This Writer and Professor Sees Better with Stars in His Eyes

BW Headshot 2021
La Marr Jurelle Bruce ’03, Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary humanities scholar, cultural and literary critic, Bronx native, first-generation college graduate, and associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. After graduating from the College, Bruce went on to earn his Ph.D. in African American studies from Yale. The 2014 recipient of the Joe Weixlmann Prize for Best Essay in African American Review, he has written widely on Black expressive culture for publications including American Quarterly, The Black Scholar, GLQ, Social Text and TDR: The Drama Review. Along the way, Bruce has earned grants and fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and others. His first book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity, was recently published by Duke University Press.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

As fate would have it, I moved to campus on my 18th birthday, so my arrival at the College coincided with my arrival at legal adulthood. I was giddy, starry-eyed, smellin’ myself and riding a rush of newfound “independence” as I crossed two momentous milestones in one day.

Because I’m a native of New York City, I didn’t have to adjust to a brand new town. While many of my classmates were initially mystified or terrified by, say, the subway, I had been navigating that urban underground for years commuting to high school. In fact, those daily subway commutes (I took a bus and three trains in each direction) had decisively shaped my adolescent and young adult self-presentation. I had mastered the art of mean-mugging: a low-intensity glare and snarl intended to ward off anyone who might intend to test or antagonize you (underground or elsewhere).

Still, I wanted to remain in the city to explore it anew as an adult. I was emerging into a Black progressive-to-radical consciousness and coming into my sexuality. I knew that my hometown would be an infinitely rich place for self-actualization. And though I was a lifelong New Yorker, Columbia was dramatically different than the New York I knew. I was born in the Bronx and raised in Queens. Most people’s visions of New York City are utterly Manhattan-centric — with flashes of Brooklyn here and there — while the rest of the city is marginalized as “outer boroughs.” Perched in upper Manhattan, Columbia billed its campus as a headquarters of cosmopolitanism, a beacon of urbane brainpower, a center of the intellectual world — not “outer” all. My Black, queer, working-class, outer-borough-born-and-raised self quickly recognized the complex and sometimes vexed social, political, cultural and racial dynamics on campus. My initial giddiness was tempered and ultimately quelled by a sober self-consciousness and sense of progressive purpose. The starry eyes remained, though. Sometimes stars in your eyes can clarify your vision and light your way. They came in handy as I navigated elitist entryways and hallowed halls in Morningside Heights.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in a tiny single room in Hartley Hall. No matter the tight space, I was relieved to have a little abode of my own without a roommate. (I grew up in a studio and then a one-bedroom apartment with my mother and two younger brothers. Cramped quarters, but thankfully full of love.) A dorm room the size of a matchbox would’ve been workable for me, as long as I had my own door to close. All the while, I appreciated that the room was in a suite-style space with common areas and a sense of community among the suitemates. I was grateful for this combination of privacy and community, of solitude and collectivity.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

“Logic and Rhetoric.” I recall it so vividly because I took it during my first semester — the course reminds me of that initial giddiness and sense of wonder. Also, I appreciate that it wasn’t just “Freshman Composition.” It was Logic and Rhetoric: an opportunity to hone my critical thinking skills as well as my talents in persuasive language-making. My career as a writer and professor is founded, in part, upon a gift and love for incantatory, instructive, inspiring, insurgent words.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Three places come to mind: First, I always enjoyed the bridge that extends over Amsterdam Avenue just north of 116th street. It was simultaneously set apart — aloft above the busy bramble of the street below — and yet it felt so wonderfully open to the city. From its vantage, you could see the avenue’s traffic stretching beyond the limits of vision.

Second, there is a small lawn in front of Philosophy Hall and perpendicular to what is now called Buell Hall. The lawn had a tree with branches low enough to climb without much effort (though I never climbed) and extravagant springtime blooms. That pocket of space felt cozy, intimate, serene, even bucolic amid the looming grandeur of the campus. Philosophy Hall was familiar to me because it housed the Department of English, and I was an English major. As for Buell Hall, I recently learned that it is the last structure standing from the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, once located on the grounds that now are the campus. As a scholar who studies madness, this coincidence is especially intriguing to me.

Third, there’s the Institute for Research in African-American Studies in Schermerhorn Hall. I also majored in African-American studies. The Schermerhorn office housed a computer lab, an administrative space and a seminar room that were sites of marvelous exploration and revelation throughout my undergraduate career. It was in Schermerhorn that I took mind-blowing classes with Farah Jasmine Griffin, Amiri Baraka, Joy James and Mignon Moore ’92, among others. It was in Schermerhorn that I served as intern for Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Culture, Politics and Society under the gracious guidance of the then-managing editor, the late and limitless Cheryll Greene GS’01.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

In hindsight, I might have spent more time cultivating lifelong friendships within the Columbia community. I tended to venture away from campus and immerse myself in the scenes — on, say, 125th Street or Christopher Street or Fulton Street — that were flourishing elsewhere. I didn’t participate very much in the social scenes on campus. If I had gone to school in some remote area, or in some “college town” where the university was the main attraction, I would’ve been more likely to build community on a campus. Not so in NYC.

But, in truth, I wouldn’t change a nanosecond of my life at Columbia — or anywhere else, for that matter. Everything along my path — including hurt, missed opportunities, failure, and sorrow — is precisely as it should be and as it is intended. If I were to erase any of the “bad,” who knows what good would disappear along with it?