The College of Arts and Letters at The University of Southern Mississippi celebrates Black History not just in February, but also throughout the year in its faculty research, courses and internships, sponsored readings and performances and exhibits.
As Dean Steven R. Moser affirmed, “The College is dedicated to exploring and learning more about the lives and contributions of African Americans in our nation's history, literature, music, art and politics.”
The College's internationally distinguished journal, The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of Arts and Letters in the South, has a strong commitment to publishing scholarship on African American history, music, art and literature.
Over the last few years, the journal has published special issues on Richard Wright, 19th Century black authors, the Legacy of Emmett Till, artist Lois Mailou Jones, on African American Identities, and United States poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey. The current issue, guest edited by Dr. Sherita Johnson commemorates the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and includes interviews, historical reflections, photo essays, a section on teaching in Fredom Schools and “Literature of the Movement.”
The College's Interdisciplinary Studies program is home to the Center for Black Studies, directed by Johnson, whose mission is to promote research and provide educational opportunities relating to the history and culture of African Americans and the Black Diaspora. Students who minor in Black Studies take courses in a variety of disciplines (Political Science, History, English, Mass Communication, etc.) as well as complete an internship at a black institution or business or complete a service-learning project.
Dr. Cheryl D. Jenkins, associate director, stressed that the Center “facilitates connections between the University and various social, political and economic entities that address Black experience.”
In 2014, Johnson and Jenkins organized, promoted and ran a widely successful conference on “Commemorating Freedom Summer.” As Johnson pointed out, “Over six months, the Center organized a series of events, including a re-enactment of the ‘Freedom Day' March and public dialogues about civil rights issues.”
Johnson emphasized that the Conference highlighted “the sacrifices and strategies of the local civil rights movement here in Hattiesburg.” Not only did the conference bring civil rights activists who participated in Freedom Summer to campus, but also scholars from across the country.
Celebrating Black Heritage is also emphasized through teaching in Arts and Letters. Almost every department or school offers classes devoted to African American culture. The History and English Departments offer courses from freshman surveys to doctoral level seminars on African American history and culture. In particular, the History Department teaches specialty courses on Southern History that bring African American culture to the fore — the Old South, 20th Century Urbanism, etc.
Dr. Eric Tribunella, chair of the English Department, explains that the “study of African American literature is integral to the Department's curriculum.” Undergraduate majors must take at least one course on ethnic, postcolonial or African American literature. Upper level classes have focused on Richard Wright, the rhetoric of the civil rights movement and contemporary African American women playwrights.
At the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus, Constance Bailey is currently teaching a class on African American comedy. Students can also study Caribbean literature and culture through the study abroad program.
Political Science, Mass Communication and Journalism, and Sociology and Anthropology also offer students essential courses in African American studies. A widely praised course entitled Politics and Protest investigates the civil rights movement through film and learning activities such as discussions with civil rights veterans and visits to the African American Military Museum in Hattiesburg.
A member of both Interdisciplinary Studies and the History Department, Dr. Marcus Coleman extends his research on African American citizenship and black voter behavior by providing students with an opportunity to canvas black neighborhoods informing citizens about Mississippi's new voter ID law.
“African Americans' Achievements in the Media” is a popular course in Mass Communication. Faculty in the Department of Communication Studies teach and explore issues of race relationships and civil rights, topics that are frequently used as the focal point in public speaking classes.
Moreover, some students have delivered memorial speeches at the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. African American traditions are the subjects of Sociology and Anthropology classes in Race and Ethnicity, Peoples and Cultures of Africa and the Archaeology of the Old South. New classes are scheduled throughout Arts and Letters. Dr. Sam Bruton is preparing to teach a class later this year on “The Philosophy of Race,” and Dr. Kimberly Davis from the School of Music will offer a new course next year called Black Music in America.
