellesley holds a special place in my heart. I have grown fond of it over the years.

The college yesterday held a symposium and dinner to honour my services to the institution and my academic contributions internationally. Paula Johnson, president of the college who was a student at Harvard University when I taught there in the 1970s, and Prof Kellie Carter Jackson, chairman of the Africana Studies Department, opened the function.

Several scholars from around the world gathered to bid me farewell: Louisa Uchum Egbunike, Associate Professor of African literature, Durham University in the UK; Dr Adekeye Adebajo, Senior Research Fellow, University of Pretoria, South Africa; Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jnr, former lecturer in African and Caribbean literature, SOSA, University of London; Prof Carole Boyce-Davies, a fellow Trinidadian and chair of the English Department at Howard; Dr Biodun Jeyifo, Professor Emeritus, African and African American studies and comparative literature, Harvard University.

Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor, The University of the West Indies; Erica Williams Connell, founding curator of the Eric Williams Memorial Collection; and J Lorand Matory, Lawrence Richardson Distinguished Professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University sent their tributes virtually.

My former students offered their reflections. They included Crystal Marie Fleming, Professor of sociology, Stony Brook University; Melanie Graves, wealth management associate, Bank of America; and Cathryn Stout, chief of communications and broadcast services, Memphis—Shelby County Schools, Tennessee.

Many of my colleagues also participated in the event: William Cain, Mary Jewett Gaiser, Professor of English; Cord Whitaker and Octavio Gonzalez, Associate Professors of English; and Liseli Fitzpatrick, fellow Trinidadian and lecturer in Africana studies, who held the whole programme together. Without her, I am not too sure that things would have gone as well as they went.

Although my colleagues were tremendously supportive, my students inspired the best in me. On November 17, 1994, one of my students wrote: “I admire and am proud of your commitment to the College. Wellesley needs professors, particularly Black ones who are prolific scholars and care about their students and the college. You are such an individual.”

On March 28, 2024, I received the following note from Maureen C Whelan, assistant director of Donor Relations.

It read: “Dear Selwyn: We are delighted to notify you that a gift has been given to Wellesley College in your honour to the Wellesley Fund by—[name of student].” That was the same student who wrote the letter above.

In 2019, another student wrote: “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside you this semester. You made good days great ones, and harder days a bit more bearable. All semester I have been searching for the words to describe you to my parents, peers, friends, and just about anyone I interact with.

“Knowing you is something truly special. Since my first year at Wellesley you have stood out as one of the main reasons I love being and learning here. Even before I had you as my professor, I was told that I needed to meet you. Your classroom has captured my mind, and you have made an impression on my heart…”

About two weeks ago, I got a call from one of my former students who lives in South Africa. She asked me to look out for someone who was bringing a gift to me. The next day this carrier of good news brought me three letters that my African students sent me. The content of those cards brought tears to my eyes. The front of one card read, “The Legend Has Retired.”

One letter reads: “I discovered Africa and Black literature for the first time in my classes, and my sense of self was forever changed by engaging with these stories in your evening seminars. Connecting with you was a changing point for how I engaged with the world as an African woman.”

Another student from Swaziland, officially renamed Kingdom of Eswatini in 2018, wrote: “This truly feels like the end of an era. I will never forget taking your African literature class which opened up a whole new world for me. You taught which such passion that it ignited a passion in us all. It is unsurprising that I now teach African Studies.

“Most importantly, you showed great care for your students. Thank you for being an incredible teacher, mentor, and a dear uncle to us all. I can’t imagine Wellesley without you. May God Bless you as you embark on this new chapter [of your life.]”

Wellesley College conferred two academic chairs on me: the Marion Butler Chair in the History of Ideas, and the Margaret E Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature from 1995-1999. It also awarded me the Anna Pinanski Teaching Prize, one of the most prestigious honours the college can bestow on its professors.

Teaching at Wellesley has been a monumental achievement. I give thanks for having the strength to serve my students and my college for such a long time. I am not sure where life may take me but I look forward to giving greater service to the people of the land of my birth.

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