A Full Complement of Fellows

The 2009-2010 Woodson Fellowship Program

The 2009-2010 Woodson Fellows

The 2009-2010 Woodson Fellows: Top Row, Left to Right: Benjamin Fagan, Jonathan Fenderson, Anoop Mirpuri; Middle Row: Jenifer Barclay, Jeffrey Ahlman, Alisha Gaines, Anna Lim; Bottom Row: Cassie Hays, Rosemary Millar, Thabiti Willis, Bukky Gbadegesin
Photo by Iram Shaikh

In his opening remarks at the annual “Meet the Fellows” presentations in October, Woodson Fellowship Program Director Marlon Ross expressed his delight that the Institute could once more boast a “full complement” of fellows.  After a long lean period, the last couple of years have witnessed a steady expansion of the Woodson Fellowship program such that it is now nearly as large as when Armstead Robinson, the Institute’s founding director, established the program in 1981.   The arrival this fall of four new pre-doctoral fellows, and two new post-doctoral fellows, brings the current cadre to eleven.   The Woodson fellows comprise a diverse, interdisciplinary group of young scholars from a variety of top private and public universities around the country including UVa -- who work on an array of topics in African-American and African Studies and related fields. 

They share their research with one another and UVa faculty during semi-monthly workshops, intensive seminars which generate useful feedback for crafting dissertations and revising work for publication.  All fellows deliver at least one public lecture during their residency at the university, and many participate in various forums and lecture series on Grounds.  In addition, post-doctoral fellows teach an advanced seminar each year in the undergraduate African-American and African Studies program, which is administered by the Institute.  During the annual “Meet the Fellows event” last fall, the members of the 2009-2010 class presented brief descriptions of their projects, which we have condensed below .

            Jeffrey Ahlman is a pre-doctoral fellow from Nebraska who is completing a doctorate in History at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.  His dissertation, Forging the Pan-African Nation: Kwame Nkrumah, the CPP, and the Politics of Pan-African Nationalism in Ghana, 1949-66, offers an account of how Nkrumah’s ideology shaped the ways in which concepts of “nation” and “citizenship” were negotiated in late colonial and postcolonial Ghana.  While most studies of nationalism in Africa have tended to focus on the political and institutional framework of the nation-state, Ahlman analyzes how social and political formation in Ghana and elsewhere were influenced by Nkrumah’s ideas, especially his broad conception of the nation as rooted in the principle of “African unity.”   Throughout his rule, Nkrumah provided both moral and material support to liberation movements across the African continent.  At home in Ghana, he sought to instill a philosophy of liberation and Pan-African unity through village and worker literacy classes, leadership schools, land reform initiatives, and industrialization projects. Contrary to most scholars who contend that Nkrumah’s ideology resonated little with the Ghanaian population at large, Ahlman draws on oral and archival sources to show that, through a variety of civic and trade union organizations, the President’s ideology inundated the lives of many Ghanaians in the 1950s and 1960s.  Moreover, their engagement with Nkrumah’s ideology was active.  No mere parrots of the party line, these citizens injected their own narratives into the government’s rhetoric, while also capitalizing on that very rhetoric to secure an array of rights and benefits. 

            Jenifer Barclay’s dissertation, Cripples All! Or, the 'Mark of Slavery': The Invisible Links between Disability and Race in the Old South and Beyond, adds a new and heretofore missing chapter to the study of slavery in the United States, while also contributing to the intellectual history of race.  A first-year pre-doctoral fellow, Barclay is completing her PhD in History at Michigan State University.  Her work, which examines the lived realities of disabled bond-people in the American South, shifts scholarly analysis away from standard medical viewpoints, which have tended to objectify individuals and flatten the contours of their diverse experiences.  More broadly, her study examines the metaphorical and ontological relationship between race and disability, as it  traces the crystallization of both “race” and “disability” as categories in American society, politics, law and medicine during the antebellum years.  Through a comparative analysis of minstrelsy and freak shows, Barclay shows how these intertwined categories continued to reverberate in American culture long after the end of slavery.  Drawing on insights from the new disability history, Barclay critiques the widespread tendency in the existing literature on slavery to imagine historical actors almost exclusively as able-bodied.  Her work on the disabled ultimately seeks to illuminate a range of representations through, and against which, race and disability are and have been continuously defined.

