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What We Learned From Our Pandemic YearVicki Nelson
We communicated with Professor Miller in December 2020. The interview was lightly edited for clarity and was featured in the Spring 2021 College Parent Magazine.
I joined the University’s Department of History as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the fall of 2017, and as a tenure-track, Assistant Professor in Spring 2019. I am one of the department’s Americanist Historians. I am the specialist in African American History and develop and introduce courses and curriculum that center and elevate our student body’s exposure to Black American life, history and culture.
Coupled with this, I am also a historian of women’s distant and recent pasts in the United States, offering courses that seat race and gender at the same table, and unpack the ways in which race converges with gender to shape women’s lives. For example, my entry level course, American Women in History, gives particular attention to women of color.
I am originally from Hartford, Connecticut, where I attended Trinity College for my undergraduate degree. It was there that my passion for studying and writing about the Black experience was nurtured, and where I ultimately decided that I wanted it to be my life’s work. A vital part of protecting and covering Black lives in America is to ensure that their — our — stories are told, recorded, documented and archived. It illuminates truths and voices that would otherwise be left untold, muted or distorted.
My favorite thing about teaching college students is the ability to positively transform and shift the way they not only see the world but also navigate it. How I see it, by way of my teachings, guidance and mentorship, I am not only ensuring that they make it to graduation, but that they become people who are conscious of power, race, gender and class — the systems that ground oppression and the invisibility of the oppressed — and are in a position to interrogate and question these practices in their day-to-day lives.
George Floyd was killed by members of the MPD a few weeks after we concluded the spring ‘20 semester — and my courses, African American History and African American Women’s History. However, almost immediately, I received emails from students revealing that they understood the complex, multilayered causes and implications of Mr. Floyd’s murder — and for that, were thankful to have taken my courses.
My curriculum begins on the coast of colonial West Africa and in the bellies of the European ships that carried millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas across several centuries. We end in the present with the current state of Black life and modern mechanisms of antiBlackness. The students witnessed hundreds of years of Black life in America over the course of just one semester. Thus, coming into the summer of 2020, not only did the students know what the Black Lives Matter Movement was about but they understood why Black people cultivated it.
Also important, I am careful in my courses to tell the story of Black Americans, not through the voices and lenses of others, but through Black people themselves — their writings, literature and theorizations. Tied to this intention to center Black folks’ humanity, I also do not tell a story that limits their lives to interactions with white people and structures; they have cultures, familial lives, emotions, worldviews and beyond that exist outside of that.
Thus, not only were the students I worked with knowledgeable of the historical context of Black Lives Matter, but they also had the capacity to work against the misrecognition and degradation of what Black people had to say about their own lives — and instead hear and value their voices.
It is impossible to understand the makings of our nation — and the world — without learning about Black people, their past and present. In America for example, our institutions (such as our schools, real estate associations, government spaces, political processes, international relationships and beyond) are rooted in, informed by and in dialogue with Black slavery, the state’s interest in the economic exploitation of African Americans, and the “color-line.”
Moreover, African Americans have played a centrifugal role in creating and molding American culture and customs. Knowing Black people and their history is vital to our approaches to and interactions with our government, neighborhoods, communities, mass media and more.
You can understand and support this learning by, as previously shared, encouraging students to take these courses — whether they are majoring in business or chemistry, math or communications. Know that Black studies is useful to students of all racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds — and all majors. Be encouraged to ask your students about these courses, what they are learning, and how it applies to their lives — as well as the lives, movements, activities, decisions and outlooks of all in the family.
Also, in the case that your students’ universities do not offer courses in Black history or Black studies, or have programs that are minimally supported, please do be encouraged to write to your institutions (such as the Deans) and amplify this as an area that could use improvement. Ask that they consider expanding and improving upon these offerings. Universities deeply regard the thoughts and perspectives of parents and families.
Campuses have always been a seedbed of resistance against anti-Blackness and racism in America, and this activism must necessarily continue. I encourage my students to, if they are not involved already, support and align with the activities of their school’s Black and multicultural organizations. They are likely doing work that could use more hands and encouragement in institutions that are often not as supportive as they possibly could be. With COVID-19, in-person activities are not possible; however, many groups have created digital and virtual means of connecting and building.
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