P. Sterling Stuckey

Photo from the University of California Riverside

African American, History

P. Sterling Stuckey


Dr. Ples Sterling Stuckey, Jr. contributed to transforming scholarship on slavery from speculations by plantation owners to a focus on the voices, identities, and cultural practices of enslaved people. He was born in 1932 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Ples Sterling Stuckey, a waiter at the historic Peabody Hotel, and Elma Earline Johnson Stuckey, a poet and a teacher in Memphis. During the Great Migration, his family moved to Chicago, where he went to high school. Starting in 1945, Stuckey worked as a teacher and postal clerk while attending Northwestern University, where he received a BA in Political Science (1955). In the early 1960s, he taught elementary and high school; co-founded and chaired the Emergency Relief Fund, which delivered food, clothing and money to voter registration drives in Tennessee (1960-1962); worked as a lead organizer and Midwestern Regional Director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) (1960-1963); chaired the Chicago Freedom Rider Committee (1961); and co-wrote the history curriculum for Freedom Summer (1963). He then returned to graduate school at Northwestern, where he earned his MA (1965) and PhD (1972) in history. His scholarship was greatly shaped by his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.

As a graduate student, Stuckey wrote a transformative article that is credited with revolutionizing historical scholarship on slavery. In “Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery” (1968), Stuckey argued that African origins and traditional cultural practices were essential to understanding African American culture, agency, and resistance under oppression. Influenced by a Du Boisian scholar/activist model, Stuckey brought both intellectual rigor and a commitment to social justice to his scholarly endeavors. 

Stuckey’s spectacular and interdisciplinary scholarship opened an opportunity to join the faculty at Northwestern, where he stayed until 1989. He then accepted the Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside (UC-R) as a full professor. Recipient of numerous national fellowships and awards, he taught at UC-R for the rest of his career.  

Stuckey is probably best known for his groundbreaking book Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America (1987). In it, he argues that during the periods of enslavement through the freedom struggle, African American people remained essentially African in culture, which could be seen in their expressive arts—oral traditions, music, dance, and visual arts. He identified the significance of the ring shout and its circular formation as a foundational concept connecting U.S. African American cultures to Africa and the African diaspora.   

Among his publications:

Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory & the Foundation of Black America (1987)

Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (1994)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)