Spirits, family guided and molded Joseph Brown so he can do the same for students


Joseph Brown, a professor in the Africana Studies program gestures Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, at his office in Faner Hall. (Ellen Booth | @EllenBooth_DE)

By Isabelle Rogers

Many of Joseph Brown’s major life events have been guided by spiritual voices.  

When he was sitting at a friend’s funeral in 1990, Brown, a professor of Africana studies, said he heard her voice say, “You know you need to go to New Orleans.”

This guiding voice inspired him to take an administrative job he had been offered in Louisiana, he said. It happened again while he was planning his father’s funeral in 1978 and he said he heard him say, “I told you to get all the education you could.”


Immediately, Brown said he knew he had to go back to school to get his doctorate.

“When people talk to me on a spiritual level, then I have to listen to them,” Brown said.

Brown, who is also a priest at the Newman Center and Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit in Carterville, was born in East St. Louis in 1945 and lived there until he was 12 years old.

His family then moved to a majority white town in Wisconsin where he and his sister desegregated a school. Brown lived there for six years until he went into the seminary, he said.

When Brown and his family got to Wisconsin, he and his sister transferred into a new school, where they found themselves the only black students enrolled.

Brown said that when they walked into school the first day and nobody knew what to do with them, they adapted the best they could.

Though he said his parents raised him to be culturally conscious, Brown said being the only black boy in school for years was traumatic.


Being the only black student directed lot of unwanted attention onto him, Brown said, which makes him shy away from the spotlight even today.

“I’m not going to be paralyzed by [my trauma,]” Brown said. “If somebody said can you do something, or will you do something, or go do it, yes [I’ll do it.]”

As he was growing up, various figures in his life, including his own parents, pushed him into joining the seminary.

“I was never inspired to go into the seminary,” Brown said. “I was manipulated into it. The question is not what inspired me to join, but what grace I found to stay for 55 years.”

Though Brown never wanted to become a priest, he said he still appreciates the push his parents gave him and that they made the right choice, even if he didn’t get a say in the matter.

“This is something I’m always telling people, but in your circle of support, the only thing faith means is if there are people you respect and trust and they tell you something that you don’t really understand, listen to them,” Brown said. “People can see things in us that we can’t always see.”

After seminary, Brown received his bachelor’s in Philosophy and Letters from St. Louis University in 1968, his master’s from Johns Hopkins and Yale University in 1969 and 1983, respectively, and his doctorate from Yale University in 1984.

Brown said that most of his life, people have been pushing him to do the things that made him successful. Brown said that his job at SIU is the only job he has ever applied for.

“I don’t have the personality to say, ‘What would I like to do?’ and then go do it,” Brown said. “If someone asks me to do something, then I go do it.”  

As a professor, Brown’s students say he pushes them too.

“He will find a way to make sure you have what you need,” said Bethany Peppers, a sophomore from Urbana studying Africana studies and political science. “He wants us all to get our degrees. He wants us to not only get our piece of paper, but grow while we’re doing it.”

Peppers said she probably wouldn’t still be attending college at SIU without Brown’s help, adding he has always been willing to listen to anything she has to say and help her transition to college life.

Along with Peppers, Marissa Jackson, a senior from Champaign studying Africana studies, said she learned a lot about what she wanted to do in the future from Brown.

When she left home, Jackson said she thought she wanted to go into education. Brown made her dig deeper into her own personal interests, and she said she realized she wants to work in an administrative position, filling a role such as director of student engagement, diversity affairs or student affairs at a university.

“He taught me a lot about how to help people, but also through that he taught me how to help myself with self care and how important self care is when it comes to helping other people,” Jackson said. “He just really taught me how to help people, how to listen, just be a warrior for you and for the students who need you.”

Both Peppers and Jackson said the support Brown has given his students is one of the most inspiring things about him.

“No matter what field you’re going into, no matter what career you want, no matter what you’re studying, it’s important to have that [support system], and he’s that for so many people,” Peppers said.

Staff writer Isabelle Rogers can be reached at irogers@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @isabellearogers. 

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