As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
My father was a poet during the Black Arts movement era and my mom never asked me “what do you want to be?” but rather “who do you want to be?” and “how do you want to contribute?” When I was younger, I wasn’t interested in careers as much as I was in what one could do in them. I wanted to be around people who made language dance and to be one of those people. I wanted my words to create and clear pathways for justice. I wanted to be interested and interesting.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
I was a student at Amherst College, but my most stimulating classes were in what was then called Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst. Julius Lester taught a Civil Rights course at UMass that culminated in a trip to Mississippi to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Freedom Summer. The class was structured around weekly lectures given by James Baldwin himself, while leading Black Studies scholars conducted “sections.” Julius Lester had been the head photographer for SNCC as they organized for voting rights and social transformation. He was a master teacher, author of over fifty books, a recorded folk musician, and one of the most important guides of my intellectual development.
You’re the founding faculty director of the Colored Conventions Project. How would you describe the project and its mission?
The Colored Conventions Project brings nineteenth-century Black-led organizing to digital life in an online archive of documents that have never been amassed in one place. This treasure trove of records offers a window on a period of seventy years when tens of thousands of Black people from all over North America advocated for voting and legal rights, for educational access and justice, and for fair wages and access to job sectors that whites carefully guarded for their own. Then, as now, they also protested state sponsored violence against Black communities and state apathy in the face of individual and mob violence directed at African Americans across the United States. The project team is made up of librarians, graduate student leaders and undergraduate researchers. Our North American Teaching Partners have involved about three thousand students who have conducted original research to uncover new records or create online exhibits. More than simply documenting the movement, this project is committed to community building that allows those who interact with it to become producers rather than consumers of Black history and activism. Following in the footsteps of those that we research, our project principles
embody their collective work ethic and commitment to fair labor. We also are committed to foregrounding women, despite the records minimizing and anonymizing their organizational and structural efforts. We’re humbled by all of the awards CCP has won but are particularly honored to have been chosen as one of the NEH’s 50(ish) Essential Projects
during its 50th
You recently joined the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts faculty with appointments in the departments of English, African American Studies and History. What are you most looking forward to?
As sad as I am to leave the University of Delaware where we we’ve been able to build CCP over the last eight years, the members of the project who are moving to Penn State are delighted to launch the Center for Black Digital Research—which we’re calling #DigBlk. As we begin, #DigBlk will house both the Colored Conventions Project and the Black Women’s Organizing Archive which will help aggregate and transcribe the papers of early Black women pioneers and intellectuals such as Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Frances E.W. Harper. Having a centrally located Digital Center with the technical and metadata support of a leading university library will allow us to make scattered histories of Black women and communities widely available. It’s also a dream to be able to co-direct such an effort with partners like Dr. Shirley Moody Turner and Dr. Jim Casey and to do so in a place with a history of recognized Centers training generations of thinkers, students and scholars.
What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career? Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
I don’t think Western and elite educations are necessarily well-rounded. For many of us, linking learning and research methods that allow us to confront challenges still faced by our communities of origin would enliven our learning in substantive ways. Having a sense of the genealogies of historical and structural inequity and the frameworks that sustain them is critically important to a liberal arts education. I’m most interested in the funding that will bring a “well-rounded arts and science education” to broad swaths of people, which means well-funded public education and libraries.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
• Avoid internalizing snipes that come your way especially as a Black woman in the Academy; they often have to do with [the] sniper and have nothing to do with you. (Barbara Christian, my graduate advisor at UC Berkeley.)
• Rejection hurts even when you know it’s coming. (Julius Lester, one of my undergraduate mentors.)
• Don’t measure yourself against others. Doing your best should be your metric. (Lynn Foreman, my mother.)
What books are you currently reading, or what podcasts or other media do you like to recommend?
• John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom
, 1829-65 by William and Aimee Lee Cheek.
• Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
• I learn so much from the New Yorker Magazine
’s Poetry Podcast, and it lifts my spirits every time I listen. I also love the Peabody winning history podcast Uncivil
• Media to recommend? I recommend creating media and partnering with those in the arts or vice-versa if you have any inclination to do so. There’s nothing like creating in collectives.