Whenever students from black organizations on campus are in need of support or a phenomenal speaker for their events, Anthony B. Major is the man they know they can count on.
As program director for the Zora Neale Hurston Institute for Documentary Studies and the Africana studies minor, as well as an associate professor of film, Major strives to preserve, share and spread black culture through media and his teachings.
Before arriving at UCF in 1994, Major had an extensive career in entertainment as an actor, director and producer for three decades. His impressive resume includes production credits with Eddie Murphy, Dolly Parton, Robert DeNiro and Red Foxx, whom he worked closely with for six years as vice president of the Sanford and Son actor’s company.
Eventually Major grew tired of show business and decided to move back to his home state of Florida to settle down. He was drawn to teaching because he often found himself in the role of instructor throughout his career.
“I figured the knowledge I picked up in this business over those years I can now share and pass on,” Major said. “Teaching has allowed me to work with some of the most talented students and to help them with their careers, which has paid off over the years because that’s what kind of keeps me going now. It’s all for the students.”
We sat down with Major to get to know more about the man who has been deeply invested in his students and has served as a strong representative to UCF’s black community for 23 years:
Nicole Dudenhoefer: What made you want to teach at UCF?:
Anthony B. Major: I went to see a production in the theatre department that was so professional that I didn’t mind attaching my name to something of that quality. Being a professional in this business, you have to be very careful of the quality, and I saw it somewhere between off-Broadway and Broadway quality. The acting, the special effects, the direction, the lighting, the set design, all of that was just on the money.
ND: When you were growing up, who were some of your role models in the black community?
ABM: One of my biggest heroes is Muhammad Ali because it was very difficult in my era growing up. Having black men stand up for something like real men, they did it constantly, but their stories were not told – his was.
James Brown is another one and some people don’t understand the social significance of James Brown. His music gave blacks a release from the day-to-day tension and anxieties and frustrations that they would go through working on jobs, in people’s kitchens, and being called a boy when you’re 70 years old, being called the N-word for no reason whatsoever or going to a segregated school that’s unequal. So that frustration got released by dancing to James Brown and you were too tired to do anything else.
One thing people don’t know is that during the riots, James Brown was hired to perform because people would stop rioting to go to the concert, so the social significance of James Brown was huge, because that’s the influence he had through his music, on that level.
ND: You’re on leave this semester to work on documentaries about Trayvon Martin and Eatonville. Why do you feel it’s important to document these moments in history?
ABM: Because it is important to document that history of underserved populations, because those stories are not being told. Ten years ago a class of mine put together a documentary on Goldsboro, a community in Sanford, the city where Travyon Martin was shot.
Goldsboro was its own town like Eatonville, but they [Sanford and the Florida Legislature] got rid of it overnight. So we did a documentary on that thriving-like town that just got pushed aside because they needed to expand Sanford.
The class was so moved by what they saw and meeting the people and talking to the people that we decided to re-edit that piece and tell the story through the eyes of the UCF students. One of the students that we used, her words at the end said that there were plenty stories that people were willing to tell as long as there was someone willing to listen, and that’s crucial, because like I said, those stories go untold.
They’re gems of stories, and I want to listen. I want to document it so that it’ll be in the archives for UCF students, and actually in the library so people from all of the world can study and look up these untold stories that they can relate to.
ND: You’ve been involved with the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts in Eatonville for over a decade. What has been an important moment for you in that time?
ABM: One year a professor brought a group of graduate students from Russia to experience the festival. Afterward they spoke about the effect that Eatonville had on them, how Eatonville would always be a part of their lives and their hearts, and how Eatonville had changed them and what they learned. It was amazing.
For them to know that story, to come to America and experience that, and to say that it reminded them of where they grew up in Russia, it shows the story is a universal story. It’s not just a story about Eatonville and Zora, that she wrote and touched lives of people all over the world.
ND: What is your hope for the future of the Africana studies minor?
ABM: I would like for it to become a major, but there isn’t enough students enrolled. The problem is most of the students who come to UCF graduate and do not know we exist.
I’ve also always wanted to turn it into a research institute where professors who study Africana studies could then do their work.
ND: Is it also a hope for you that Africana studies wouldn’t have to be a minor, that it would just be a part of standard history that’s accepted and acknowledged?
ABM: Of course. Everybody says, “Why do you need your thing over there?” Because it’s been left out is why. You study French. You study Russian. You study all these different histories, and you have professors who are astute in those areas. But real inclusiveness happens when you start out teaching it in kindergarten.
ND: How do you think the country can begin to address the current racial tension?
ABM: Listen. Listen and use common sense. When people talk at each other and not listen to each other, then you can’t hope for any kind of change.
People also have to be willing to learn. That’s why I love students, because they listen. It doesn’t necessarily mean they change everything, ‘cause I always tell students to question me, but it’s listening. And that’s not happening because everybody’s coming here with their own agenda.
For this to really happen it’s gonna have to be taught from K to 12. Once it’s taught K-12, then people in that generation will grow up knowing the worth of all human beings, of women, of men, of African Americans, of Jewish Americans, of Italian Americans, of German Americans, of whomever, of white Americans, male and female, gay or straight.