In Memoriam: Richard Iton

April 26, 2013

Richard Iton

The Department of Political Science mourns the loss of our former colleague, Richard Iton, who passed away on April 24, 2013 in Evanston, Illinois, of leukemia. Richard joined the Department as an Assistant Professor in 1994, having completed his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and, before that, his B.A. and M.A. degrees at McGill University. After receiving tenure here in 1999, Richard moved to Northwestern University as a professor of African American Studies and Political Science. We were fortunate to have him rejoin us as a colleague in 2008-09, when he was cross-appointed between Political Science and Diaspora and Transnational Studies. To our regret, he decided to return to Northwestern in 2009.

Richard’s brilliant scholarly career was marked by the publication of two award-winning books. His first book, Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), makes a distinctive case about exceptionalism and the historical weakness of the American Left: that the Left has been divided against itself from the beginning because of its incapacity to come to terms with the defining place of race in the American social order. This book won the Gustavus Meyer Outstanding Book Award and the Best Book Award of the American Political Science Association’s Race, Ethnicity and Politics Section.

Richard’s second book, In Search of the Black Fantastic (Oxford University Press, 2008), is a magisterial overview of the intersection of African American culture and politics. The work traces the transformation of collective black consciousness through a breathtakingly intricate study of representations of black identity in literature, film and music. The period of African Americans’ relative invisibility on the main political stage did not, he shows, signify Black depoliticization. To the contrary, the disillusionment with mainstream politics – the post-civil rights judgment that such politics hold little promise of overcoming racial hierarchies – produced a shift of energies to the cultural sphere. Through this period, the “Black superpublic”– encompassing Black Atlantic intellectuals as well as pop music and film – was the place to look for an understanding of Black politics. The work’s meticulous historical research and profound theoretical analysis were recognized through the prestigious Ralph Bunche Award of the American Political Science Association in 2009.

Richard was working on a third book, Ghosts, Text and Play: Politics Beyond the Boundary.

Richard’s premature death is tragic for our discipline, as we all had a great deal more to learn from him. His scholarly career was at its peak. But it is a heavy blow as well because of Richard’s extraordinary qualities of character. His warm, wry smile conveyed a deep wisdom about the human condition, but also a gentleness of spirit that formed a powerful contrast with the bright edge of his social criticism. Humble and self-effacing, he was the epitome of still waters running deep. His kindness and generosity as a colleague, a teacher, a mentor and a friend were unfailing. He was taken far too soon, and he will be deeply missed.

Written by Professor Melissa Williams

To read Northwestern’s tribute to Richard Iton please click here.