(b. 1952), essayist, cultural critic, editor, educator, and poet.
Born in Philadelphia, Gerald Early earned degrees from University of Pennsylvania (BA 1974) and Cornell University (MA 1980, PhD 1982). He is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and a former director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His first essay collection, Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture (1989), treats cultural topics such as politics, Miss America, boxing, and jazz. The relevance of popular culture for Early comes from its connection to the marginalized in American society and from the enormous creative involvement of African Americans in it. Through popular culture, musicians, sports figures, and writers have at once asserted and subverted the language and symbolism of mainstream culture. Early notes how the appropriation of white discourse cast two of his literary forebears, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston, into the double role of criticizing dominant culture while inevitably being part of it. The contrast between Early's youth in a working-class, mainly African American neighborhood and his adult life among many middle-class whites informs his concern with double consciousness and identity. He organizes a larger exploration of the double role of African Americans in his editing of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation (1993).
In editing the two-volume collection Speech and Power: The African-American Essay and Its Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit (1992–1993), Early asserts that one cannot adequately appreciate African American literature without an ample understanding of the essay in the hands of the African American. He also notes the impact of H. L. Mencken's essays on African American writers, including Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. Although conscious of the general influence of the African American autobiographical tradition (especially the work of Douglass) and the sermonic tradition found in James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr., Early himself wanted to write essays after reading Amiri Baraka's Home: Social Essays (1966).
In The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (1994), as in Tuxedo Junction, he writes less about baseball, boxing, or music and more about the surrounding symbols, personalities, and narratives from which he then draws meaning or provokes thought. As an essayist, he sets himself apart from rigidly academic criticism and theory and relies on a variety of unconventional references including personal experience, which he uses to verify or enrich his observations about cultural issues. The final essays of The Culture of Bruising turn more toward the personal, and he continues this autobiographical work in Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood (1995), where stories from his life illuminate familiar concerns such as class divisions within race, racial prejudice, and assimilation.
In addition to the works mentioned above, Early has edited My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance (1991) and has published One Nation under a Groove: Motown and American Culture (1995) and How the War in the Streets Is Won: Poems on the Quest of Love and Faith (1995). His work has appeared in the annual anthology Best American Essays, and he received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994 for The Culture of Bruising. In 2001 he edited The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader. In 2006 Early was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Evelyn and William Jaffe Medal for Distinguished Service to the Humanities.