Gerald Early Essayscorer

Research Interests

American literature; African-American culture 1940-1960; Afro-American autobiography; Non-fiction prose

Biographical Information

Gerald Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the Department of English and professor in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University in St. Louis, where he has taught since 1982.  He also has an appointment in the American Culture Studies Programs at Washington University.  He earned his undergraduate degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania and the Ph.D. in English and American literature from Cornell University.

He is currently the chair of the African and African American Studies Department, a position he held previously from 1992-1999.  He has also served as the director of the American Culture Studies Program, and was the founding director of the Center for the Humanities.  He is also currently the faculty director of the Henry Hampton Film Archive and the executive editor of The Common Reader, Washington University’s new interdisciplinary journal that is published under the auspices of the Provost ( .  From 2009-2012, Early served on the advisory committee for tenure, promotion, and personnel for the School of Arts and Sciences.

Early is a noted essayist and American culture critic. His collections of essays include Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture (1989); The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; This is Where I Came In: Essays on Black America in the 1960s (2003), and, most recently, A Level-Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports (2011). He is also the author of Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood (1994).  He was twice nominated for Grammy Awards for writing album liner notes, of which Early has written many including Black Power: Music of a Revolution (2004), Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary (2009), Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones (2001), Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, (2007), Motown: The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 2: 1962, The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, (1999), and Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance (2000).

Additionally, Early is a prolific anthologist. His most recent edited books are the Best African American Essays 2010 with guest editor Randall Kennedy and Best African American Fiction 2010 with guest editor Nikki Giovanni.  Both are part of the annual Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction series published by Bantam Books for which Early served as the series editor during the life of the series. His other anthologies include The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader (2001); Miles Davis and American Culture (2001); The Muhammad Ali Reader (1998); and Body Language: Writers on Sport (1998). He has served as a consultant on several Ken Burns' documentary films—Baseball; Jazz; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson;The War, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and an upcoming film on the life of Jackie Robinson—all of which have or will be aired on PBS.  Early is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He serves on a number of non-profit boards in St. Louis including the Missouri History Museum, the Foundation Board of the St. Louis Public Library, Jazz St. Louis, and the Whitaker Foundation.  He is also currently a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Center where he enjoyed an appointment as the John Hope Franklin Fellow in 2001-2002.  He was nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, was confirmed by the Senate and began his five-term in August 2013.  He was awarded a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2013.  He is currently completing The Cambridge Companion to Boxing for Cambridge University Press.  He is also completing a book with his daughter, Rosalind, a professional journalist, about an African American festival in Philadelphia called Odunde, one of the largest black street festivals in the country and the biggest public event for adherents of the Yoruba religion in the United States.  His longer term projects include a study of the Korean War and a book about conservatism in the United States.   


  • 2008 Excellence in the Arts Award, Arts and Education Council, St. Louis, Missouri
  • 2007 Distinguished Service to Education Award, Harris-Stowe State University
  • 2006 Phi Beta Kappa Evelyn and William Jaffe Medal for Distinguished Service to the Humanities, awarded triennially
  • Grammy Award Nomination, 2001, Best Album Liner Notes, Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words of the Harlem Renaissance, Rhino Records
  • Grammy Award Nomination, 2000, Best Album Liner Notes, Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story, Rhino Records
  • Washington University's Arthur Holly Compton Faculty Award, 1997


  • L13 321W: Mellon Undergraduate Fellows Seminar
  • L13 322W: Undergraduate Honors Fellowship Seminar
  • L14 522: Seminar: American Literature

Writing Excerpt


[Sammy] Davis was born one year after another famous Harlemite, writer James Baldwin. They were part of a new generation of blacks when they came of age in the 1940s. Just as Baldwin by the late 1940s and early 1950s was breaking down barriers in literature by writing for some of the leading intellectual journals and magazines of the day, so the Will Maston Trio, almost solely on the strength of Davis's talent and his connections (Sinatra had taken a liking to him in the early 1940s), was breaking down barriers, professionally and personally, by playing El Rancho in Las Vegas, Ciro's in Los Angeles, the Beachcomber in Miami, and finally, the Copa in New York. When Davis emerged as a star in the early 1950s he was part of a generation of new black cross-over stars who were openly rejecting segregation and the restriction of the black institutions to which they had been assigned: Jackie Robinson in baseball, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier in film, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Brooks in literature. They did not wish to be seen as black ballplayers, black actors, or black writers but as professional ballplayers, professional actors, and professional writers. Jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and others were expressly changing the public demeanor of the black jazz musician, from dance band entertainer to serious, self-conscious artist. And jazz music, at times, became a form of protest. Of course, what made the assertion, the rebellion of these blacks especially poignant, ambivalent, and perhaps misunderstood by both blacks and whites, was that it was couched in the terms of seeking the acceptance of whites, but seeking that acceptance in a new, independent, and more assertive way. These performers wanted to be accepted by whites for what they themselves thought they were and not for what whites wanted them to be. As Davis so richly expressed it in Yes I Can: "' They'll like me even if they hate my guts!'" It was this drive for acceptance that motivated him during his horrendous years in the army (unlike Sinatra, Lawford, and Martin, Davis actually was in the armed services during World War II) when he was beaten, tortured, and harassed by racists. He thought he could win them over with his performances in army shows. Whether he did win them over remains an open question, whether it was worth the effort is decidedly debatable. But it is clear that like many of the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and artists, Davis thought the Negro could effect change for both him or herself and for the group through art. This, too, is a questionable belief but not an uncommon one. As Davis wrote in Yes I Can: "I'd learned a lot in the army and I knew that above all things in the world I had to become so big, so strong, so important, that those [bigoted white soldiers] and their hatred could never touch me. My talent was the only thing that made me a little different from everybody else, and it was all that I could hope would shield me because I was different." In his mind, his own fate, the war against racism, and his sense of individuality were tied together in a complex way.

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