At first glance, Spelman College professor Richard D. Benson IImay seem too cool for school.
He just might be one of the most laid-back faculty members on campus.
While this may not be your typical description of a college professor, Benson would probably describe himself the same way. That’s because he doesn’t take his title, or his degree, too seriously.
“I don’t wear what I do on my sleeves,” said Benson, who sits relaxed in his office on the second floor of Giles Hall while sporting a navy blue Izod sweater, Levi jeans, and a pair of gray, low-cut Converse sneakers. “It’s just God’s blessing, straight up. I don’t have to be here. I’m living a dream.”
Benson actually never intended to become a professor. Instead, he dreamt of playing professional basketball while growing up as a teenager in Chicago. Now an assistant professor of Education Studies and teacher certification officer, he is focused on preparing the next generation of educators while remaining true to himself and his roots. His biggest influences growing up were his mother and the grandparents who helped raise him. He credits them and his college professor and mentor, Dr. Anderson Thompson, for making the best impact on his life and career.
“I don’t come from a pedigreed background,” said Benson, who joined the Spelman faculty in fall 2009. “I come from regular, Southern-bred Black folks who taught me to never look down on anyone, and to never be condescending or pretentious. My grandfather always taught me to understand and appreciate where I come from.”
The Wind Beneath His Wings
Benson proudly proclaims that he grew up in a “three-parent” household. Dubbing himself a “grandparent’s kid,” the Chicago native grew up under the strong influence of his mother, Janice Benson, and maternal grandparents Carl and Rosa Carpenter. Reared with Southern sensibilities and keen wisdom, Benson, an only child, idolized his grandfather, a World War II veteran, whom he describes as an intuitive man and critical thinker. Benson even earned the nickname “Shadow” because he spent so much time with his grandfather.
“My grandfather was my hero growing up,” he said. “He had a presence about him, and he was a very intelligent man. If there was a debate, he would research prior to make sure he had his facts straight.”
Rosa Carpenter was even more intuitive. “She could read you until the library closed and be spot on,” he joked. “She had a regal air about her. She was very serious, and she reflected a calm, but strong presence.”
Janice Benson was just as influential. A social worker with Chicago Public Schools, Benson’s mother is a lifelong learner, who earned two master’s degrees. “My mom stayed in someone’s class,” said Benson. “School for my mom was the convergence of someone who’s always talking about education and practicing what she preaches. I pick up so much from her unintended influence, but I wasn’t trying to be a teacher.”
Back in the Game
While attending the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, his beloved grandfather died. Feeling as though his world had shattered, Benson stopped studying, began partying, and quickly fell into a deep depression.
By that point, he had gained 80 pounds, had a 1.07 GPA, and his dreams of playing basketball were fading.
That’s when he decided to leave college. “I remember leaving college at four in the morning and driving from Wisconsin to Chicago in the middle of night. When I got home, my mom told me I had to get a job or go back to school.”
After working odd jobs for nearly three years, Benson decided to get his life together. He soon enrolled at South Suburban Junior College in South Holland, Ill., and was determined to turn his life around.
His determination paid off. After earning all As in junior college, Benson transferred and enrolled in his dream college, Saint Xavier University. “When I got my acceptance to get back into college, I was so happy,” he said. “I knew I was in. I was back in the game.”
Benson eventually earned a dual bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science from Saint Xavier. He was 25 years old.
Benson didn’t stop there. He also earned a master’s degree in inner-city education studies from Northeastern Illinois University and a master’s of education in instructional leadership and educational studies from the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2010, he completed his doctorate degree in educational policy studies, specializing in the history of education, from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Fighting For Our Place in the Sun
Benson is now focused on tackling his latest project. This spring, he will release Fighting For Our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement, 1960-1973. In the book, Benson hopes to frame Malcolm X as being more than the radical political figure and firebrand, but to show biographical sides seldom seen of Malcolm X: student, educator, mentor and motivator. The book illuminates the untold tenets of Malcolm X’s educational philosophy. It also traces a historical trajectory of Black activists who sought to create educational spaces free from cultural and racial oppression in the spirit of Malcolm X.
“People don’t really understand who Malcolm X was,” said Benson, who became intrigued with Malcolm X at the age of 6, and began researching his life as a graduate student. “Speeches, documentaries and interviews don’t really capture his persona. Malcolm couldn’t be squarely defined. You see a figure reduced to a slogan or an image. We hope to understand him through film, books or a movie depiction. People have also attempted to define him, but he was very complex. All he did, and all he experienced, made him who he was and what he was. He evolved. He was serious and focused. His was a life lived before it was transformed.”
As a professor, Benson is committed to “making it plain” – just like Malcolm X.
“Malcolm X provided plain, practical analysis that was deeply thought out, which made it easy for people to understand what he was saying,” said Benson, who is currently on a book tour. My teaching style reminds me of my grandparents and the old cats in Chicago I grew up around who discussed politics and history. They made it plain. When I teach, I always have a plan. I deconstruct and reconstruct. I can make it plain. If I’ve taught without making students feel like they’re in a classroom session, then I’m really doing my job.”
Story by Alicia Lurry, senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.