YAM Notes: November/December 2016

By Martin M. Snapp, Jr.

To the rest of the world, he was the great J. Michael Turner, professor of history at Hunter College and one of the planet’s leading experts on African history, the African diaspora, and Afro-Latin history, as well as electoral observer at the historic Mozambique elections in 1994, participant in the pathbreaking visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, cofounder of the Global Afro Latino and Caribbean Initiative, and a personal link among activists, international and domestic NGOs, academics, and government agencies.

But to us, he was simply our friend Mike. To know him was to love him, and it seemed as if he knew everybody at Yale. Big and booming, with a heart to match, he was larger than life in every sense of the phrase, and one of the most memorable characters any of us has ever met, even in this class of memorable characters. On August 25 Hunter College issued this announcement:

“Our colleague, friend, and teacher J. Michael Turner died August 24 after a long illness. Professor Turner, who first came to Hunter as a visiting professor in 1987, was global before the term became popular. He embraced the concept in his activism, his personal life, and his scholarship, all three of which he combined seamlessly.

“An adventurous, generous, joyful man who was comfortable all over the world, J. Michael Turner will be very much missed by the many colleagues and friends he cultivated worldwide, and will be long remembered for his loyal friendship, supportive good humor, and initiative in placing Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latin realities onto academic and social policy agendas so that others could follow in his footsteps.”

Mike had been ailing for many years, and he was too ill to make it to the last reunion. But several of our classmates stopped by his apartment in New York after the reunion to visit him. As soon as word of his death got around, the tributes started pouring in.

“Mike, Mike Mattil, Bob Allison, and I were roommates in Morse for three years,” says Jim Peters. “Bob and the two Mikes were roommates freshman year as well. Both Mikes were amazing people, and now the two Mikes are gone.

“Mike and I were two of the then fantastically large cohort of 12 African American students who entered Yale in the fall of 1963, and the only two affiliated with Morse. Mike was a New Yorker from Sugar Hill, Harlem. I was from Avon, Connecticut. So he was urban, and I was suburban. He was the sophisticate, and I was the hick. Yet we hit it off immediately. Mike was warm and sincere and always ready for a bit of fun. He was fluent in French and Portuguese and loved to travel. He was probably happiest in Brazil. (He had designed his doctoral dissertation so that he could travel back and forth between South America, Europe, and Africa.) He is already missed by many.”

Bob Allison adds, “The first time I walked into our Bingham Hall suite in the fall of 1963 I found Mike Turner and Mike Mattil engaged in spirited conversation. In one form or another, that conversation continued for almost half a century. We lost Mattil in 2007, and now with Turner’s death on August 24 that conversation has gone silent. The friendship of ‘the two Mikes’ was one of the great gifts of my years at Yale. For a variety of reasons, my friendship with Mike Turner grew to become particularly strong. Mike was always fun to be with. His warm and welcoming smile made it clear you were in good company.

“In spite of his sophistication, Mike never treated me like the naïve Midwestern provincial I was but gently encouraged me to explore a broader world, which included places like New York City and Mozambique, and musicians like Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Odetta, Carmen McRae, and Bobby Short, to name a few. Mike’s long history of work in various countries in Africa and in Brazil was an inspiration for me to sign on as a United Nations volunteer in Burundi and to subsequently serve with the UN in Somalia in the post-collapse era. Were it not for his guidance and support I would likely have missed these opportunities. Mike also gave me some insight into the challenges faced by black men in late twentieth-century America. He was a mentor, a role model, and a dear friend with an irresistible joie de vivre. All who knew him will miss him greatly.”

Mike Orlansky recalls, “Jerry was my friend and classmate in both high school and college. A true son of Manhattan, he lived on Convent Avenue, almost directly across the street from the home of Alexander Hamilton. At the High School of Music and Art (only a few blocks away), J. Michael was a top student in academics and music, sang in the competitive senior choral ensemble, and excelled in history. In our 1982 class directory, he wrote, ‘I consider my experience at Yale to be an important part of the process of teaching me to think on my feet, which is perhaps becoming as essential within the US as it has been in living and working in the so-called developing world.’

“I will remember him as an extremely talented, insightful, and engaging person. He had a deep sense of fairness and justice, and he backed up his principles by taking concrete actions.”

Finally, Rick Taft says, “In a stark manifestation of the importance that can attach to a single conversation, my utterly dominant memory of Mike comes from being seated next to him at a reunion tent dinner nine years ago. We had a wide-ranging conversation, by turns affectionate, revealing, and luminous. It seemed to me he had turned the American racial conundrum on its head; he had dug his way far enough into the black experience to gain pride, enhance his natural generosity of spirit, understand more deeply the world around him, and build a successful academic career. Requiescat in pace.”