Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: Sarajaneé Davis, a Picturing Black History Interview

Sarajaneé Davis

My name is Sarajaneé Davis. I am a Charlottesville, Virginia native and I currently reside and work in Durham, North Carolina. I think that my trajectory as a researcher started when I was in elementary school. I was always the kid that was very curious and always interested and wanting to know how things work. And Zora Neale Hurston has a quote that says something to the effect of, like, research is just formalized curiosity poking and prodding. And so I think that, you know, my interest and desire to know the back stories, what led to particular moments, is what put me on the trajectory to be a historical researcher. I always say that I love to read too and the best stories, in my opinion, are the ones that are real and rooted in people’s experiences. And so I think those interests, those curiosities are what underwrite a lot of my work as a researcher, and my continued interest today. Goodness, it seems like so long ago, and then also, not a long time ago that I first became formally connected to Ohio State University. The truth is that, again, growing up so much of my contemporary story started in my childhood. My grandmother was a huge Ohio State Buckeyes fan, I think, without her interest in Ohio State football, that probably wouldn’t have been on my radar. But I was applying to grad school in 2014, so when I was applying to graduate schools, I was looking for scholars or folks who were doing work on student activism in the south. And when I came across Dr. Hasan Jeffries’ work, his research interests in Black Power student activism in the South, as well as some of his community work and how he kind of paired scholarship and activism, really, it was interesting to me and aligned with my own kind of professional goals. Once he and I were able to talk a little bit more, I felt like the program would be a good fit. And having an opportunity to study alongside and learn from him would be, and turned out to be, really useful in my overall trajectory. And once I was in the department, I also had just a good opportunity to meet other folks who were doing this work and get connected with the people who are involved in publishing Origins as well. I’m currently teaching a class at UNC Chapel Hill in the Public Policy Department. And so I’m constantly teaching my students or talking to them about how through understanding history gives us a better understanding of today. And so I think one purpose in studying history is that it provides insights about the lived experiences of different groups of people, how people living in the same moment can experience similar historical events very differently based on, you know, their backgrounds, and their stories that they were carrying with them. And so I think history just gives us a lot of insight in terms of the choices people make, why people make those choices, and ultimately, how the choices that have been made, like on individual, group, and even government or societal levels have led us to the world as we know it today. Why do we need to, or why should we try to prioritize studying lesser-known moments of black history? This is something I could talk about for hours. And part of it is because there’s still so much to be uncovered. And I think a lot of mainstream, or … the historical curriculum standards, at least in the US, they focus on leaders and heroes and folks that did really great things, but there’s so many deeper stories and so many other perspectives that need to be considered that when we focus on the moments that we all know about, I think we lose sight of those. I also think, or at least have found in my teaching, that when we focus on lesser-known moments, we get closer to uncovering more about lived experiences of different people. And again, find information, just various, more perspectives is what I’m trying to say. And what I’ve heard, or kind of experienced, witnessed from my students is that sometimes focusing on those top down narratives, or again, those heroes and extraordinary figures makes it harder for people to see themselves either in a historical curriculum or understanding how to use that history to better examine their contemporary settings, right. And so it can seem like, oh, well, I have to do all of these great things and make all of these or have like a huge contribution in order to have a meaningful impact on society, when in reality, we all can only work within our locus of control. And so I think when we explore those lesser-known stories, we also better position history to be a blueprint or a tool for folks to learn from today, because it’s a little less daunting to think like, I’ve got to have 10 achievements or a, you know, create a new law in order to have an impact on society, when in reality, we can all have a meaningful impact every day on the folks around us in our communities. And I think studying the lesser-known moments in history makes that more apparent and more reasonable, I suppose. Allowing folks to see themselves in historical curriculums and in the world around them is a big part of the work that I do and a big part, one of my major motivations and I usually frame that as, kind of, some of my work and learning and like the digital humanities and that one of my goals is to make, or to create better and more equitable access to black historical perspectives. I’m still frustrated and upset that I didn’t really learn or have access to that information until I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. And so one of my goals is to make it easier for people to find and uncover those stories. And so in my teaching, it comes through as elevating or amplifying, rather, those lesser known historical perspectives, but more so, my goal or desire to equip my students with the right questions to ask and to know where to look to find that information, and then to encourage