Category Archives: Projects

Week 9, or the Lemon Symposium, March 16-17, 2018

I love conferences. In fact, conferences are probably my favorite part of being an academic. However, it’s not just going to conferences that I like– it’s being a part of the university hosting them. I love welcoming people to my university who are here for intellectual conversations. It’s about the ideas that fly in a space other than a classroom setting and new people that give life to them. You have to admit, it can be tiring to throw around the same ideas with the same set of people. Conferences breathe new life into age old dilemmas, and you never know what the outcome of new conversations will be.

The most special thing about the Lemon Project, for me, is it’s commitment to the community. Community partners have always been welcomed to participate in the conversations we’re having at the College. So not only do I get a fresh set of intellectuals to meet and bond with but elders from my community to learn from as well.

Lemon Project Team: Sarah Thomas (Lemon Fellow), Jody Allen (Director), Ravynn Stringfield (Graduate Assistant)

Between the live tweeting, taking pictures, running the mic, directing people, and checking people in, it’s a miracle that I managed to find time to be in the moment and listen. There were two roundtables in particular that really stuck with me from the event. The first was “Desegregating Higher Education: Placing William & Mary in Historical Context,” which featured an array of people with whom I was honored to share a room: Lynn Briley and Janet Brown Strafer (two of the Legacy 3, the first residential African American students at William and Mary); Lillian Ashcroft-Easton (the first African American to receive a PhD in the History department); Michael Engs (an African American graduate of the class of ‘69); Sam Sadler (for whom the Sadler Center is named); and Ron Sims (an early African American professor and administrator in the 1980s). It struck me as they talked so eloquently about their experiences at the College that these were the people who had made it possible for me exist in this space. Thankfully, as Valarie Gray-Holmes would say, they left gate open for students like me. (Gray-Holmes is writer and performer of the one woman show, “The New Gatekeepers,” which was performed during the Lemon Symposium.)

The second roundtable that I have been mulling over was “Building the Legacy: Where Do We Go From Here?” It featured Jessica O’Brien (graduate of the College); Karen Ely (the last of the Legacy 3); Chon Glover (our Chief Diversity Officer); Sharron Gatling (a staff member in the Diversity office); and senior undergraduate student Taylor Jasper. The questions asked were difficult to answer and sometimes, for Glover especially, difficult to answer without personal investment and emotion getting in the way. They were asked questions like “What has W&M done to heal the racial divide?” and “What specifically should our next steps be when we look at issues of race and reconciliation?” The answers were varied. In terms of what William & Mary has done, chief among the responses was the implementation of the Task Force of Race and Race Relations and the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer. When thinking about what the next steps would be it seemed that everyone agreed that we have to move beyond the ceremonial and the low-hanging fruit, which is to say, we need to do the heavy lifting now. What exactly “the heavy lifting” will look like is unclear, but I think it’s safe to say it’s going to require more than renaming buildings and a year long celebration of the 50th anniversary of residential African Americans.

Artist Steve Prince discussing his work “A Bessie Stitch: 1948”

In addition to the fruitful conversations, I was particularly moved by all of the art that we had infused in this little symposium. We kicked off the weekend with an artist talk by Steve Prince, who spoke of African diasporic funeral traditions through art. The dirge, he argued, is the slow, sad, emotionally evocative first line, and what we need to get to is what’s called the “Second Line,” the music which celebrates life and helps us heal and move forward. He peppered his talk with images from his own beautiful work and helped the audience see his message within them. Then he held an artist workshop to create a collaborative work celebrating Mr. Lemon, for whom our project is named. (I unfortunately did not attend.) Finally, we ended the day with Gray-Holmes play, “The New Gatekeepers,” which I found as moving as the piece she performed in August 2017 at the mural unveiling in Swem Library which kicked off the 50th celebration. Gray-Holmes told the story of a woman from the Tidewater area in 1959 who witnessed the integration of William & Mary, whose grandson who had dreams of going to college, and how integration looked across the changing landscape of our country.

