Tag Archives: william and mary

Week 5: Monuments and Memorialization

As a fully funded Ph.D. student, I have to work an assistantship that the school provides in exchange for my stipend. As some of you may know, this is my second year working on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation for my assistantship. The Lemon Project is a multi-pronged approach to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans by the College of William & Mary through action or inaction. We do research on slavery and Jim Crow segregation at the College and in the surrounding Williamsburg area, as well as work on the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; community outreach; and student engagement. Our programming for the community and students includes Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, informal conversations about numerous topics; our biannual Drum Circles, a stress reliever event; an annual Symposium, which is comprised of scholars and community members alike; Donning of the Kente, a graduation celebration; and Branch Out, a three-day intensive “trip” in which students produce some type of project based on research about African Americans at William & Mary.

I love the Lemon Project. I love the work we do, how we do it and the community of scholars and peers I have because of my work with the Lemon Project. I particularly love the relationships I have built with students because of their interest in the project; it has been so gratifying to see some of the students that I had on my first Branch Out trip in 2017 now becoming some of the biggest supporters of the Lemon Project on campus.

It is with great pride that I get to take part in another momentous occasion in our campus’ history because of Lemon. When the Lemon Project was created, part of the resolution called not only for the creation of the Lemon Project which would do some of this corrective labor, but also for a memorial to the enslaved at the College. This August, the dream of the memorial finally came to fruition, at least in the first stages. The College announced a contest that will run until October 12th to solicit ideas for the memorial. Anyone with an idea can enter, no artistic skill required.

In an attempt to drum up conversation about the contest and memorial, the Lemon Project recently held a Porch Talk entitled, “William & Mary’s Monumental Moment,” a conversation led and facilitated by the director of the Project, Dr. Jody Allen, and history professor, Dr. Jerry Watkins, III.

Truth be told, I am not one to think much about monuments and memorialization. If I had to guess, I think it’s because they feel so stagnant. Depending on the size, placement and type, monuments can be dismissed and ignored. A monument often feels like an object that you have a solemn moment before, and then move on about your day, utterly unchanged by having experienced it. You can’t carry it with you.

But this ongoing conversation we are having at my university about monuments and memorialization is making me come to terms with what I do think is valuable memorialization.

Personally, I find value in so-called living memorials, like scholarships. At the University of Virginia, I was the recipient of a Ridley Scholarship, named for the first African American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education from the Curry School. While I was at UVA, I was so aware that I was carrying on this man’s legacy. I made sure to learn everything I could about him, I tried to foster community amongst the scholars to make UVA a welcoming place for future generations of students, and I proudly worked for the Ridley Scholarship organization for two years, attempting to bring honor to the name I was representing. Despite having spent considerable time away from UVA, I still consider it one of the biggest honors of my life to have been a Ridley Scholar.

I want that feeling for William & Mary African American students. I want there to be students proudly carrying on Lemon’s legacy, thinking about him every day and recognizing he, and so many others, made it possible for them to inhabit this space.

Of course, you can’t make students feel pride, or a sense of responsibility to a name or a place, but I do feel that living memorials are an effective way to see the fruits of one’s legacy every day.

There was a student at the Porch Talk who felt that in addition to a memorial, we should strive for a building or space memorialized for Lemon, to which Black students and minorities would have access. Again, coming from UVA, where we did have the Office of African American Affairs (OAAA), I think having a space specifically for African American students is integral to their continued success on this campus. It’s not enough to have scholarships to attract students of color to our campus, but we need to have systems in place to support them once they get here.

The conclusion that I have come to is that it is not enough for me to have a physical memorial. I want a physical memorial and a physical space for African American students and a living memorial in the form of scholarships. I don’t think that retribution can fully be paid with a slab of stone. (Just an example; the parameters of the contest make it clear that the monument could be anything.) I don’t think that it is enough to rename a dormitory in the name of a man our school enslaved. I believe those are steps to take and they’re important, but I want us to go above and beyond.

I know that just having a memorial is a huge step for our school; coming on the heels of the College’s apology for slavery, this is their first move forward. I hope that the judges of the contest and our College’s President pay particular attention to the voices of Black students and community members in what they want for this monument and what they want to use it for. This is what everyone has been waiting for; I hope they don’t disappoint.

The Finale of Part 1: Graduation

For those of you who have been following along, you know that I am a PhD student at William & Mary. You might also know that I have recently graduated from William & Mary. For clarification, I was accepted into a MA/PhD program in American Studies, and last September I successfully defended my Masters thesis, thus officially moving me into the PhD portion of my program. Because it’s a rolling program, I defended and kept moving forward in my PhD work, moving through coursework and preparing my comprehensive exams lists– I was so busy that I barely got a chance to truly celebrate getting my Masters.

Until this past weekend.

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My Uncle Edwin and I

I participated in Commencement here at William & Mary and it was a truly magnificent occasion. My uncles drove up from Jacksonville for the graduation and spent the entire weekend with me and my family. My uncles, my parents, my grandma, my great-aunt and my aunt all celebrated me by coming to my ceremonies and going out to celebratory dinners and lunches with me for three days straight.