them to share it with others, right, whether it’s their family, either their peers, or make a commitment to sharing that information so that it is more accessible. And I believe that it just creates a fuller picture of how we got to where we are, makes it easier to see how we can all play a role in creating a more equitable world moving forward, I could go on and on. But essentially, it’s a key part of my, you know, teaching philosophy, but then also the the larger research and academic work that I do. In the middle of my graduate school career, I became more familiar with digital humanities and how that was as a landscape or a platform to share historical information and academic content. And so Picturing Black History, when that project was presented to me, seemed like a great opportunity to continue doing that work. At the time, I had already done some digital humanities work with the National Civil Rights Museum, as well as the State Library of North Carolina. And both aspects, or both positions, a lot of the work that I did was just about getting historical information, or creating historical resources for educators and K-12 students to learn about African American history in their local context. And so, Picturing Black History was an opportunity to continue doing that work in a context, that context being Ohio State that was local and personal to me. And so, also just knowing that there would be access to the huge and, you know, prolific database that the Getty has, I was curious, again, as a scholar to see what was in there. And you know, what maybe would complement the research that I’ve already done and just figuring out, or wanting to see what information I might be able to glean by participating and, you know, just have new access to. There are a lot of people doing this work, right, or making these efforts and initiatives to amplify black historical perspectives in digital spaces, and I think that speaks to the interest, and that people want this information and are curious, right. And so I think that Picturing Black History can kind of build on some of the work that’s out there, right, in terms of the content that’s already been delivered, but hopefully fill in a niche in terms of like an interdisciplinary aspect. Obviously, I know history will be the kind of connective tissue, but I think that given the images that will be available, and the larger time, space, or chronology that Picturing Black History can cover, I think that there’s a really key chance or opportunity for the Picturing Black History Project to kind of bring folks from different scholastic backgrounds or even different industries together to discuss and consider, like, the different pieces that go into making or creating any of the images that will be featured in the project. Once I knew that I was going to be writing an essay, I was pretty clear upfront that I wanted to write about student activism in the South. That’s just where my knowledge base is. And I’m just always curious. And I know there’s so much more that needs to be uncovered, there are really images featured heavily into my dissertation and kind of graduate work, and so I was like, oh, I’m sure there’s going to be robust images that are going to be available there rather. And I also knew that I wanted to focus on black women’s perspectives. And so I went into my search of the Getty database with that in mind and started by kind of searching “student activism”, “student activism in the late 1960s, and 1970s”. And then I also narrowed my search on to predominantly white campuses, again, just knowing that’s been my background, my primary research area. And when I did that, again, there was a plethora of images that came up, and the three that I chose just leapt out to me, they were not all on the same page by any means. But I found one and that led me to the others, you know, fortunately, it’s a wonderful search engine as well, and so when I spent some time on one and kind of looked in the background information, the Getty search engine pointed me to the other two, as well. And so I already had some preliminary information or background about each of their stories, but working on the essay, I got to delve into a little bit more about their lives and their families before they integrated college campuses that they did, but then also what happened, like, after their experiences on campuses, and just kind of getting to read in their own words of their experiences and what they hoped their impacts or legacy would be. And so I hope that my essay did justice, a little bit of justice, to their stories, how each of their stories fits together to tell us a little bit more about the larger narrative of school desegregation in higher education in the South and in particular, the pivotal role that black women played in that process. And in terms of the title, I think I just drew that pairing like what is visible to me in the images, right? Despite what I imagined and what seems to be or you can kind of fill looking at the pictures are like kind of cold or really stressful environments, each of the women is just holding it together, right? They seem to be very well aware of their circumstances and like aware of themselves as well. And it’s still committed to taking up space, and then perseverance that just speaks to their stories, right, their educational or academic journeys prior to enrolling, how they face the challenges that were put in front of them during their matriculation periods. And then how they carried on after that, despite tremendous discrimination, despite excess pressure even or even expectations for those from their supporters, right? Just boys and perseverance really, I think, captures character traits maybe, or the personalities and kind of behaviors of each of the women described in my story, or my essay, rather. The Brown decision and, like, the dominant narratives of the civil rights movement is the seminal point. And don’t get me