I’ve been teaching in the UConn English Department since 2004. I write and teach in Childhood studies, American literature, African American Studies and Disability Studies.
-What is the project you’re currently working on?
A book called Strange Place Blues: Growing up in a Slave Nation.
-How did you arrive at this topic?
I came across an 1822 skit where a nine-year old African American boy chastises another little boy for tardiness as part of a public examination at the The New York African School and I was hooked. On one level, this was a very small moment–just a school performance with two young kids talking about the importance of schoolwork. Really, it’s not terribly different that something you might find at a school assembly today. But once I started investigating, it became clear how this small moment had incredibly large implications. Much of the ideology underlying the American Revolution, and the concept of citizenry it engendered, depended on the capacity for citizens to be born equal, and to come to rationality through education. Thus the question of whether black children could partake in education was vital. These small children were exemplars, held up as evidence by both anti-slavery forces. Their school performances were covered by local newspapers, and their schoolwork held up at national conferences as evidence of African American equality, and of slavery’s deep injustice.
My book explores the work of the school by tracing the lives and works of two of its most famous almuni, James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and Henry Highland Garnet was the first African American to address Congress. In particular, I focus on how they imagined the black child in their lives and work as they wrestled with questions of national belonging, of education, and of possible futures. I’m also keenly interested in how these political figures were deeply influenced by the experiences of black children who came into their own lives, whether it was their own children, New York city orphans, child fugitives from slavery, or in one case, a young African held up as a scientific specimen. Ultimately, I argue, that finding ways to cultivate and celebrate children as political and cultural actors was central to the work of black abolitionism, and later black political thought, in ways we haven’t really engaged as fully as we need to.
-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
We’re in a moment where the very meaning of education is under stress. We are struggling to define what it is supposed to accomplish, and by extension, what we imagine a good citizen should know. Both students and educators often feel overwhelmed by definitions that they had very little input in creating, and that might feel alien to what they really want to learn. My project seeks to learn from African American children themselves as they worked–and ultimately thrived– within systems that didn’t believe that they could ever become citizens in the first place. In doing so, I hope to open up new ways of appreciating the capacity of children to be active participants in their own education, and to be political advocate