The Pro Bene Meritis award is the highest honor bestowed by the College of Liberal Arts. Since 1984, the annual award has been given to alumni, faculty members and friends of the college who are committed to the liberal arts, have made outstanding contributions in professional or philanthropic pursuits or have participated in service related to the college.
Education: B.A. Anthropology and Sociology ’74, Swarthmore College; M.A. Marine Sciences ’81, University of Miami; M.A. ’75 and Ph.D. ’81 Social Anthropology, Stanford University.
Hometown: Pimona, New York.
Edmund T. Gordon is the inaugural chair and associate professor of the UT Austin African and African Diaspora Studies Department, a former associate vice president of thematic initiatives and community engagement for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and the former director of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.
Who/What has had the greatest influence on your life?
My parents were huge influences on my life; my undergraduate mentor, James Brown, at Swarthmore College, who was actually later a colleague of mine; my graduate mentor, Dr. St. Clair Drake. I spent 10 years in Nicaragua in the 1980s. So, working there and witnessing the Sandinistas had a huge impact on me.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’ve been married for 34 years. I think I’m most proud of that accomplishment.
If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be?
I would have dinner with my wife. That’s who I most enjoy being with.
What motivates/inspires you?
One of my colleagues in anthropology a while ago used to call me Spike Lee because I’m always trying to do the right thing. So, I think what motivates me is trying to do what I think has the most impact, in terms of making this a more just and equitable world.
What do you envision for UT black studies in the next decade?
We are already the largest black studies program in the country. What we are trying to do is be the best or amongst the best, and I think we are well on our way.
What’s your favorite class lesson to teach?
My most favorite class day is the one that has students come to terms with the variety of blackness that exists. I show slides of my family, colleagues and other folks and have students try to figure out who’s black and who’s not as a way of kind of showing how race is a social construct.
Should scholars be involved in their community?
Yes. That’s the basis of black studies. Black studies is not just the production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake; it’s the production of knowledge to change the world. The involvement with the community and the relationship with the community are both a means of providing a subject matter to study and a means to produce knowledge that changes the community.
How will your racial geography campus tours change now that the Confederate statues have been removed?
The racial geography tour has always been an archeological adventure. It’s about looking for the material evidences of the past and trying to understand how that past impacts the present. The fact that those statues aren’t there doesn’t really make that much difference. The remaining pedestals are evidence of the existence of those statues.
What I think was most important about the statues, whether they wer removed or not, was the narrative, the story, the analysis of why they’re there and what they represent. And the Littlefield Fountain is part of that whole story, as is the statue of President Wilson. To a lot of people it’s not as evident because they’re thinking of the statues as being related to the Civil War and slavery, which they were, but they’re much more about the celebration of the early 20th century and Confederate politics of that time.
What is the most important takeaway from the tour?
The basic story of the tour is two things. One is that power — gendered power and raced power — is built into the physical environment that people pass through and live in, and we need to learn how to identify it. And the other one is that UT historically played a major role in the racial politics of this state, and you can read that through the physical expressions on campus. If you can see those things sedimented into the physical aspects of a university, then you also should be able to willingly open your eyes to the ways those things are sedimented into the social organization of the institution as well.