Thoughts on the UCI memorial for Prof. Lindon Barrett

The cover of the memorial pamphlet

Last Tuesday afternoon, under a hot late afternoon sun at the Phineas Banning Alumni House on the UCI campus, where I’d last attended an event 15 years previously, I was among the many who gathered to honor the life and memory of Lindon Barrett. My initial blog entry has further details if you are unfamiliar with him or his work.

After initially sitting near the front and to the side, I suddenly realized the seat I had chosen had been reserved for another and retreated to the rear, which to be honest was something that I felt more comfortable with. As I have said numerous times, the connection of my name and his was more an accident of history above all else, and in tragic circumstances. For all that I felt that attending was, quite simply, the proper thing to do, the right thing, and I feel no need to elucidate further.

There were many faces I recognized in the gathering, and of the long list of speakers, I knew over half via grad school or my professional work at UCI. And through all the speakers — coworkers, friends, mentors, former students, colleagues — I learned, as I think we all did, about Prof. Barrett.

The life of a person is not measured in the simple matter of achievements noted and accomplishments that are easily summarized. To say that Prof. Barrett was a scholar with an already extensive series of pieces published as well as one full book with another on the way is apt and accurate, but only part of the story. Likewise his work in establishing a full academic program at UCI and then leading it until he felt he could go no further in his interactions with the university, looking to newer possibilities at UC Riverside, where he worked and taught for one full academic year, too short a time. These are the marks of a successful and driven soul, no question, and are to be rightfully acknowledged.

But as I sat and listened — I considered taking some photographs but decided against it, thinking some moments are best left in shared memories — I learned, for what seemed like the first time though I’d already heard many anecdotes and stories already, about not Prof. Barrett, but, simply, Lindon. And this was knowledge that, tempered with grief and humor, regrets and happiness, truly made me understand just how much of an impact he had made on so many, on so many levels.

The key sense was almost a cliche of a word — variety. By which I mean — each presenter had their own slant, their own style and vision and thoughts of Lindon. For all the commonalities there were also individual moments, and as each person themselves was their own person, equally complex, so too did the kaleidoscope of Prof. Barrett’s life reassemble and represent itself, ever evolving. From John Carlos Rowe’s heartfelt praise of his professional accomplishments to Fred Moten’s understated, wry humor and sad wish for a now lost chance to make up a moment that had divided them, from Donna Iliescu’s deeply moving memories to Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan’s tales of hearty drinks and humor, from Winston James’s last vision of Lindon speeding away down the street in his Lexus to, lastly and understandably most wrenchingly, brief thoughts from his family in attendance — to speak of that grief is beyond my capability — in all this, one sensed Lindon Barrett in a completer sense than ever before.

To single out one moment, not as the defining one but as the one that stays with me — Dwight McBride, who had kindly commented on my original blog entry, elaborated on his emotions and memories from there, speaking of the importance of Lindon to him as a role model, friend and colleague. He touched on everything from Prof. Barrett’s wicked wit to his elaborations of living theory and politics in all one does, and in doing so also touched on a common obsession Prof. Barrett and I had — music. Now, I would not presume to say we engaged in music in the same way — he might likely have found my preference for contemplation and sonic destabilization not his thing! — but in learning from Prof. McBride’s memories, as from others as well, how much singing, lyrics, performance was part of his life and work, I found myself more understanding of not only how he loved music but loved it as part of the whole that the world can offer.

In my own small way, fitfully, on this blog, I hope to have illustrated that I may have my own particular fascination but that I am not a one-line caricature — not that I am anything stunningly special and unique in turn, I hasten to add! I am almost certainly more of a familiar type than I will ever know. But I kick against expectations as I can, hopefully unconsciously — but more consciously on here, where I try and underscore that I am not simply a ‘music’ guy by any stretch of the imagination, say.

In contrast, for Prof. Barrett music was not where he earned his reputation, it was the realms of critical theory, race and the scarring of racism, queer theory and more besides. But music, especially in the social and the shared sense, was for him, I sense all the more now, vital — it makes sense that the valedictory quote on the back of the program, accompanied by a brief snippet of Prof. Barrett’s own thoughts on the writer, comes from Ann Petry’s The Street:

It was three o’clock when the rainbow-colored light stopped moving over the dance floor. There was a final blast from the trumpets and the orchestra men began stowing music into the cases that held their instruments. The people filed out of the big hall slowly, reluctantly. The ornate staircase was choked with them, for they walked close to each other as though still joined together by the memory of the music and the dancing.

As he spoke of his memories of Prof. Barrett, Prof. McBride then took the opportunity to sing from a favorite song of theirs, unaccompanied. It was a beautiful moment, just Prof. McBride’s voice and ourselves, in the dying heat of the day, a silence in the air if not in ourselves perhaps, as he sung a standard made famous by Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, “For All We Know”:

For all we know we may never meet again
Before you go make this moment sweet again
We won’t say good night until the last minute
I’ll hold out my hand and my heart will be in it

For all we know this may only be a dream
We come and go like a ripple on a stream
So love me tonight; tomorrow was made for some
Tomorrow may never come for all we know

In a gathering where all assembled who knew him and loved him had one awful, terrible thing in common — no chance to say goodbye — it cut to the core.

My thanks to all who organized the event and for all the kind words I received as we all talked, reflected and, in the words of Prof. James, enjoyed a libation in Lindon’s memory.