Lee Jenkins, Writing about Race

By Alexis Sargent

Lee Jenkins, Professor Emeritus of English, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, has recently published a novel entitled Right of Passage. From Fisk University, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Jenkins graduated with a B.A. in philosophy, and at Columbia University, he earned his Ph.D. in English and comparative literature. Jenkins’ career has spanned many fields, as he is a professor of English, a trained and practicing psychoanalyst and a novelist and poet. His critical study, Faulkner and Black-White Relations: A Psychoanalytic Approach (Columbia University Press, 1981) was the first full-length study of Faulkner’s novels published by an African American. 

In his academic life, Jenkins’ work has focused on African-American identity and the application of psychoanalysis to literature, novels, and poetry. In a similar vein, his novel Right of Passage focuses on the themes of interracial love, Black-White social relations, and coming-of-age and adulthood in the setting of the 1960s Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras. The story follows an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman, tracing their development as their lives intersect in the social world and they come into adulthood. 

Although Jenkins’ Right of Passage is a work of fiction, it has underlying themes and storylines that relate to events in the author’s life. Jenkins grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, during the years when school segregation was a prevalent problem in the United States. However, as Tallahassee was Florida’s state capitol and there were two universities in his hometown—Florida State University (FSU), for whites, on one side of town, and Florida A & M University (FAMU), for blacks, on the other side—Jenkins voices how he was very fortunate in his youth to be part of a community where progressive social thinking was working to prevail over the negative legacies of racism and segregation.

“In Tallahassee the state made provision for a degree of quality education to be provided to black people, and I benefited from that,” Jenkins said. “I was introduced to a desire for learning and exposed to African-American people in my hometown who had an interest in advancing training in the arts and sciences and who had been fortunte enough to have acquired advanced degrees in them. These were some of the strongest initial influences with respect to my understanding of the importance of education and liberal arts when growing up in my household.”

of Passage’s plot follows Chris, a young black man, and Miriam, a white woman and fellow academic as their lives intertwine, in a background of social conflict and self-doubt—literature teachers who play piano and love classical music. Jenkins describes how his personal life and experiences in an interracial marriage influenced the novel, but the story he is telling is not a memoir, a personal account of his marriage, but an imaginative rendering of the lives of such a couple in a work of fiction in our time. 

“In October, I will have had an interracial marriage for 45 years, but in writing the novel, I am not talking about my life with my wife,” Jenkins said. “The story is an expression of the full weight and complexity of my social/cultural understanding of life, the range of all my experiences. This is what has gone into the characterizations of the novel. I think this is always what informs the imagination of a novelist.” 

“It is important for people to see the unity and see beyond the stereotypes of an interracial marriage, recognize the ways in which two people experience conflict, and move towards a desire for mutual understanding, and honor their love for each other,” Jenkins explained. “This story applies to interracial couples as well as to people in other relationships who are trying to overcome difficulties and lovingly fulfill the promise of their unions.”

As Jenkins’ work has combined multiple career and professional roles as a psychoanalyst, professor, poet, and author, his background across disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences reflects that profound commitment to breadth of learning and enquiry that is at the heart of Phi Beta Kappa’s mission. Additionally, as Jenkins’ experiences of racial oppression have greatly influenced his career, they also gave context to his impression of Phi Beta Kappa at Fisk University. 

Specifically, Jenkins describes the moment of signing his name in the Phi Beta Kappa induction book at Fisk as a moment of gratitude and fulfillment. There Jenkins recognized the signatures of those who had been inducted before him as great African-American scholars he admired. 

“I recognized membership in Phi Beta Kappa as being the cap to my undergraduate educational career,” Jenkins said. “When I saw the signatures of great black scholars such as John Hope Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois, it was very moving to me. I understood the privilege of being in the presence of such accomplishment when I had the personal honor of being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.”

Right of Passage by Lee Jenkins is published by Aeon/Sphinx Books, a subsidiary of the psychoanalytic publisher Karnac Books, and is available at aeonbooks.co.uk, amazon.com, and bookculture.com (536 West 112th Street in Manhattan). 

Alexis Sargent is a senior at Michigan State University studying social and public policy. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in spring 2018, during her junior year. Michigan State University is home to the Epsilon of Michigan chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.