Graduate Student Profile - Derrick Gilbert (Sociology)
For more than a year, Derrick Gilbert had spent many hours hanging out with the African American men who patronize a Long Beach barber shop, doing research for his master's thesis in sociology. He'd concluded that the men's identities-as well as their hair-were being shaped by interactions there.
And then a movie featuring his alter ego, D-Knowledge, came to town, and Derrick's cover was blown. No longer just a graduate student, just an observer; he was a movie star, the center of attention. Derrick closed up the research and wrote his paper.
Now, as he puts the final touches on his PhD dissertation, Derrick may be the only UCLA graduate student who has an agent, a publicist, and a business manager. He is also a poet, a featured TV and film performer (as D-Knowledge), a published author, a dedicated teacher, and a volunteer at Juvenile Hall. The various identities have a synergy that makes them less separate roles than various expressions of the same face.
In his dissertation, "From Watts to Leimert Park: Two Generations of African American Poetry Movements in Los Angeles," Derrick looks at how the authors in both periods used poetry to organize their lives. Among the many interesting contrasts are changes in content: "You don't have people talking about revolution today," Derrick says. "The revolution people are talking about has to do with introspective issues like biracial identity, maybe sexuality, maybe who am I."
But Leimert Park is more than a research topic. An early visit inspired him to write poetry himself, and he is now one of the writers who read or perform regularly on Wednesday evenings at the Anansi Writers Workshop, at The World Stage on Degnan Boulevard. His appearances on stage led to opportunities to appear on TV and in film, performing his poems. And some of the other Leimert Park writers-as well as poets from the Watts Writers Workshop--are featured in his book, Catch the Fire!!! A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry.
The anthology grew out of an experience he had as a volunteer at Juvenile Hall. After a long discouraging day reading poetry to young men and women imprisoned there, he went home and read some more poetry. Sonia Sanchez and her poem "Catch the Fire!!!" caught his attention. In her poem, the phrase becomes an anthem, urging youngsters to get excited about their culture and turn away from violence, drugs, and despair.
Derrick took that anthem as the title for his anthology of poetry by African American poets, as well as rap artists, Hollywood actors, an NBA all-star, government workers, computer consultants, comedians, and the unemployed. The book is dedicated to youth, he says in the Introduction, "but it is inspired by all those who have dedicated their lives to positive poetic change--whether they are poets or not."
Although Derrick can count Sanchez and other noted African American poets among his personal friends--along with film director John Singleton, producer/musician Quincy Jones, and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal--he sees that too much absorption in stardom could damage his poetry. He's not comfortable with fame, he says, and "I don't know if I want to be comfortable with it."
He sees his future, not in entertainment, but in academia. "I love the imagination, the excitement, the energy, the exuberance, the vitality, the strength, the courage, the disappointment, the rage, the frustration, all that stuff that exists in the university," he says. And in particular, "I actually love the idea of teaching."
For three years, Derrick has been Jerome Rabow's partner in teaching a class called "Intergroup Conflict and Prejudice." Hepores over books and probes the Internet, looking for interesting facts or dramatic anecdotes that will appeal to his students. "I just love the oohs and ahs in their voices and the sparkle in their eyes when this stuff hits them," Derrick says, allowing that he is drawn to "that ultimate moment when a student actually gets something and you feel like you were part of that process."
Derrick is part of a continuum of accomplished African American scholars. After finishing his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley in 3 years, Derrick had his pick of graduate schools. He came here because UCLA's Professor Walter Allen started talking to him when he was a junior and kept up the conversation until he arrived in Los Angeles. "He had such a passion, such a genuineness, that I thought I'd be a fool to go anywhere else," Derrick says.
Dr. Allen, who calls Derrick "a stellar student in a group of stellar students," is part of a cadre of African American scholars around the country who seek out promising Black students and encourage them to consider graduate studies. The group's goal is "to build a series of bridges into the future," Dr. Allen says, "via successive generations of people who are merging a social commitment with a quest for academic excellence."
Derrick understands that concept: "I have a big stake in opening up this door of humanity, in folks getting along," he said. "I want to use my educational resources, my teaching, my writing, my poetry, to help that end."
Published in Spring 1998, Graduate Quarterly