On Friday afternoon, I went on a student-led campus tour of Fisk University with Mame-Fatou Niang (Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University), Roxane Pajoul (Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University), and Cara Wilson (Postdoctoral Scholar at Vanderbilt University).
The tour ended at Fisk’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery where Jordan Wright, the current gallery fellow, led us to the primary exhibit, “Artists in Residence 1888-Present: Fisk Faculty & Alumni Show.” When I stepped into the gallery, my eyes immediately graced the printing plates of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The feeling of looking at these plates and the boxes in which they are cased—which still bear his home address—is indescribable. This book altered American (literary) history by articulating the “problem of the color-line,” and here we were, standing in a building that Du Bois had funded at his own alma mater, looking at the plates that printed and distributed his legacy.
As we stepped into the exhibit, Jordan began to read a textual excerpt that was inscribed on the gallery wall. While he read these words that articulated the inspiration of music to Du Bois’ text, one of the undergraduate tour guides (who is also a Jubilee Singer) softly sang a spiritual in the background. Mame-Fatou was filming the event (and also on the phone with a collaborating artist), while Roxane, Cara, and I stood in awe of an interaction that we had—at least in part—helped to foster. I can’t do justice to the depth of this moment. But I imagine that the connection in that room was (in small part) generated as a result of the trust that was built in the small-group discussion that had preceded the tour. After several days of talking about Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang’s documentary, Mariannes Noires, and her contribution to Black French Studies, we were collectively inspired by Du Bois’ text and the talent and engagement of the students and staff of Fisk University, in which he was deeply invested.
Let me tell you about how we got to this moment.
I’ve just finished a weeklong series of events planned across two campuses. The whole program took months to plan (prep included co-writing a grant application, inviting moderators and interlocutors, making hotel and restaurant reservations, coordinating with venues, ordering catering, inviting guests, and advertising). If I’m being honest, toward the end I was telling myself: “never again.”
And yet, now that it’s over, the residual feeling is not at all one of exhaustion or regret, but of energy and joy. Last week showed me the vast benefits of bringing together active scholars doing important work with invested students and faculty. My colleagues (from various campuses) were left feeling energized to re-engage with their own scholarship and think more deeply about universalism, multiculturalism, and Black French Studies. Students were also able to generate productive cross-cultural comparisons and were inspired to pursue research projects and study abroad because of the conversations we had together. On a personal level, I was thrilled to meet and network with someone who embodies what I admire most in a scholar: (1) the production of critical, important work, (2) thoughtful public engagement, and (3) a deep capacity to empower and encourage others.
In this post, I’ll share a little about the planning, agenda, and results of our event, “Visual Representations of Black Womanhood in France and the US: A Cross-Campus Film Screening of Mariannes Noires with Producer Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang.”
To put on this event, we needed a primary source of funding. As a postdoctoral fellow at Fisk University, I collaborated with two Vanderbilt faculty (Dr. Cara Wilson and Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting) to apply for a grant from the Mellon Partners for Humanities Education Committee. The grant encourages “research and teaching collaborations between the partner schools,” which include Berea College, Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Tougaloo College, and Vanderbilt University. By involving students and faculty from two of these institutions in these cross-campus screenings and discussions, we fulfilled the goals of this grant and successfully obtained funding. When we finalized the agenda, three of the schools were ultimately involved in the event: Fisk, Vanderbilt, and TSU. In the end, we needed extra funds to be able to provide food at these events (and thereby increase student attendance); fortunately, were able to secure resources from partnering programs and departments at Vanderbilt.
A successful event depends on thorough planning. First, as the co-writers, we thought intently about who we wanted to bring to campus. Inviting a scholar who is at the cutting-edge of her field––and is also approachable––was the major reason why this collaboration was a success. Once we decided on the guest, we sent out the invite, which our guest immediately accepted.
For our own event, these are some of the aspects that we had to coordinate to make the program possible:
- We needed moderators for the discussions, so we asked fellow colleagues to help us choose them based on expertise and ability to engage an audience. (Send those invitations early so that moderators can coordinate with and involve their own classes and departments.)
- We made our venue reservations early. This was particularly important for our event, as we were generating a program across two universities.
- We thought purposefully about who we wanted to attend these events. We focused on involving student audiences and thus had personal conversations with professors who might incorporate the event into their syllabi. (Because I directly contacted the Dean of Humanities at Fisk, he attended the discussion at Fisk and brought interested students along, which added to the impact of the conversation.)
- We reserved catering for all events. (Let’s face it: People are more likely to attend events when food is on offer!)
- We advertised the event widely. We created flyers and sent out listserv blasts and also visited classes related to the event theme. (You might consider reaching out individually to classes, faculty, and organizations who will add to the conversation. I’ve found that people are much more likely to respond positively when you engage them in one-on-one conversations about your event and how it overlaps with their syllabus or program.)
In the beginning, we planned to bring faculty and students from both institutions into the same room for both the screening and discussions. However, because of a change in the university calendar, our event fell on the week of Fisk’s Homecoming, which is one of the busiest weeks on campus. Given the timing and students’ and faculty members’ hectic schedules at the end of the semester, screenings and discussions had to happen on both campuses in order to engage individuals from both institutions. Ultimately, students from the respective universities were invited to events at each institution. And because we involved a professor from Tennessee State University, students from TSU also attended events at both Fisk and Vanderbilt. Here is how we organized the weeklong program:
- Monday: Screening @ Fisk of Dr. Niang’s documentary (Mariannes Noires) followed by a Q&A with Dr. Roxane Pajoul (TSU, Asst Professor of French) that was moderated by me (Fisk, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Arts & Languages)
- Wednesday: Documentary Screening @ Vanderbilt with Q&A by Dr. Tiffany Patterson (Vanderbilt, Associate Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and History)
- Thursday: Discussion @ Vanderbilt with the documentary producer and co-director, Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang, moderated by Dr. Cara Wilson (Vanderbilt, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of French & Italian)
- preceded by a campus tour and small-group discussion with students
- followed by dinner with faculty from Vanderbilt, Fisk, and TSU
- Friday: Small-Group Discussion @ Fisk with Dr. Niang, moderated by me
- followed by student-led campus tour
Students at all institutions were able to generate discussion on cross-cultural understandings of “race” and nuance their understanding of this concept in the French context. For me, the most meaningful part of this agenda was the small-group discussion where students and faculty were able to have an open and inclusive conversation in which everyone’s voice was heard. Because these conversations were so meaningful, as a group, we mapped out potential future collaborations between various stakeholders on the three campuses. On a personal level, I was also able to connect with my students and colleagues outside of the classroom, which helped to establish deeper intellectual and personal relationships. Because of the careful planning of this event and the investment of everyone involved, I was reminded that, for me, this is what is at the heart of the academic profession: making intellectual and personal connections in order to contribute to a field in which you believe, and engaging students in the importance of studying that field in order to broaden one’s worldview and cultivate an appreciation for difference.