The festivity of the three day Commencement weekend was Donning of the Kente. This tradition was primarily meant for African American graduating students and a chance for the Black community to celebrate its graduates together, though our ceremony is open to anyone who wants to participate. Because it was a Lemon Project event, I spent most of my time before hand checking people in and handing out stoles. However, when it was time for the ceremony to begin, I was able to participate with everyone else. It was fantastic. When it was my turn, I went on stage to applause and my parents donned me with a kente stole. We took a picture and then we returned to our seats and watched as the rest of the students were donned. Though you are only allowed up to two people to don you, some students appeared on stage with their entire families. Grandmothers cried, children of the graduates cheered, many thanked God as they left the stage and others took selfies as they marched across.

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Me after Donning of the Kente

Afterwards, we had a big family dinner at Ruby Tuesdays and then everyone their separate ways for the big ceremony the next day.

Everyone congregated at my apartment around 7 AM Saturday morning in preparation for the outdoors ceremony to be held in Zable Stadium. Thanks to the ceremony being held on the football field, I was able to invite 7 guests instead of 4. However, let me stress that the ceremony was outdoors– in 90 degree weather. While it was a beautiful day (comparatively, my UVA ceremony was held outdoors in light rain) it was still sweltering underneath the mandatory ceremonial garb we had all donned for the occasion.

I marched in with the other Masters and JD students to the William & Mary hymn. Two surprises awaited me as I went to take my seat– first, I was able to spot my family amid the massive crowd. They had managed to find incredible seats near the front. Their seats were perpendicular to my own, which was incredibly, in the front, near the middle and directly in front of the stage, next to two other American Studies masters students. As the rest of the graduating class filed in, I waved at my family wildly, amazed that we could see each other and spent the rest of my time taking in the massive book-like program that had been made in honor of the occasion.

The ceremony was about two hours long and very traditional– the President of the University gave remarks, awards were given out, and senator Mark Warner gave the keynote address, advising students to stay involved in our democracy, not be afraid of failure and to, most of all, call your mother. There were however a few highlights: the President gave honorary doctorates of letters to the first three residential African American students at William & Mary, Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely. An honorary doctorate was also given to Katherine Johnson, one of the first computers for NASA (you know, the one Taraji played in Hidden Figures? Yup, her.)

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Me with my 9th grade IB Coordinator Micah Smith

And after all of that was over, degrees were conferred. The most amazing part was watching people that I knew walk across the stage and receive their doctorates. I actually knew a lot of people graduating: James, who has been like an older brother to me in this program, walked across the stage; my dear friend, Sarah, who worked with my on the Lemon Project; Renee, Nabeel, and Janine, all American Studies graduate students; my friend Patrick from Anthropology; Beth from History; and incredibly, the woman who worked with my 9th grade class of International Baccalaureate students as our Coordinator. She was so beloved that we fought to keep her, only to eventually lose her to a more stable position in Newport News. Though she left, she kept up with my class, meeting up with us for dinner upon occasion and sending love and well wishes whenever she could. Running into her on her graduation day nearly sent me into a bout of tears.

Finally, we were dismissed from the heat and I was able to reunite with my family for pictures. We eventually made it back to my apartment for quick naps before heading out for a late lunch at Red Lobster.

My parents came up one last time on Sunday, which also happened to be Mother’s Day, for my American Studies Departmental ceremony. It was short, sweet and to the point, the highlight of which was receiving flowers from my friend, Kelsey. We ended the day by heading to Wakefield, where my parents grew up, for a barbecue at my grandmother’s and to spend some time with my great Aunt.

I woke up this morning, groggy and still a little tired from all the excitement, only to find one last surprise. I checked my grades and saw that all of them were in, and I had managed a 4.0 this semester. Yup, I got an A in my Comics class, my Histories of Race class and my Black Arts Movement Directed Research. I’m actually really proud of the work I did for all of these classes. For Comics, I wrote a tribute to Lois Lane adaptations in the last 10 years that I’m considering getting published. For my Black Arts Movement class, I wrote “Beneatha Younger’s Afro,” which attempted to modernize a classic character and discuss how she is politically relevant today. And for my Histories of Race class? I still can’t say what I did for that class because this might actually turn into a huge project for me– things are still unfolding, but just know this paper might be the first time you see Ravynn K. Stringfield’s name in print.

Now everything is over. My family has gone back to the regularly scheduled lives, I can stop holding my breath while I wait for grades to come in, and I can lay in bed watching Netflix all day for days at a time if I want to. Knowing myself, however, I know that will only last a few days before I’m back at the grind, working on comps lists and planning my research trip to the Schomburg Center. Side note, I applied for research money for the first time and received about a third of what I applied for, but if I stay with a friend, I should still be able to make the trip. (I will, of course, post about the trip when I make it, not to worry.) I also have a stack of books that I’ve been dying to dig into and art that I need to make, so I have some good, relaxing plans for the summer. I just hope that I can get it together and make it through one last semester of coursework. Then, onto my next adventure: Comps.

Stay tuned, guys, you won’t want to miss what’s next.

 

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.