wrong, Brown is super important. When we look at higher education, perhaps Brown is like a starting point, or even like a discussion point, like brown opens like a discourse or changes the conversation in some ways. And so how black women fit into that, well, it’d be hard to kind of speak to concisely, but I think for the purpose of my essay, and what I noticed or hoped to convey is that black women were a part of the strategic kind of legal conversations about what would be the best strategy to move forward. Black women put themselves in the direct line of fire by applying to these schools and by accepting enrollment and then going on to campus, right? And so they are receiving the pressure, they are receiving the hate speech, for lack of better words, they’re also the, you know, the image, they become the image of this movement, in some ways, even though that kind of image has been downplayed or minimized. And in the decades since, but I think that perhaps the best way to try to summarize black women’s role or involvement is to say that they were everywhere, right, and that it was failing it throughout the movement from, like, the strategic and planning phase, to the implementation and actually going on campus, and then in follow-up conversations, and kind of evaluating like, what worked well, what didn’t, and identifying new strategies, right, and thinking about what resources were going to be needed, what student experiences, were going to be like. Black women were contributing at every level into every aspect of that conversation. Really, you can’t understand the story of desegregation in higher education without thinking about black women’s roles and their kind of ideological and physical contributions. It’s just to say that they played a fundamental role in that process, orthose processes. The nonprofit that I work for, we have a blog, and so we were telling our stories of Black History Month, and I honestly don’t fully remember my first introduction to Black History Month. The earliest memory that I have is going and really participating in Black History Month program in Orange, Virginia. My grandparents were members of the NAACP chapter there, and so I have some fragmented memories of going to those programs with my cousins and reading speeches or quotes aloud. I definitely remember elementary school, like, quiz bowls and that kind of thing as well, but I think my earliest memory of Black History Month is participating in the orange chapter of the NAACP programming way back when. Those earliest memories were community programs, and I definitely think that aligns with my, like, introduction of black history, I grew up with a large extended family and that included having my grandparents on both sides, play pretty important roles in … my upbringing, and they always told me stories about their life experiences. My grandfather frequently talked about his baseball journeys, but they also talked about their lives … during Jim Crow segregation. And so that was kind of my introduction, I think, to black history and black perspectives on the world. And we’re certainly more rich than what was being offered in my primary education. But those initial Black History Month programs were definitely community events. Like I said, they were hosted by the orange chapter of the NAACP, but they were open. And so the entire community and I think probably supplemented with some, like, family conversations, as well as some church programming too. Family stories, I think, are essential to preserving black historical perspectives and the one sentence because we don’t always have the traditional kind of record keeping or archival materials that may be available and other fields of history, whether it’s, you know, due to less access to literacy early on, or just, you know, discrimination in the archive in terms of what materials were deemed worthy of saving in which were which were not prioritized. Often those are black historical perspectives, black and other groups of color. And then I also think, like, the oral traditions within black communities have just been a really, I think a lot of historians have documented why that’s a viable source and mechanism for transmitting our stories. And I know in my personal experience, fortunately, on my father’s side of the family, there are a lot of images of folks from the last 100 years or so. But I think that’s been a way of keeping people’s stories alive and letting us know where our family roots are, how we came to be in the particular section of Orange and Barbersville, Virginia that we are, but then also just some of the family traditions. Even, we joke on my father’s side, that like all of the men have a very similar personality trait, but we wouldn’t know that without, you know, some of those oral traditions and stories about grandfathers, great-grandfather’s, great-great grandfather’s, uncle’s, and so on and so forth. And I think it’s essential, one, because it remedies and recovers or protects historical narratives and perspectives that may not be available in more traditional sources like, you know, University Archives. It’s a way of protecting black voices and telling those stories, if that makes sense, right? It keeps black perspectives centered without kind of external gaze or external shaping of whatever the perspective or historical event may be. I grew up listening to the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which if anyone is familiar, there’s like a tagline that’s 365 Black History. And so I absolutely celebrate black history all year round, all the time. But I definitely like to honor Black History Month. And my own practice has been to kind of set a new goal for myself every year with Black History Month. Last year, my goal was to celebrate the folks who are in the process of making black history, right. And so … in that way, I tried to celebrate contemporary black scholars, support black businesses, and really just let the black