Joanne Braxton was riding in a car headed for the Library of Congress recently when she heard a gasp and a squeal. She glanced around to seek its source.
She found it in the mirror.
William & Mary President Taylor Reveley had just emailed to inform and congratulate her on winning the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Award, given each year to a member of the William & Mary family for “significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership.” She will be presented with the award during the Charter Day ceremony on Friday.
After hearing the news, Braxton, the Francis L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of the Humanities and director of the W&M Middle Passage Project, first phoned English Department Chair Suzanne Raitt and Associate Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Artisia Greento express her gratitude.
Raitt and Green co-authored a letter of recommendation in which they described Braxton’s 37-year teaching career as “transformational” and extolled her service as “extensive” and the epitome of leadership.
“Professor Braxton is a poet, a critic, a public intellectual, a playwright, a photographer, a curator, a minister and a healer,” the letter says.
A career celebrated
Braxton has won too many awards to list, including the W&M Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the Oni Award from the International Black Women’s Congress, the Commonwealth of Virginia Outstanding Virginia Educator Award, the W&M Society of the Alumni Teaching Award, the Sarah Lawrence College Alumnae Lifetime Achievement Award and the Harvard University W.E.B. DuBois Institute Fellowship. She has also been recognized as a 2017 American Association of Medical Colleges Thought Leader.
Braxton arrived at W&M in 1980, four years after former colleague Ann M. Reed, who wrote that, “During her early years, Joanne, with others, initiated changes which led to two historically organized courses in African-American literature. These changes opened the door for a broader curriculum in African-American literature — currently reflected in at least five related courses in the department, as well as other African-Americanists on the faculty.”
Her involvement with the Black, African and Africana studies programs included serving as director of the Middle Passage Project and the Africana House Living Learning communities. She was a member of the founding committee to create the Black Studies Program, coordinator of the Middle Passage Health Equity Lecture Series and convener of the program “1619-2019: From Jamestown to Flint, Medicine, Arts and Social Justice Symposium.”
Jody Allen, visiting assistant professor of history, met Braxton in 1995 when she attended W&M as a graduate student. She called herself “privileged” to observe Braxton help bring the Black Studies Program to life.
“She understood the impact that such a program would have on all students, especially African-American students,” Allen wrote. “She also knew that as a liberal arts institution, William & Mary was obligated to provide a diverse educational experience for all students.”
Her favorite five
Braxton was asked to name her top five accomplishments at W&M and why she chose them. She prefaced her answer by saying, “It’s difficult to reflect on one's own contributions. In the moment, it is often essential to the intended outcome to operate as if one would never receive any recognition whatsoever."
- Teaching with integrity and holding space for difficult intellectual conversations, especially conversations about race and difference.
- Mentoring students, former students and junior faculty members.
- Pushing for curricular innovation, including advocating for the formation of Africana studies, bringing Peggy McIntosh to campus to facilitate the founding of Women’s studies and contributing to the foundational conversations that led to the creation of the American Studies Program and the Commonwealth Center for the Study of American Culture.
- Founding the Middle Passage Project and its related programs, including the May 2000 “Monuments of the Black Atlantic: History, Memory and Politics” conference that brought scholars and artists from 56 countries around the world to campus.
- Providing spiritual companionship to faculty, students and staff as an ordained and authorized campus minister and a member of Campus Ministries United, especially during seasons of shared grief and loss. Founding the United Church of Christ W&M campus ministry and preaching regularly in the Wren Chapel from 2011-13.
Much more ahead to contribute
Braxton is retiring at the end of the semester and recently accepted an appointment at the United States Library of Congress as the David M. Larsen Fellow of Spirituality and Health.
However, Associate Professor Shantá D. Hinton wrote, Braxton’s work for W&M and her community at large is far from done. She points to Braxton’s recent work as principal investigator on the W&M-Eastern Virginia Medical School Narrative Medicine for Excellence Project.
“She will serve this institution through her collaboration with EVMS … She isn’t retiring to rest and become stagnant, but to embrace her role as an influential leader to her community [and] to be mindful of the well being of themselves as a whole.”
Finally, Jackson Sasser, assistant visiting professor of government, reached deep into history and pop culture in making his case for Braxton and the Jefferson Award.
“At the University of Virginia they speak of Jefferson as though he is in the next room,” he wrote. “I teach as though Professor Braxton is alongside me.
“Not long ago I came across Bruce Springsteen’s comment on his audiences’ hopes: They want to feel at home, he said, and they want to be surprised ... William & Mary became, and remains, home to me because of Professor Braxton’s incredibly warm welcome. And no classroom, including my own, has surprised me like hers, and no friend or colleague’s thinking has challenged me more profoundly in the years since.”