In celebration of Robert Stepto’s 40-year teaching career at Yale and his countless contributions to the Department of African American Studies, the department hosted a symposium on Friday at which around a dozen of Stepto’s former students paid tribute to their former professor and mentor.
Stepto’s former students spoke about their personal experiences under his tutelage, but, above all, they praised Stepto’s pioneering scholarship and mentorship as foundational in the growth of African-American studies across the nation and at Yale. In addition to celebrating the achievements of the long-serving professor, the symposium also shed light on the transformation of the University’s African American Studies Department, which was founded only a few years before Stepto’s arrival at Yale in 1974.
“I can’t think of anyone with his range of influence in the field as a teacher and mentor,” Brent Edwards ’90, an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University and one of Stepto’s former students, told the News . “This is partly a statement about Yale’s historical importance in training generations of professors in African-American studies, but it is also a testament to Stepto’s own longevity and personal impact.”
Stepto’s other former students echoed Edwards, sharing anecdotes about how Stepto — who is currently on leave— shaped their own careers. Herman Beavers GRD ’90, the graduate and undergraduate chair of University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Africana Studies, said he was so sure he wanted to work with Stepto that he only applied to Yale for graduate school. Beavers said Stepto encouraged him to research writers who had not, at that time, received much scholarly attention. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said that although he was never Stepto’s student , a conversation with the professor about a research paper during his first year as a Ph.D. candidate helped spark his career as a scholar. Holloway said Stepto directed him to the topic of black scholarship at Howard University in the 1930s. This subject became the focus of the research paper Holloway was working on at the time, and ultimately his dissertation and first book.
“My professional scholarly career started with this conversation in Stepto’s office,” Holloway said. “He helped me set my agenda for the first 20 years of my career.”
Holloway added that Stepto was part of the generation of scholars that helped bring now-ubiquitous works by African-American authors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston back into print.
In addition to sharing anecdotes about time spent under Stepto’s mentorship, Stepto’s former students said his scholarship served as a guiding force for their careers. Speakers at Friday’s symposium emphasized the significance of Stepto’s most famous book, “From Behind the Veil,” which was published in 1979 and presents a study of Afro-American narratives.
“His book ‘From Behind the Veil’ was the most important critical study I read during my years at Yale, and I continue to make significant use of the book, 40 years later,” said Joseph Brown GRD ’84, Africana studies professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Because of his groundbreaking method of both reading the slave narratives and providing a context for how they should be foundational to the study of African-American and American literature, many of us who were his students owe him beyond measure.”
Several speakers, especially those who currently teach at Yale, also paid testament to Stepto as an administrator who helped build the Yale African American Studies Department in various capacities.
Since coming to the University, Stepto has served as the African American Studies Department’s director of undergraduate studies, its first director of graduate studies and as chair of African American studies. Yale’s African American Studies Department was established in 1968 and, at the start, offered only a bachelor’s degree. A decade later, Stepto helped design the Masters of Arts degree that was established in the department — the first of its kind in the United States.
Jacqueline Goldsby, the current chair of African American Studies, said the department’s graduate program was crucial for African-American studies at both Yale and the field at large because granting an advanced degree from an Ivy League institution helped stabilize and legitimize the field as a discipline. The program also helped create a stream of students who became leading academics in the profession, she said, many of whom spoke at Friday’s symposium.
“Put another way, Yale’s M.A. program effectively provided the intellectual infrastructure for the field’s growth into a mature academic discipline,” she said. “Professor Stepto had a direct hand in shaping that effort.”
Another pivotal moment for the department came in 1993 when it established its Ph.D. track. Goldsby said then, too, Stepto played a crucial role and served as DGS for the first incoming classes.
Holloway said that during his own time as chair of the department, Stepto helped provide institutional memory.
“Senior faculty and staff are often called to be part of the ‘institutional memory’ of a school,” Brown said. “That is certainly Robert Stepto’s contribution to Yale University.”