people in my life know that I see them and then I celebrated them, and the contribution they were making to themselves, to their loved ones, to their communities. And this year, I kind of returned to my historical roots, and every day, my goal was everyday, it’s probably been more like every couple of days, I’ve tried to research a new black historical figure or like a black historical town, area, just to kind of, again, familiarize myself with some of those lesser-known stories. And I actually just read an article, oh I hope I don’t mispronounce the name, about Adam Galloway from North Carolina, and we can definitely talk more about what I’ve learned about his story. But point being, I first of all, encourage any listeners or viewers to go check out Adam Galloway from North Carolina, a key historical figure whose story I hope we can make more mainstream, but my takeaway would be to use Black History Month as an opportunity to study black history, to prioritize and champion black voices and the scholars who are doing that work all the time, and to think about how the study of black history can be weaved into your everyday life or your everyday teaching. If you’re an educator, whatever field or industry, one may work, and how can you do that? Do that work more consistently more substantively all the time? Well, I think if I were to try to summarize maybe in two reasons why it’s important to study black history consistently, one reason would be because it’s so robust, right? And there’s so many stories, there’s no way that you could get all of the information in just one month, in particular 28 days out of the year, right? So I think one is about the amount of information that’s out there, the amount of information that we could aim to make available for folks, like to do that work well, you’ve got to be studying black history and talking about black history all the time. And I think a second reason that comes to mind is that black history, critical race theory, right? Like, it’s all under attack, it’s not a guarantee that this conversation will happen, that black historical perspectives will be at the forefront. If they were then maybe we could have a different conversation. But again, the debates and the pushback against critical race theory, the efforts to limit talking about race, racism, and even black resistance efforts show or at least communicate to me that there’s a desperate need to protect and preserve black historical perspectives and making sure that we’re doing all that we can to make them accessible to as many people as possible, because there are folks who don’t want those stories told, right. And so if we just kind of go, tacitly by then those folks will win, and black historical perspectives will once again be relegated to the bottom limited to only 28 days or otherwise just unknown. And so those are two reasons that I think about in terms of why it’s important to study black history consistently and substantively. Thinking about the historical roots, thinking about how much information is available, and again, the reality of our current circumstances and that there are those who don’t want those stories to be told. What are figures, events that everyone should know in black history? Okay, Adam Galloway is definitely someone that comes to mind. Ella Baker is one of my personal heroes, a key founder and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a tremendous civil rights activist in her own right. This is so hard, you know what actually made I’m going to hedge my bets and say that rather than just saying a couple of people or events, what I would encourage folks to do is look in to or investigate their local black history right? And so try to find authors look for the historical markers if they’re in a place that has those that honor the event and the people in their local context. You can see who streets are named after maybe in your community and to explore those local histories. Instead, I think, again, that goes along with recovering those lesser known narratives. And I think that can also create more questions for people to look into. And so I guess it’s a wide answer, but my answer would be Ellen Baker, Adam Galloway, and your local historical figures. And so, I think that everyone should spend some time, or take some time investigating and examining their local black history as well. In terms of why naming is important, I think it communicates about priorities of a particular place, right, in terms of who is valued, whose contributions are valued. I also think it gives insight in terms of who is at the table when these decisions are being made, right. And so that can offer information about, you know, is there equity of voice whose perspectives or contributions are being represented. And I also think that it creates a starting point, whether that’s for tracking activity and recognizing contributions and achievement, but then in the contemporary state, I think that naming practices, especially when they’re, you know, distributed equitably, can be conversation starters, right? Like, it can be really hard to try to think about how can we get all of this information out to everybody all the time, that can be difficult, but the point is, rather, I think that we don’t have to try to teach everybody everything all the time, but rather to create spaces or moments where we can spark curiosity, create or nurture discourse about people and lived experiences. And I think that naming practices can contribute to that. And so, if there’s a name of an elementary school, for example, then that can be, like out here in Durham, we have C.C. Spaulding Elementary School, and so that can be an opportunity for community members to say who was C.C. Spaulding? Why was a building named after him and then go and do some of their own research, hopefully, with resources and libraries made available to support that kind of public education. But those are some of my views on why it matters.