            Benjamin Fagan, a UVa graduate student in English who hails from Illinois, is a first-year Woodson pre-doctoral fellow.  His dissertation, “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation”: Practices of Nationalism in the Early Black Press, examines antebellum constructions of black community and nation through the lens of the black press.  He argues that black newspapers and periodicals constituted practices of community-formation that challenged readers to consider the shifting meanings of nationhood.  Their pages thus represent contested terrain where competing voices within early black communities struggled over the tensions between working-class sensibilities and middle-class aspirations, the local and the cosmopolitan, the diplomatic and the confrontational. Focusing on such publications as Freedom’s Journal, The Colored American, The North Star and The Weekly Anglo-African, Fagan traces how these outlets constructed, and simultaneously represented, the black nation to and within the broader republic. 

            Jonathan Fenderson, from Southern California, is a first-year pre-doctoral fellow and Ph.D. candidate in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.  His dissertation, Journey Toward a Black Aesthetic, tells the interrelated stories of Hoyt Fuller, the 1960s Black Arts Movement, and the Black intellectual community that formed in the movement’s wake.  By focusing on Fuller’s work as editor of the Negro Digest/Black World magazine, Fenderson shows how Fuller helped create a “periodical think tank” that fostered an (inter)national sensibility among such Black intellectuals, activists, and critics as Sonia Sanchez, Stokely Carmichael, Nikki Giovanni, James Boggs, and C.L.R. James, to name a few.  In addition to highlighting the importance of print culture to the Black Arts Movement, Fenderson also contends that the magazine offered an early publishing venue to younger intellectuals, such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and Barbara Christian, who would go on to gain prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.  Contrary to the established belief that the Black Arts Movement was “short-lived” and of little lasting significance, Fenderson traces the movement’s influence upon late twentieth century literary and cultural criticism, as well as its ongoing institutional legacy for American universities, literary organizations, and the publishing industry in general.   Furthermore, Fenderson argues that Fuller’s life as an openly gay man at the center of the Black Arts movement challenges the conventional view that the movement was uncompromisingly homophobic.   

            Alisha Gaines is also a new post-doctoral fellow in English from Duke University.  Her book project, Black like We Imagine Ourselves: Spectacular Fantasies of Race and Nation, examines performances of race that are indices of our cultural negotiations with identity, nation, and difference.  From the moment colonial rebels disguised themselves as “Indians,” during the iconic Boston Tea Party, to the emergence of blackface minstrelsy as the earliest form of American popular culture, to the 2006 televised experiment, Black.White, in which two families “switched races” through donning state-of-the art make-up, racial masquerade has been a persistent feature of American culture.  Gaines’s theoretical insights into fantasies of race and nation derive from  narratives of what she terms “racial im/posture”—adventures in racial impersonation reliant on the logics of both blackface minstrelsy and racial passing. Her work raises the following questions: What is the relationship between representations of blackness and its lived experiences?    Can racial im/posture ever truly challenge white supremacy?  How does racial im/posture make us self-aware of our own constructedness as raced, gendered, and sexualized bodies and citizens?  Drawing from a variety of literary genres, including memoir, autobiography, fiction, the legal brief, film, and the photograph, Gaines considers texts that reveal the ephemeral and mercurial nature of racial belonging.  She maintains that in these times, when Americans are wrestling with the significance of difference within the body politic, such questions are not only revealing, but also politically urgent.

           Olubukola (Bukky) Gbádégeşin is a doctoral candidate in the Art History Department at Emory University, specializing in African Art.  Now in her second year as a pre-doctoral fellow, Gbádégeşin is finishing up her dissertation entitled, Picturing the Modern: Politics, Identity and Self-fashioning in Lagos, Nigeria, 1861-1944.  Her investigation covers the British annexation of the city in 1861 through the founding of the Lagos Youth Movement in 1934, a period of socio-cultural flux and traumatic socio-political change.  New ideas and old customs converged in ways that challenged and advanced the adaptiveness of the population.  Because of its Yoruba-influenced preoccupation with dynamic adaptation, status, display, and exceptionalism--even through the disruptive colonial experience—Lagos offers a particularly illuminating lens through which to examine portraiture.

