Rod’s life began in Sanford, Florida, weighing only one pound. He often told the story that the hospital encouraged his mother to go home as there was no way he was going to live. She refused to accept that and said she was going to take her baby and love-love-love him. And so right from the start, Rod not only beat the odds, but was surrounded by generous love, family and a caring community.
During his early childhood, he lived in the Oviedo and Snowhill area of Florida. Many of his closest longtime friendships were made during these years, as well as his deep connections to the Bush, Craddock, Muller and Mobley families and a host of other kin. He often stayed with his grandma “Barkoo” Arbesto Johnson and “Aunt Honey” Margie Whipper especially after his mother moved to Rochester, NY as part of the great northern migration. Rod joined her there in 1959.
Rod was a proud 1963 graduate of Madison High School in Rochester, where he excelled in math and science, and was president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. He ranked third in his senior class, above all but one of the 90 or so white students in the class of 150. He went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1967 where he studied with extraordinary scholars such as Toni Morrison and Sterling Brown. In 1972, he completed his coursework for a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas.
In Kansas City, Rod worked as a psychologist and an urban planning analyst in Black and working class communities. His developing political commitment led him to become involved as a member of the Congress of African People (CAP), the Student Organization for Black Unity, the Youth Organization for Black Unity (SOBU/YOBU), the Revolutionary Workers League (M-L), and the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC). These years were extremely important in his emerging political consciousness and praxis.
In 1979, Rod moved to the San Francisco Bay area to devote himself full time to community organizing and political engagement. He worked on projects such as the Grassroots Alliance initiatives to tax the corporations, Full Employment Project of Oakland, USOCA: US Out of Central America, USOSA: US Out of South Africa and the Institute for the Study of Labor and Economic Crisis. It was during this time that he met Melanie and their life journeys were joined.
In 1985, they relocated to New York in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York. Rod worked at the New York City Technical College Correctional Education Program at Rikers’ Island, and the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center, while commuting 213 miles each way to Binghamton University to complete his PhD in Sociology in 1992. They made regular trips to Rochester during this time to visit with his mother, and attend Memorial AME Zion Church with her.
In 1993, Rod began teaching at Seton Hall University and in 1997 moved to St. Johns’ University where he became a Full Professor of Sociology last year. Hundreds of students studied under his guidance and were mentored as undergraduates; hundreds completed their Master’s and dozens moved on to complete their PhD degrees. Throughout this time, Rod earned many awards for his scholarship, teaching and service.
In the last decade, Rod was a member of the national council of the Black Radical Congress and more recently of the Executive Board of the Left Forum. In these capacities, he built bridges between the Black Left and Black Nationalist communities and with progressive and radical movements at large. Rod firmly upheld that the Black nationalism as expressed by the oppressed has been broad in vision and historically provided leadership to the struggle for human rights overall. He wholeheartedly believed in the interconnectedness of the fate of all humanity and had unwavering faith in the power of the people to overcome all challenges.
During this time, Rod developed relationships with and became part of an extensive network of scholars involved in a project related to Transnational Africa and another related to the World and U.S. Social Forum movements. His work on race/white supremacy, democracy and globalization brought him to places such as Paris, France, Ibadan, Nigeria and Bahia, Brazil to study with scholars and activists concerned about these issues and their real time impact on ordinary people around the globe. His focus on both structure and agency stands out in both his scholarship and his practice and is as loving as it is unequivocally rooted in the struggle for justice.
He is notable for his many publications (journal articles, book chapters, reviews, essays, etc.) including his editorship in 1984 of The New Black Vote: Politics and Power in Four American Cities and authorship of We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (1999), and The End of White World Supremacy: Black Internationalism and the Problem of the Color Line (2009). In 2014, his and Melanie’s co-authored book Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie or Reality will be published by Temple University Press.
Rod was strong, engaged, very physically active, passionate and extremely happy right to the time when the forces of nature took over. This disease (bile duct cancer in the liver) moved rapidly from the point of formal diagnosis on November 8th (after his first symptoms of a week of mild stomach upset and a nosebleed). This is the typical path of this illness.
The passing of a loved one is traumatic when it happens sudden and unexpected, but it is also not peaceful when it happens slow and anticipated. Just as the miracle of birth is both scientific and something more – so is this form of cell mutation. Moments like this call upon philosophical, spiritual and religious beliefs and reflections about life itself that are deeply personal. Rod’s caring nature exemplified respect for the many ways of understanding these complex questions.
In sum, Rod came from and returns to a great and mighty stream – a powerful current that encompasses all those who struggle for dignity, wisdom, peace and justice. He proudly, defiantly, compassionately, generously, and wisely provides a model for us to draw upon as we move forward his legacy of belief in possibility, profound love for community and humanity and a rich and deep intellectual tradition dedicated to the common good.
We hope that his example makes us stronger fighters for justice, more thoughtful thinkers and better, more loving people. May we count every blessing that we have had in knowing him and use these to lift us to fight for right, not some of our days but all of our days, and all day long. Rod has and will continue to be, an engaged scholar and a true warrior for the best of what we can be.
Biography for American Sociological Association newsletter: Footnotes