WEDITORS’ NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of articles about prominent black figures at the University. Look for the articles each Wednesday this month.
hen professor Keith Mayes first arrived at the University, he didn’t expect students to utilize him as a resource as often as they have, he said.
“It was something I was not initially comfortable with,” he said, “but I understand the historical reasons why (students) would gravitate towards me, and I accept them with open arms.”
The current director of undergraduate studies in the department of African American and African studies hails from “that historical neighborhood called Harlem,” he said.
He came to Minnesota after graduating from City University of New York and Princeton University three years ago.
“Although I’m a big city kid, I don’t like the big city. I grew up hating New York because of its size,” Mayes said. “So, returning to an urban environment like Minneapolis and St. Paul in many ways was to go home, but to go home on a smaller scale. And I like that. I like that a lot,” he said.
Since arriving at the University, Mayes’ courses have been very popular, said Alexs Pate, professor of African American and African studies.
Mayes is full of energy and new knowledge, Pate said.
“I think he is the best example of what young scholars should be,” he said.
Mayes frequently works with students outside class and is “one of the most popular mentors on this campus, period,” said Aurelius Butler II, teaching assistant for Mayes’ African American history course.
“He’s one of the few teachers on campus here that cultivates potential,” he said. “A lot of us come from places where people never really taught us what steps to take in order to get places, but he makes it a point to.”
Butler said Mayes gave him the opportunity to be a teaching assistant after he had expressed interest in going to graduate school.
Students at the Black Student Union, of which Mayes is the faculty adviser, said he goes beyond the position of a professor or adviser.
Mayes said his students may not feel represented by other faculty members and that they view him as a figure who is open to them.
“As faculty of color, we have an obligation to students of color on campus in ways that white faculty may not have and may not wish to have,” he said.
Kinesiology junior Terrence Jordan II said Mayes advised him to follow his passion and not allow obstacles to get in the way.
“He’s kind of like a guidance counselor,” Jordan said. Mayes helped him explore the African American and African studies major to see if it was right for him, he said.
Black Student Union President Miski Noor said Mayes challenged her to “always ask questions and look for answers.”
Mayes “serves as an objective voice, a wiser voice (to the Black Student Union),” she said. “He’s had more experiences than we have, and his insight is usually very helpful.”
In the classroom, Mayes can be found wandering the aisles of a Willey Hall auditorium, reading from primary documents and challenging his students with rhetorical questions.
African American and African studies sophomore Ashley Thurmond said Mayes was part of her inspiration to pursue her major.
“The way he teaches it, it makes you want to learn more,” she said.
“I love teaching,” Mayes said. “When I came here, I was just thrown into it. I didn’t realize how much I would like teaching.”
Mayes said he finds the imparting of knowledge and the awakening of interest in students very important to his work.
“There’s something special about that,” he said. “There’s something noble about that.”