Portraiture, Gbádégeşin argues, constitutes a particularly poignant example of the internal negotiations occurring during the roughly eighty-year period of transition.  By commissioning portraits, affluent Yoruba-descended Lagosians took control of their own likenesses, and staked a claim to visual autonomy in a way that they were yet unable to do through economic or political action. Her project also considers the career trajectories of a select group of successful black photographers and painters who, along with their clients, exploited visuality in hopes of attaining a degree of self-legitimization denied them by the colonial milieu in which they lived. She further argues that these veiled challenges to the inscrutable authority of the colonial administration paved the way for the more aggressive and overt independence activities of the early twentieth century.   Though focused on Lagos, Gbádégeşin’s work provides general insights into the subtle ways that groups conceive and (re)conceive of their self-image and carve out a sense of belonging within transitioning landscapes.

           Cassie Hays, who is in the first year of her post-doctoral fellowship, earned her PhD in Sociology from Yale University.  Her dissertation, A Sociology of Safari: Techné and Travel in Tanzania, focuses on safari in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. Since the colonial era, safari in East Africa has relied on various technologies to facilitate movement across the landscape and enable interaction between people and the world around them.  The project is organized around various technologies or accoutrement of travel—the media,  automobile, photograph and souvenir—showing how they each focus and define tourists’ experiences.  These technologies, or techné, shape the safari adventure by engaging three interrelated tropes: the glorification of the past; the characterization of ‘nature’ or the ‘other’ through the lens of danger or violence; and the creation of an imagined intimacy with explorers and colonial hunters of years past  that ignores present company.  Taken together, the various techné, perpetuate these themes that continue to delineate the contours of the safari experience and to expose deeper facets of Western culture and its relationship with East Africa, particularly the subsuming of race and racial difference within ideas of the ‘natural.’ She plans to explore the conjoining of race and nature, and the history of Serengeti National Park, during her stay at the university.

           Anna Lim, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology here at UVa, is wrapping up her second year as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Woodson Institute.  Her dissertation, Population Politics and the Production of Citizens in the French Antilles, centers on the former slave colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyana, which were all integrated into the French Republic in 1946 as overseas “departments.”  From the 1950s through the 1970s, as the French state was promoting large families in metropolitan France, it was simultaneously trying to limit births in its overseas departments.   This contradiction posed serious challenges for French policy makers who were constitutionally bound to establish one set of laws to govern all citizens.  Lim contends that the French state’s preoccupation with population was really an expression of concerns about “nation.”  The overpopulation-depopulation paradigm became a way for such policy makers to distinguish the new overseas citizens from their metropolitan counterparts, and to justify differential access to the expanding system of social rights created through the welfare state.  At the same time, these policy makers extolled the virtues of a colorblind nation, as well as the social irrelevance of “race” in all matters of citizenship.  They skirted around issues of equality by placing the problem of difference on the shoulders of the overseas citizens, in particular by framing the overpopulation problem as a result of “irresponsible mothers” and “absent fathers” among the overseas citizenry.  Lim’s study thus analyzes the dilemmas faced by the state in “managing” difference, but also shows how  Martinican women—and others in the overseas departments—remade their families and re-imagined their fertility by participating in programs to lower birthrates as a way of asserting their French citizenship and assuring their right to political voice.

