Dick Blackett

1969 History, Economics and Politics

Alumni of the Month January 2011 How did you get to where you are now?
I could use the old John Lennon response to the question how did he get to America and say, "I turned left at Puerto Rico", but I assume you mean to get at my intellectual journey. After leaving Keele, I did an MA in American Studies (part time) at Manchester University. My first teaching job was at the University of Pittsburgh in 1971. I left for Indiana University in 1985. I was named the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston in 1996. I joined the department of History at Vanderbilt in 2002.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?
The number of graduate students that have studied with me at Indiana, Houston and Vanderbilt, all of whom are now teaching.

And your biggest mistake?
I should have thought seriously about becoming a professional footballer or cricket player!

What are your ambitions now?
To complete my next two projected books one of which is a history of football in Trinidad and Tobago. Then I can retire where it is warm all year round.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?
Bring to the field a small ego and a passion for teaching and writing.

What made you choose Keele University?
I have said this before to the consternation of Keele folks: because the dormitories were central heated. My first winter in England was the coldest on record and the house where I lived in London was unheated. When it came time to apply to university, I collected the necessary UCCA form. I chose Keele for the first 5 options; Bristol was the 6th. It is only later that I found out that Keele had so much more to offer.

What kind of a student were you?
I was not the bright spark in the lot. In fact, on the way up to Keele by bus from London I overheard fellow freshers talking about their A-level results and it depressed the hell out of me. I was convinced I could not cut the mustard. My interview before I was admitted nearly sealed the deal: I walked into the interview room and was greeted with a question from Alan Hall of Classics: “What do you think was the main argument of Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. “ I mumbled my way through that one and tried to turn the discussion to cricket. But my tutor Paul Rolo set me straight with one of those bits of advice that comes one’s way rarely: “If you have to do more than two hours of additional work a day beyond preparing for a tutorial, you are not clever enough to be here.” Less is more I thought.

How has Keele influenced your life?
A small intellectual community where one could run across one’s teacher in the bar in the Union made for a very comfortable setting. It provided me with the means to think seriously about staying in the business of teaching and doing research. I ran across some impressive teachers and a few strange ones too, but all in all, they pushed me to think critically.

What is your favourite memory of Keele?
Walks in the woods; freezing trying to play football on pitches exposed to the winds of the Urals; playing basketball in huts that put paid to shots with any arc; making friends with whom I am still in contact; and experiencing the nuttiness of the Sixties in a special space.

What is your impression of Keele now?
As it has expanded it has lost some of its charm. Gone are the breakfasts in which eggs and sausages swilled around in beans the colour of nuclear material waste. That surely must be for the better.

Anything else you would like to add?
Not really.