of the City University of New York. "People think that’s a big transition. For me, it was a transformation."
As a child, James found more comfort in the cello, gymnastics and his mother’s collection of mail-order books than in the rigors of the classroom. In 1969, when he was 17, he dropped out of high school and became one with the socio-political movement of the day. He sold the Black Panther newspaper along Bronx streets as a community worker for the nationalist organization, often landing on the steps of local college campuses. Lehman College, one of the many colleges that make up the City University of New York, would later play a pivotal role in James’ life.
In 1971, he traded his Panther black combat boots for the hard hat of a carpenter’s trainee. "Construction was the best hiding place for a radical," says James, who had just married. "I had been politically active and had no plans of going back to school." Yet, as much as he tried to hide, "school" found him as construction sites became his classrooms. "When you work with your hands, you get to use your mind," says James, now 46. "There is a lot of opportunity to think and talk." He also became a student of tai chi, the ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movement that helped him to relax, especially during the times to come.
By 1978, construction jobs had diminished and his marriage had ended in divorce. He was a driver for a commuter bus line, working three-hour stints during the morning and evening rush hours. On his second day at work, he drove to his familiar haunt, Lehman Colege, and registered for classes right on the spot. "I was driven to finish what I didn’t when I was younger," says James, who attended classes in between his runs.
"The first part of preparing for change is figuring out what burns inside of you and pursuing that goal," notes Marilyn Greist of Career Systems International, a career development consulting firm. Although James had shunned his early schooling, it turned out that he had a passion for education.
Nine years later, James earned his degree in English and applied to graduate school. He checked the box on the GRE exam to have his scores sent to universities he was interested in, but never imagined Harvard would respond. Not only had Harvard accepted him, but Columbia as well. With a stipend in hand, James was off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1987 to study English and American literature.
A Dexter Fellowship from Harvard took him to England in 1989. He also traveled throughout Switzerland, France and Spain. The experience was enough to prompt the knowledge-hungry academic to take a four-year break in his formal studies to hang out in Europe and immerse himself in African American literature and language. A visiting professorship at Columbia University and his daughter Joy’s high school graduation finally lured him back