           Rosemary Millar was born and raised in Barbados, and became interested in African-American literature while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College.  Now a doctoral candidate in UVa’s English Department, Millar is in her second year as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Woodson Institute.   Her dissertation, “A Livable Place: (Anti)Utopianism and the African-American Literary Imagination,”  examines ideas of utopianism, or more accurately, anti-utopianism, in the work of selected black writers.  Classic utopian literature—as represented by the works of Sir Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley, B. F. Skinner and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—envisions utopian communities as racially homogeneous places, built and maintained on myriad forms of social exclusion.  This vision, Millar asserts, is rooted in American ideas of national perfectibility.  This literary model of utopia  has been challenged by African-American authors such as Sutton E. Griggs, W.E. B. DuBois, George S. Schuyler and Toni Morrison.  Critical of the very idea and tradition of utopianism, they situate their critiques within a broader historical and social context, which allows them to reveal the striking parallels between utopian ideals and practices of racial segregation.  African-American writers expose the extent to which social, indeed racial, homogeneity is fundamental to the generic utopian ideal, a homogeneity which can only be enforced through state-sponsored violence and terrorism. For this reason, Millar argues, black authors are all keen to envision America as an anti-utopian space. 

If  “classic” utopian fiction privileges racially homogeneous communities, these communities have also tended to be male-oriented, founded by men on explicitly patriarchal principles. The sole female author of Millar’s study, Toni Morrison takes up the gendered critique of the form in her novel Paradise, a novel ultimately suspicious of all utopian visions of community.  Whether founded by whites or blacks, Morrison suggests, utopian communities must emerge as sites in which violence is ultimately used in order to maintain sovereignty.

          Anoop Mirpuri is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Washington.  Now in the second year of his fellowship, Mirpuri is completing his dissertation, “The Human Problem”: Race, Rebellion, and the Problem of Crime in the Wake of Civil Rights. In this study, Mirpuri approaches the unrivaled expansion of prisons in the U.S. over the last thirty years. He examines  how and why “crime” emerged as a central category in political discourse, as well as in African American cultural production, between 1964 and 1973. While mass incarceration is generally explained by conservatives in terms of cultural and racial deviance, or by liberals and leftists as a byproduct of “deeper” shifts in political economy, The Human Problem demonstrates that today’s imprisonment crisis is rooted in debates over how to manage a major historical contradiction: that between the state’s incipient commitment to formal legal equality, and the intransigence of human differences, which work effectively to create and structure inequality.  He argues that this contradiction has been central to the accumulation and profitable exchange of capital.  Drawing on the diverse intellectual tradition of the black freedom movement and its imaginative concern with histories and figures of captivity, Mirpuri asserts that criminality has emerged as a central mode of excluding persons from political life.  More troubling, these exclusions have become increasingly difficult to challenge by appealing to universal notions of the human, precisely because it is humanity’s boundaries which prisons are supposedly meant to protect.  By analyzing the emerging obsession with crime in the years encompassing 1964-1973, Mirpuri seeks to understand at what point people came to see waging a war against crime as necessary to protecting the domestic social order.  Understanding this conceptual shift becomes central to explaining why the prison industrial complex continues to thrive.

            John (Thabiti) Willis, a second-year post-doctoral fellow, earned his PhD in African History from Emory University.  A scholar with interests in expressive culture and gender, Willis’ work focuses on the history and politics of masquerades.  Prevailing scholarship tends to portray masquerades as masculine, static, and peripheral to the power struggles and transformations that have shaped African history.   Willis, however, demonstrates that shifting coalitions of Yoruba speakers in Nigeria have created, transformed, and performed masquerades to manage crises, access power, claim authority, and define community.  In his book project, “Masquerading Politics: Power, Authority, and Community,” Willis shows how spectacles of royalty, chieftaincy and empire have faced challenges from various types of subversive masquerades such as those associated with warrior hood, which use violence and generosity to contest claims to material goods and human subjects.  At the center of Willis’ project is Egungun, a Yoruba masquerade that honors ancestors and promotes the status of their living descendents.  While Egungun is usually portrayed as an exclusively male institution, Willis argues on the contrary that, just as masquerades can constitute a means to challenge authority, so too can they provide a space for reconfiguring gender.  Shango possession priests have primarily been women who exhibit masculinity in the name of their deity, while Egungun performers and priests have historically been men accompanied by a few “nominally” powerful women.  Willis shows that women have in fact asserted their power in various ways through involvement in both Shango and Egungun rites.  In the process, he problematizes the tendency to collapse sex and gender that is pervasive in the literature on masquerades by highlighting the multiplicity of masculinities and femininities embodied in these performances.