Besides honoring African American history through their teaching, Arts and Letters faculty have had a longstanding and impressive record of research in black history and culture. Five faculty members in the History Department alone have authored or are working on, major books — slavery in Colonial Virginia (Dr. Doug Chambers), black barbers in slavery and freedom and the resourcefulness of black enterprise (Dr. Douglas Bristol); the intertwined lives of poor whites, free blacks and slaves in the Early American Republic (Dr. Max Grivno); the National Council of Negro Women during the Civil Rights Movement (Dr. Rebecca Tuuri) and fabled African American musician Big Bill Broonzy (Dr. Kevin Greene).
Chambers and Grivno are also compiling a massive database about runaway slaves. Recently, Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage won a highly competitive National Endowment for the Humanities grant to digitize and transcribe previously unavailable interviews rich in African American heritage, thus enhancing Southern Miss's role as a premier institution to study black history and the civil rights movement.
In English, Johnson published Black Women in the New South Literature and Culture and currently serves as the Chair of the Executive Committee for the Modern Language's Division of Black Literature and Culture. Constance Bailey has recently published a major article on African American humor.
The College's Distinguished Professor Philip Kolin has published four books about African American women playwrights, including Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer for drama, and the first critical book on experimental playwright Adrienne Kennedy.
Kolin has also published extensively on Emmett Till, including numerous scholarly articles, a one act play that appeared in Calaloo, a major journal devoted to the African Diaspora; and his collection of poems, Emmett Till in Different States, will be published this fall by Third World Press, the largest independent black-owned press in America. Other English faculty are at work on books dealing with civil rights rhetoric, public discourse and folklore.
In Mass Communication, Dr. Cheryl Jenkins is co-editor and co-author of Race and Media: Critical Perspectives along with colleagues Christopher Campbell and Kim LeDuff. David Davies, Interim Director of the School of Mass Communication and Journalism, is following his important book The Press and Race with The Press and the Issue of Race. In Political Science, Dr. Marek Steedman has published an influential book entitled Jim Crow Citizenship.
The Arts in the College can also claim an impressive record of showcasing the work of African American dramatists, choreographers, photographers, poets and musicians. The Theatre Department, for example, has promoted African American history through recent main stage productions of Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, August Wilson's Fences, the musical review,Smokey Joe's Café and currently Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark which uncovers the hidden history of black women actors in the golden age of the Hollywood film industry.
This semester, the Theatre Department also kicked off the University's celebration of Black History Month with performances by Harlem, a theatre and dance student collective, of A Night at the Cotton Club featuring the poetry of such prominent black writers as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.
On Feb. 24, English professor Morgan Frank coordinated a reading entitled “250 Years: Black Poetry from Phillis Wheatley to the Poets of Southern Miss,” an event co-sponsored by the Departments of Theatre and English plus the Black History Month Committee. Frank's students read a ranging of works by black poets from various time frames as well as their original work.
In November, the Southern Miss Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Jay Dean, presented Joseph Britain's tribute to Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer-prize winning book of poems, Native Guard, about the forgotten African American soldiers responsible for guarding Confederate prisons on Ship Island.
Trethewey read selections from her Native Guard as Britain's score surrounded her. In February, Kimberly David brought together an ensemble of pianists and vocalists in a production entitled Honoring the African American Artist and Composer, including Marian Anderson, the first African American to perform at the New York Metropolitan.
A vital part of the Freedom Summer Conference included the exhibit, curated by Professor Mark Rigsby, of photographs from Herbert Randall who spent the entire summer of 1964 documenting Freedom Schools, voter registration and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party campaigns. According to Howard Paine, Chair of the Department of Art and Design, this show "was the most significant Black History event the department has ever sponsored."
Beyond doubt, the College of Arts and Letters honors black heritage yearound through teaching, programs and research. Because of the College's exemplary work, Southern Miss can better recruit and retain students, foster faculty research, build stronger ties with the community and enhance our reputation as a center for archival study of the civil rights movement.Copyright 2015 WDAM. All rights reserved.
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