Daphne Brooks ‘86 Talks Music Critic Dreams, PhD Research, and Teaching

4 mins read

“I am forever indebted to all of my English teachers,” said Professor Daphne Brooks ‘86. Brooks is a professor at Yale University, with a focus in African American Studies; American Studies; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Music.

Brooks credits the start of her path in education to her parents, who were both educators in the Sequoia district. She said, “My dad, Nathaniel Hawthorne Brooks, became the first African American principal of a public high school in San Francisco, and my mom, Juanita Brooks, taught middle school in the Ravenswood City School District.”

Brooks and her parents

Brooks always had a passion for English and journalism. She explained, “I loved reading novels in high school, but also loved reading the modern press and cultural arts journalism, so I would live for the San Francisco Chronicle’s weekend reviews of movies and music. I wanted to be a music and movie critic, then I fell in love with punk rock and hip hop, and figured I could get paid to write about this music.”

She added, “I was an intern at a couple of local newspapers during the summers because I really wanted to be a journalist. For the longest time, I really wanted to be a rock music critic.”

In the hopes of becoming a rock critic, Brooks dabbled in writing about concerts and musicians at M-A. She said, “I occasionally wrote for M-A’s paper—including a story about meeting Stewart Copeland, the drummer of my favorite rock band, the New Wave trio The Police. I also covered the Amnesty International concert at the Cow Palace featuring U2, Tracy Chapman, and Sting.”

Brooks at her graduation

Brooks also remembered, “The first week of my sophomore year, I won an MTV contest that featured a limo and backstage passes to [the band] The Police concert at the Oakland Coliseum. It was an all-day festival called Day on the Green.”

On the community at M-A, she said, “It was racially segregated. My two best friends were also African American girls, and the three of us and one other boy were the only African American students in AP classes all the way through M-A.”

She shared, “The most important person in M-A for my friends and me was Sara Boyd, our college counselor. She was probably the first African American college counselor at M-A, and she was absolutely incredible.”

After graduating from M-A, Brooks attended UC Berkeley. She majored in English and minored in African American Studies. She explained, “I went to Berkeley knowing that I wanted to major in English because I loved writing and literature, specifically African American literature. My sister used to bring home all of this great literature by black feminist writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, so I was reading a lot of it since junior high.”

Brooks’ plan of becoming a rock critic changed after speaking with one of her professors. She said, “I told one of my professors I wanted to be the first black feminist to have a column in the Rolling Stone magazine. My professor told me without even blinking, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ I thought I was going to cry, but she told me very lovingly, ‘You’re going to have a lot more job security if you become a professor, and will be able to write about both black feminist literature as well as the music you care about.’”

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1990, Brooks started her doctoral program at UCLA in 1991. She decided to focus on early African American literature in her research. She said, “I was really interested in how there were so many black women in the 19th century who were writing literature as a form of resistance, and fighting for the liberation of African Americans. I prepared a dissertation prospectus in which I described my intent to research the history and literature of 19th century Black women journalists who were also novelists and grassroots activists.”

On the process, she explained, “I did a lot of archival research, so my dissertation was about African American writers and performers who were producing all of these spectacular works of art to resist things like slavery and Jim Crow segregation. During these dissertation writing years, I would get funding to travel to libraries around the world and immerse myself in the archives to try and learn more about my topic and to put together an argument about what I was finding.”

After finishing her dissertation and earning her PhD, she was awarded a fellowship at UC Berkeley where she spent two years working on turning her project into a book. Books are highly important in academia, Brooks said, as they are the basis on which “colleagues in your department vote on whether to give you tenure or not.”

Since 1999, Brooks has taught at UC San Diego, Princeton, and Yale. She currently serves on the faculty at Yale and has been there for almost ten years. She teaches in four different departments. She explained, “Although I’m a friend to English, I am not on the faculty in English any longer (Brooks taught in the English Department and African American Studies at Princeton for 13 years), but I love teaching in interdisciplinary units. I can teach history, music, literature, theatre, feminist theory—whatever I need to tell the story of what it is my classes are pursuing.” 

For her students, she added, “I really want them to be able to use what they’re learning about culture in my classes and be able to think from a variety of different angles about the importance of culture in the making of America. I want my students to consider the ways that we understand power and marginalization and how culture has been used as a tool of uplift. I want them to discover the ways that literature, music, and theatre have been used by communities to come to know themselves and also lobby for liberation.”

Brooks’ advice to current M-A students: “Think outside of the box and be willing to reach across whatever barrier exists between their own community and others and try to find some lines of affinity with people outside of their own communities.”

Brooks’ advice to students interested in becoming a professors: “If you’re interested in becoming a professor, get to know your professors once you get to college. Visit them during office hours. Attend lectures that interest you and read books by scholars in the field you love. And if you want to be a rock critic too, just like the song says, ‘don’t stop believing.’”

Tessa is a junior in her second year of journalism. She enjoys co-writing for the Bears Doing Big Things column and the social trends happening at M-A. Tessa also enjoys playing tennis and is on the varsity team.

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