Ravynn Stringfield with Professor Nikki Giovanni

Of course, no discussion of this year’s Lemon Symposium would be complete without discussing the incredible keynote by Professor Nikki Giovanni. Nikki Giovanni came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s as a Black Arts Movement poet, thrilling readers with earthy but vibrant, compassionate yet revolutionary poetry. Yesterday, Giovanni celebrated the Lemon Project with us, spoke of the process by which Africans came to be enslaved and were carried to America, describing it as a process which involved no longer recognizing clouds and thus knowing this land would be different. This was the first time I had ever heard enslavement described in this way– only Nikki Giovanni could get me to consider clouds as a system of meaning. She performed her legendary poem “Ego Tripping” at the request of Professor Jacquelyn McLendon, explained her theories about outer space and finding new life out there, and also thrilled us all by explaining that she believed “everything used to be somebody someone loved.” She is a tiny human full of these incredible ideas that she believes in so fully that I find myself convinced that there is life on other planets and that my precious laurel wreath ring used to be someone’s beloved aunt.

This year’s Symposium was amazing. The conversations were impactful, there was amazing audience participation, the art was inspired, and I got to meet some truly incredible people. To think, this isn’t even a complete summary of every single thing that happened, because I’d have to write a short book to do that. But I wanted to take some time to reflect on the dialogue that I had the fortune to be a part of these last two days because the questions we asked were important and the answers to those questions? Critical. I’m not sure what my role is going to be moving forward, but at least I’m beginning to think about my own answers to the questions that were raised.

Week 3, or Student Activism

One of the best things about my life as an American Studies graduate student this year is my role as an assistant to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. I’ve written about the Branch Out Alternative Break that I’ve done with the Lemon Project, yet never about the other responsibilities that I have. As a project committed to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College of William & Mary, we bridge the gap between the College, community members and the greater Tidewater area through research, community outreach and student engagement. We are responsible for putting together an annual report on the Lemon Project’s findings and other engagements, putting on an annual Symposium, organizing a Alternative Break trip that is public history oriented, and orchestrating a couple of smaller gatherings (Porch Talks) every semester.

The idea behind the Porch Talks is that they would be informal gatherings where you learn from your elders. The topics would be pertinent to the Lemon Project’s mission or things that are relevant to the College or community. I was deeply excited for the first Porch Talk of this semester on Student Activism because it was my brain child. The Lemon Project team went to a symposium on slavery last fall at the University of Virginia, where my coworker, Sarah and I, attended a panel on the removal of Confederate monuments at Clemson University. One of the panelists, an undergraduate student named Khayla Williams, stood out to us. Passionate, quick-witted, and oh so smart, Khayla was the portrait of successful student activism. As we listened to her story about how a group of students at Clemson had staged a ten day sit-in (now referred to as the Sikes Sit-In) and how the administration had begun to listen afterwards, we knew her experiences and her story might be a valuable one for student activists at William & Mary to hear.

After the panel, I gave her my card and she e-mailed me, which began a steady stream of correspondence in which we arranged for her to visit the College to give a talk similar to the one she had given at UVA.

Before I knew it, February 1st was here and I was eagerly awaiting her arrival for her talk that evening. 5 o’clock came and I was astounded at the turn out. We had amassed a substantial crowd of around twenty or so people primarily composed of undergraduate students, an atypical make up for Lemon Project Porch Talks. After I introduced Khayla, I sat with my camera out, ready to take the occasional photograph, when suddenly, I found myself enthralled by her words, eagerly taking in every bit. She spoke about herself, how she came to activism, how the term activist was strange to use to describe herself, yet one that she accepted. She spoke about Clemson, about the culture, about the Sikes Sit-In. And she spoke about what they did after the Sit-In to keep the momentum going. Her suggestions were encouraging and manageable. Khayla suggested that first, we continue to talk about the event after it happens. Educate younger students about how and why protests have occurred so they can pick up where you left off. She suggested, second, to work in teams. You need a variety of people to make a movement happen. And finally, she reminded us to make it bigger than a one organization problem. An incident of racism shouldn’t just be a BSO problem– it should be a school wide problem. Make it so.

