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'Articulating Ancestry': Braxton prepares scholars to engage

{{youtube:medium|hVEgG0wzE88, Students are featured in the in-class performance component of Joanne Braxton's "Articulating Ancestry."}}

Joanne Braxton peers into the past and ponders the lessons that have been buried, swept from the mainstream, delineated as not worthy of attention. Their bearers, she knows—has witnessed—have been labeled, cast aside, disenfranchised. Yet, she insists, such stories are in demand. They represent necessary touchstones as a diverse society seeks examples of how to live, how to authenticate, how to engage.

Recently Braxton, the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of the Humanities and English at William & Mary, led students in her class, "African American Literature and Community Studies: The Art of Engagement," on an intensive quest to uncover, dig up, sort out and evaluate such stories. Much of the excavating occurred in Swem Library, where, assisted by special-collections archivist Susan Riggs, they explored the Ma Raneys, the Alvin Aileys, the Mildred Lovings and many more less familiar figures from the local African-American community whose lives seemed to resonate with resolve against difficult odds.

“In this course,” Braxton said, “students explored thematic concerns of religion and belief, education for sustainable communities, and rumor, reputation and asset management through a variety of research tools, including the study of scholarly literature in the field, in the archives, and through creativity and performance.”

The class featured a structured syllabus that introduced students to the foundations of community, the understanding of personal and community assets, and the preferred methods of engaging communities to help them pursue effective change.

Among lives examined was that of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells, harvested from her body, fueled medically significant advances that proved financially lucrative for many—members of her own family, meanwhile, sank into poverty. Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited—one of the books Martin Luther King, Jr. often carried in his pocket—spurred discussion as to how people at risk can use internal strengths to overcome external adversities and take control of their futures. Also addressed was the "prickly"—Braxton's term—topic of restorative justice.

{{youtube:medium|pxm_sFP1cWQ, Joanne Braxton interviews librarian Susan Riggs regarding university archives.}}

In an exercise of one of Braxton’s unique gifts, the professor guided the students to internalize the lessons.

“I encourage them to augment the tools of literary and cultural analyses with the insights achieved through self-reflection, personal assessment and self-correction,” she explained. Toward that end, an alternative to a traditional class final paper proved particularly effective. Called “Articulating Ancestry,” the special component had students go in-character with both historic and contemporary people of their own choosing, securing those figures as authentic philosophical and cultural ancestors, according to Braxton.

The imprint on the students was deep. Assessing the class, Jerome Carter ’12 commented, “Sometimes we can get discouraged because we do not know what the future holds. We become fearful and anxious. However, by studying and engaging with the past, we can see that what we are facing now others have faced before."

Added Margarita Rusolello ’13, “We are given a means for preserving our self-worth and sanity. Not only can we share in each other’s pain, we also can find unconventional ways to celebrate our differences, our strengths and our communities.”

Students, with the help of Riggs, came to understand both the challenges and the power housed in public archives such as Swem Library. Riggs explained how collections are secured, how access to papers produced by "non-elites" were becoming available and how library professionals weigh judgments concerning the relative merits of source material. Along with Braxton, Riggs led students in conversations questioning what constitutes a text, what is a viable source, what is worth preserving and what is not.

Jacklyn Carroll ’13 took note. Later, she wrote, “Scholars have the power to make a story visible and available, and they have the responsibility to recognize patterns in scholarship that they study so they might make those patterns visible not only to the communities they continue to affect but to the academic world, as well.”

Chantalle Ashford ’14 reiterated the necessity of not only creating what, in effect, becomes new knowledge but of acting upon it.

“Scholarship has to be an engaged effort and not just the scholar telling members of the community what they should and should not do to better their situations, because ultimately they have to deal with the consequences,” Ashford said. “This is the ultimate challenge to engaged scholarship.”

For Braxton, such insights on the part of her students undoubtedly affirm her development of the course. In no small way, she has succeeded in, according to the words of her longtime friend and confidant Jayne Cortez (1934-2012), helping them “find your own voice and use it, use your own voice and find it” (see related link, top right).