The Colgate Scene
March 1999
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A sense of calling

by Rebecca Costello
Roy Bryce-Laporte, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur professor of sociology
On a 90° July afternoon, Roy Simón Bryce-Laporte ambled out the front door of Alumni Hall. He was more than ready to head right home after a sweltering day on the fourth floor, but, seeing a student trudging past the chapel, the sociology professor flagged him down. The two had never met, yet a noticeable transformation occurred in the young man with a simple who are you, how are things? A brief exchange to be sure, but the student, on campus for the summer University Scholars program, then spirited off down the hill, happily surprised by the interest and kindness shown towards him.

     "That's very important," says the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur professor of sociology, fondly called "Bryce" by his students, "especially for those in their first years. For a long time they are very lonely. I want them to have a sense that there's something human going on here -- that they are taken seriously and feel comfortable here." That statement reveals much about a scholar who never forgets the human level in whatever he's doing and for whom teaching is obviously a pleasure.

     Himself born in the Republic of Panama of West Indian ancestry, Bryce is considered a pioneer in the study of U.S. immigration of Blacks of various cultures.

     "An important part of black history in the United States is the fact that, aside from those who came through the slave trade," he explains, "are smaller groups of blacks who were and continue to be voluntary immigrants or refugees. I try to draw attention to their social situations, to look at this population which has suffered multiple levels of invisibility, as blacks, and as immigrants -- their problems, their mobility, their contributions and potential in shaping the future of American society." Two articles he wrote on this subject are considered seminal to the field. He later began investigating the relationship between native and foreign-born blacks in the United States -- "Sometimes the saliencies of their cultural or ethnic differences supersede race or class" -- and has posed provocative questions about the implications of automatically classifying all blacks as African-American without acknowledging differences between immigrant peers, and their American-born relatives.

     Bryce was educated and later taught in Panama, "particularly in the now-defunct Canal Zone." Coming to the United States for advanced study -- at the University of Nebraska, UCLA (where he earned his Ph.D. in sociology ) and Yale Law School -- he intended to return home, but instead remained.

     At Yale, where he taught from 1969 until 1972, Bryce distinguished himself as the first director of its African-American Studies Program, one of the first Ivy League programs of its kind. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, then a Yale student, mentioned Bryce in an essay he wrote for the PBS program Frontline, "The Two Nations of Black America" -- citing him among the faculty members who mentored black students during those turbulent times, "passionately concerned that we succeed."

     "I came to this country having already had a `black' experience, yet also with a sense that, the more you educated yourself, the more you became stellar in whatever way, you could make the world better," Bryce remembers. "I can't say that I came with the idea that I would participate in any American movement. But I started to be more sensitive to common experiences and sentiments and drawn to ongoing socio-political movements. On one end, your achievements were going to be symbolic of the self-improvement, as well as self-perception, of a people. Also, you find yourself in the midst of a struggle that is more complex and moving at a different pace than before, and there is a sense of calling. So going to Yale to direct the program, beyond just its professional significance, also meant participating in a country-wide dynamic that was taking shape and is still occurring today."

     In the 1980s, Bryce was founding director of the Institute of Immigration and Ethnic Studies at the Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Immigrant and Ethnic Studies at the College of Staten Island. He also guest curated "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . . ?," a Schomburg Center exhibition on black voluntary U.S. immigration honoring the Statue of Liberty centennial. A consultant to various organizations, foundations, and government and international agencies, he has testified before Congress and has also taught elsewhere in the United States.

     Brought to Colgate in 1989 to reorganize the Africana and Latin American Studies Program and serve as its director, which he did until 1994, Bryce currently teaches a course on the black diaspora, a seminar on new immigration and visible minorities, and a sequence: "Total Institutions: The World of the Confined" and "Black Communities in Contemporary America." He draws not only from sociological texts, history and literature, but also personal experience.

     "Total Institutions is an outgrowth, in part, of my dissertation in which I conceived of the American slave plantation as a closed institution," he says in describing what he considers his "signature course." Taking a comparative-historical approach, the course examines organizations like plantations, penitentiaries, asylums, camps and homes, looking within these broad institutions, as well as at their relationships to their human populations and surrounding communities over time.

     "I give a lot of work because I think that's the business of a university. That kind of exposure to ideas and craftsmanship is going to make the difference," he stresses. "When students leave here, they should be Colgate persons in all aspects."

     Bryce has recently been recognized for his expertise by several organizations. Last year he was elected to new posts with the American Sociological Association and the NAACP and joined the Colgate Picker Gallery Advisory Board. Henry Louis Gates and his Harvard colleague Kwame Appiah recruited him to write the entry on U.S. Caribbean and Latin American immigration for a new encyclopedia of African culture throughout the world. In addition, he was invited to write an article on Panama for the Caribbean Studies Association Quarterly and serve as a discussant at a conference on West Indian immigrants in New York City at the Research Institute for the Study of Man. And the Panama Canal International Alumni Association (PCIAA), of which Bryce is a charter member, presented him with an Educational Award for his "legacy of an educator committed to academic excellence."

     Bryce commented that the ecumenical commemorative service and ceremony where he received the PCIAA award uniquely tied together his Panamanian roots to his experiences in the United States, including Colgate. "Some of my former and present students, including several from Colgate, former classmates and teachers, as well as members of my quite extended family, attended." Bryce also received commendations for citizenship and leadership in education from Edward Griffith (a former teacher and native of Panama) of The N.Y.S. Assembly, and the New York City Council.

     Reflecting on the award, he remarked, "I have come to respect my own teachers and to be proud of many of the students with whom I have been associated. But above all, I am grateful to my parents and their generation for the sacrifice and leadership they offered us despite the imposed limitations that characterized their own existence.

     "My first concern is making sure that students are exposed to what my discipline has prepared me for, the benefits of my broader education, as well as injecting my own experiences, observations, interpretations and sentiments," says Bryce. "Over my ten years at Colgate, I have watched students grow, students who at the end are able to engage you in a discussion in a way that they would not have been able to before. They give you a feeling that when they leave here, they will make a mark." Roy Bryce-Laporte has made his mark as well.

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