I was impressed with how she commanded space so easily and how conversational her talk was. It flowed neatly into a workshop, where she came prepared by looking into incidents which had happened at William & Mary and helped students work through how they could then organize to address these problems. Her suggestions were primarily based on things which had worked at Clemson: a sexual assault alert system, making demands of the administration, keeping a record– but that was the key, these things had worked. I hoped the students in attendance understood her point that her suggestions were “not a blueprint” but also understood that these were actionable things.

I’m glad William & Mary students got a chance to meet Khayla. Sometimes it’s nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on your situation to give you some perspective. I don’t think Khayla gave them any answers (though she never claimed to, and at any rate who could?) but I do think she gave them something to consider as they move forward onto whatever their next activist project may be and, hopefully, some perspective.

I dropped her off at the airport after passing an amicable hour alternatively chatting and humming to the radio. As she walked through the doors, I found myself thinking about how much I learn outside of the classroom and from people who aren’t my professors. I’m so grateful for my assistantship with the Lemon Project, which forces me think critically in a different way and has brought me so many teachable moments.

Week 1, or “Branching Out” and Growing Up

This post marks the beginning of my fourth– yes, fourth— semester at the College of William & Mary. Before I know it, this semester will have flown by and then I will be standing at the precipice of my last semester of coursework in the fall.

This semester will be great. I’m speaking it into existence. I am currently enrolled in a Comics course, Histories of Race, and an independent study on Black Arts Movement literature. I’m bringing in a student activist from Clemson to speak at a Porch Talk for the Lemon Project. The Lemon Project 8th Annual Symposium will be in March. Johnetta Cole, Henry Jenkins, and Nikki Giovanni will all be coming to speak at the College this semester. And I had a paper accepted to a conference in April just a few days ago.

I already had an amazing start to the semester with Branch Out Lemon Project Alternative Break. If you don’t remember me raving about Branch Out, feel free to check out my post from last year’s trip. Students at William & Mary can sign up for Alternative Breaks, which are typically off-campus service trips– the Lemon Project Alternative Break is the only one held on campus. During the course of the weekend, the students learn about the Lemon Project, conduct their own original research and participate in a variety of other workshops. This year, as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of residential African American students at William & Mary, our project was timely: the students conducted interviews with the first residential African American students and created an Omeka exhibit based on their findings. (For a more detailed description of what went down, check out my article about the weekend on HASTAC.org.)

As amazing as the final product was, as happy as the students were with themselves, as much as they praised the trip afterwards, it was still extremely nerve wracking for me. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself– I love the Branch Out Trip. It’s been a highlight of both of my years at William & Mary. The problem was that the bar had been set exceedingly high for the trip because the Lemon assistant before me put her heart and soul into organizing a project that would be meaningful, productive and effective. I had a large pair of shoes to fill.

Through a few well timed pep talks with Adrienne, who helpfully tagged along for the entire weekend (you the best, Adrienne!), I came to realize that I was gripping onto the project too tight. I was taking any minor setback too personally. And I was doing it because I cared so much. I wanted the same effect, the same magic, that I had come to love from last year’s project. But in trying to recreate the magic, I neglected what unique skills I could bring to the table. I was trying too hard to teach in someone else’s comfort zone instead of my own.

I did some growing up last weekend. I realized that I don’t teach like anybody else– and that’s a good thing. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there’s so much to be said for making your own path. I think the next time I try this, if there will be a next time, I’m going to not be so afraid to be myself. It was also encouraging to realize that despite all of the difficulties I was going through, the students didn’t see it. They thanked me for the trip and said all kinds of nice things about me as a person and as someone to look up to. One of the students spoke about me as if I were a role model for her but, little does she know, I feel it is the highest honor to know her at all. I’m proud of one of the site leaders for going from the quiet girl in the corner last year to the leader of the pack this year. And she still has two more years to go! Who knows where she’ll be by the time she’s a senior.

What these students don’t know is how much they are an inspiration to me. It brings me so much joy to be around people outside of my program, in particular undergrads who are so bright, intellectually curious and genuine. They make me laugh, they challenge me and make me want to work to be a better teacher for them.

If this was only week one, I can’t wait to see where I go from here.