My job in the legal field was demanding, but my love for great literature overwhelmed the intricate logistics of getting to Chicago State University a few evenings a week. Plus, I wanted my curriculum to include a rigorous examination of the stunning works of people like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright.
Chicago State presented an opportunity to study under Haki Madhubuti, a bard of the Black Arts Movement and a strong voice chronicling the travails of life for many young Black males. This was the 1990s.
In a rhetoric class, I wrote a paper on the prison industrial complex and how it dragnets Black bodies. My professor shared the paper with Dr. Donda West who, as the chairwoman of the English department, immediately summonsed me to her office.
That discussion, in which she confessed that she knew nothing about the myriad ways the criminal justice system unfairly undermined and compromised Black life, began a series of long, impassioned conversations about any number of social issues.
She requested that I give her a copy of everything I wrote in my classes because she had learned so much from my paper. Complimenting my “extraordinary” writing ability, Dr. West asked why I had not enrolled in the program to earn my master’s degree. Why was I just taking classes?
As I matriculated through CSU, I would drop off copies of my papers to Dr. West and, inevitably, we would discuss them in her office. Through these deep, penetrating, and sometimes personal conversations, I had the pleasure of getting to know her. She was a generous and inspiring educator who understood the central role a Chicago State education played in the lives of her inner-city Black students.
Dr. West recounted an incident when, as a doctoral student at Auburn University, she had embarked on a trip with her classmates. A professor had callously exclaimed, “Let’s be sure to sit in the back of the bus, so Donda can be comfortable!” As a result of her life’s experiences, she was demanding, but compassionate, effective, and caring.
After I graduated, I left the state to work on my doctorate. Never a Hip Hop aficionado, I was, nevertheless, taken by the beauty and range of College Dropout. So, one evening, I researched this Kanye West. It had never occurred to me that he was the son about whom Dr. West and I had shared a few laughs.
She had told me about this son of hers who was into music — who was even working with Jay-Z (“They say he’s pretty good”) and about whom she expressed disappointment when he dropped out of Chicago State.
“I’m thinking, I have a Ph.D. and I’m an English professor and my son drops out of school, right?” Dr. West told me. We laughed as I consoled her with the idea that Kanye could always go back to school if this music thing didn’t work out.
I will never forget reading in a Chicago newspaper about how Donda West had dropped everything and caught the next thing smoking to get to her child after he had been involved in a car accident. What? This is the son of whom Dr. West had spoken? I could not wait to call her. She was not in her office when I phoned late on a Friday afternoon, but that Monday morning, first thing, she called me back. We had a wonderfully inspiring conversation!
Because we had agreed that I would call her as soon as I finished my doctoral program (she had wanted me to work with her on a foundation to serve inner-city youth), I had no idea it would be the last time I spoke to her.
Dr. West was gracious beyond measure as I praised her son. I told her although I am not a Hip Hop head, I thought the album was genius. She was happy that I appreciated, as did she, how Kanye traversed genres and boundaries with his music. As I gushed about how much I liked Slow Jamz and “the song about the spaceship,” she mused that, but for “a few mindless pieces,” it was a “really nice CD.”
Leave it to Dr. West, I thought, to keep it real. I had decided that I would not mention those songs, but it was clear Dr. West was not one to prate about anything her son did, despite his phenomenal success.
In fact, I was blown away when she took the conversation in another direction. What was I doing? Was I married? And more importantly, was I still writing? She said, “You are such an exceptional writer with really important things to say. Please tell me you are still writing.”
Nowadays, every time Kanye pops off about something, my baffled friends call to interrogate me. Each time, I have to patiently explain that I am not an authority on Kanye. I have never met the man. In fact, I don’t think his music has ever been as lofty as his first CD, so I haven’t even followed his musical career. I have just wished him well and taken pride in the fact that I knew his mom.
As astonishing, bizarre, offensive, and in some ways, traumatizing as some of his behaviors and comments have been, I feel deep compassion for Kanye. And, as we get closer to the 11th anniversary of the day I sat in front of my computer weeping about the death of my friend, Donda West, I can only hope Kanye doesn’t completely tarnish his image or destroy himself before he can get the help he appears to need.
Above all, though, I miss the kindness and support Dr. West always offered, as well as our great conversations. I can only imagine the depth of Kanye’s pain.
Dr. Rhonda Sherrod is a lawyer, clinical psychologist, and former HBCU educator with a master’s degree in English from Chicago State University. She provides professional development training for teachers and law enforcement personnel.
© Dr. Rhonda Sherrod