Backstory: From Shakespeare to Sudan
An English professor becomes an unlikely crusader on Darfur.
If an issue like African famine and strife was ever ready for American prime time, it was not in early 1999 when headlines and late-night punch lines were consumed with Bill Clinton's impeachment and the NATO air war in Kosovo. The American attention span – as measured by talk shows, op-ed pages, and the nascent blogging scene – was booked.Skip to next paragraph
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So it seemed an oddly naive time for Eric Reeves, a renaissance scholar (as in Shakespeare and Milton), to start sending distress signals about Sudan (as in perennial ground zero of African ills) from his ivory tower at an elite women's college in the Berkshires. Here was a virtual unknown in diplomatic and humanitarian circles suddenly trying to elbow his way to the table of world conversation.
It was an "overwhelming experience of rejection," recalls the professor, who at the time had never set foot on the African continent but was peddling op-eds to major newspapers about Sudan's struggles with famine, ethnic violence, civil war, and oil intrigue.
The understandable, if cynical, question shadowing his dogged effort was: Who is this guy, and how did he get from Shakespeare to Sudan? Did he throw a dart at a map? "This guy," it turned out, was a formidable new brand of citizen activist. Empowered by the modern bullhorn of the Internet and uncommon moral fortitude, this English professor did find a seat at the table of world conversation – and an influential one at that.
If the Bush administration calls the Darfur crisis in western Sudan "genocide," if those green "Not on our watch" banners cropping up around the nation prick your conscience, and if Hollywood stars drop in on the issue, it's due in no small part to the work of the relentless Smith College professor with a laptop and a thick hide. "As a one-man nongovernmental organization, he has done more than any other individual or group I know of to keep the crisis in Darfur on the agenda of political leaders and the public," says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.
In the past seven years, Reeves has published hundreds of tart essays. His signature weekly analytical blog is read religiously by hundreds of policymakers involved with Sudan, and Congress has called him to testify several times.
"This is a man who decided to make a difference – and he has," says Ted Dagne, an Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Reeves has a fresh-faced youthfulness. He's gangly tall (6 ft., 5 in.), athletic (golf and skiing), and has a head of enviably thick hair untinged by gray (he's 50-something). So it's startling that, when worked up, he can come off like an Oxford don. His furious eloquence, spoken and written, signals he's not the type for bumper-sticker activism or weekend marches. He clearly needs a larger moral stage.
Though he appeared on that stage out of nowhere in 1999, he wasn't new to activism. In college, he donated his scholarship money to relief for Biafra. Despite qualifying for various draft loopholes during the Vietnam War, he chose to make a point by pursuing conscientious objector status. For years, he donated the profits of his woodworking hobby, turning out buttery smooth objects on a lathe, to the international relief group, Doctors Without Borders. By 1999, he'd donated enough to fund three cholera field hospitals – more than $20,000 each.
The group's US head at the time, Joelle Tanguy, recalls bemoaning over lunch with Reeves the world's "short attention span" with Sudan. Most Westerners given the briefing on the country's searing poverty and ethnic and political violence would feel a twinge of check-writing conscience, she says. But Reeves's vivid imagination of the anguish gave him a literal sense of personal responsibility. "I can't stand human suffering," he says. "I can't stand that I can do something about it and don't."
He can't stand that others don't, either, and that's why keeping Sudan on the public agenda has become a second full-time job – not to mention the reason for having to refinance his house after taking unpaid sabbaticals. Not even the diagnosis of leukemia two years ago and exhausting treatments have diminished his focus. Ms. Sirkin recalls astonishment at seeing him in a hospital bed with laptop and cellphone ablaze in service to Sudan. (Reeves's wife, Nancy, explains the family decided not "to live in fear.")