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Richard Iton, African American Studies Scholar, Dies at 51

Professor explored how black popular culture forged community, influenced politics

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Richard Iton, a Northwestern University professor of African American studies nationally known for his insights on the ways black popular culture forged community and affected politics, died Thursday, April 2l. Iton, 51, had battled leukemia for 11 years, unbeknownst to his Northwestern colleagues. 

A political scientist by training, he wrote the award-winning book “In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era” (Oxford University Press, 2008). The Los Angeles Times called it a “fascinating history and analysis of black popular culture and activism from the Jazz Age to the hip-hop era.” 

The book -- which won the American Political Science Association’s 2009 Ralphe Bunche Award and was named a 2009 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title -- explores the relationship between popular culture and institutionalized politics by tracing the connections between Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Pryor, Bob Marley and other artists.

Iton’s Northwestern colleagues and students remember him not only for his scholarship but also for his generous spirit and thoughtful advice. He resided in Chicago.

“Richard was a phenomenal scholar, colleague and teacher, but my dearest memories are of his mentorship,” said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, African American studies department chair. “He took seriously the work and joy of mentoring graduate students and junior faculty alike, with an open door, wise counsel and a calming energy.” 

“The fact that we didn’t know that Richard was battling leukemia is an example of how he cared about his colleagues and students,” said Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and professor of history at Northwestern. “He didn’t want to burden us with that knowledge.”

Simultaneously calling Iton “an incredibly private person” and “a most giving person,” Hine said he “always pushed his students to be more rigorous, more analytical, but did so in a way in which they always felt affirmed and never reproached. If he came across a book he thought would help you in your work, he’d give you a copy.”

Iton, who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1994, played an instrumental role in developing Northwestern’s Ph.D. program in African American studies. He taught at McGill University and the University of Toronto before joining the Northwestern faculty in 2002 in African American studies and political science.

Iton is author of “Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture, and the American Left” (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), which won the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award in 2001 and the American Political Science Association’s “Best Book of 2000 on the Social and Ideological Construction of Race.”

He taught numerous courses on black politics, including “Race, Ethnicity and the American Constitution” and the especially sought after “Politics of Black Popular Culture.” 

Iton’s ashes will be spread in Jamaica. He is survived by his parents, John and Carmen Iton of Toronto as well as his brothers, Brian and Tony, and their families.

An event to honor him is being planned by his colleagues in the African American studies department.