Shawn Leigh Alexander
Shawn Leigh Alexander
R. Steve Dick/University Relations
Shawn Leigh Alexander researches the social and intellectual history of African-Americans and is interim director of the Langston Hughes Center.
Years at current job: One year, three months.
Job duties: For African and African-American Studies, known as AAAS, I teach the survey courses in African-American History and the introductory course in African-American Studies. I also teach courses on black intellectual history and social movements, including a course on The Black Power Movement, which I taught in Spring 2008 and one titled The Life and Times of W. E. B. Du Bois, which I will teach in Spring 2009.
You study social and intellectual history of African-Americans. What does a monumental event such as Barack Obama’s election as president mean to this history? The election of Barack Obama to the highest office of the land is a transformative moment in African-American and American history and should be rejoiced. It does not mean however, that we have moved into a post-racial America. Race still matters in America and will continue to matter. The election of Barack Obama is a symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, a struggle that started 389 years ago, when the first African slaves were brought to these American shores. A struggle that continued through 250 years of chattel slavery, fueled the hearts and minds of the free and the fugitive of the abolitionist movement, and energized the soldiers marching to John Brown’s Body. A struggle that continued through the first elected to office during Reconstruction, and those keeping on and fighting through the nadir. A struggle that came alive in the art and protest of Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez and James Baldwin. A struggle sustained by the words and actions of the NAACP, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and John Lewis. And a struggle outlined through the politics of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, T. Thomas Fortune, Walter White, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carl Stokes, Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson.
The election of Obama does not wipe the bloody history of race relations in America clean, but 40 years after an assassin’s bullet took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., his victory does give us a moment to rejoice and look back on this long struggle for black freedom and political and social rights.
You serve as interim director for the Langston Hughes Center. What is the mission of the center, and what does it bring to the KU community? The Langston Hughes Center, formerly the Langston Hughes Resource Center, relaunched its activities in the Department of African and African-American Studies, at KU and throughout the region in Spring 2008. The Center, part of the Department African and African-American Studies’ 1997 Vision Statement and approved by the College in 1998 as the counterpart to the Kansas African Studies Center, had previously been underdeveloped and severely limited in its activities for various reasons, but had always been a presence in AAAS, which has constantly had a vision to fully develop the Center. Now with the relaunching of the Center, as part of the Department’s 2006 Strategic Planning Statement for 2007-2012 approved by the College last year, the goal is to make it an active area center on campus, with support from the College and in the future outside of the University.
With this history and vision in mind the LHC defines itself and sets forth its mission in the following manner: The Langston Hughes Center is an academic research and educational center that is building upon the legacy and creative and intellectual insight of African American author, poet, playwright, folklorist and social critic, Langston Hughes. The Center coordinates, strengthens and develops teaching, research and outreach activities in African American Studies, and the study of race and culture in American society at KU and in America’s Heartland. The Center, therefore, acts as a hub of critical examination of black culture, history, literature, politics and social relations. In addition, like Hughes himself, the Center has a Diasporic focus, promoting research and discussions on Africans in the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. Toward these ends the Langston Hughes Center will regularly sponsor conferences, lectures, seminars and forums on a wide variety of topics; coordinating activities with other groups at KU.
You also research radicalism and civil rights activity in the reconstruction and post-reconstruction eras. How, in your opinion, did those early efforts make such an historic election possible? During Reconstruction, America went through a moment of great transformation with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Following a period of redemption, the nation back-peddled away from the progress that these Amendments set forth, slowly stripping away black rights and disfranchising black voters, all accomplished “constitutionally” on the state level with the complicit support of the federal legislative and judicial branches and a reign of terror that murdered anyone who stepped over the imaginary, continually shifting, line of acceptable social behavior. Throughout this period African Americans endured, sustaining their families and communities in anyway possible. Additionally, a number of blacks raised their voices against these injustices, demanding equal social and political rights. This foundation, layed by individuals such as, T. Thomas Fortune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, George White, Mary McLoed Bethune and Archibald Grimké, is the base that kept the struggle flowing through such a tumultuous period and gave birth to the Modern Civil Rights Movement of which Barack Obama’s historical election can be seen as the symbolic culmination.
What aspect of your job might others not realize you’re involved with? I am the graduate coordinator of AAAS. Over the course of the past year my department colleagues and myself reworked the proposal of the AAAS master’s program and pending final approval of the Board of Regents, we anticipate the first class of AAAS graduate students in Fall 2009.
What do you enjoy most about your profession? I enjoy both the research and teaching sides of my profession. I truly love teaching African-American history. It is a great joy to provide my students with elements of their national and local history that have often been left out. More directly, I enjoy exposing students to the centrality of the African-American experience to the history of this country. On the research side, I am truly an old school, archive rat, historian who loves turning the pages of microfilm and digging deep into manuscript collections looking for that nugget of information. The true challenge is to merge the two sides. Bringing the enthusiasm I have for my discipline and research to the classroom and exposing the students to both the history and the thrill of the hunt for new material and interpretations.
You studied at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and now work with the Langston Hughes Center. What does it mean as a scholar to be associated with such important names? There are many prominent individuals in African-American history and many more incredible people whom we will never know, and I have been lucky and am honored to be associated with a Department and now a Center named after two of my personal heroes.
Especially important to me is the fact that both the Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and the Langston Hughes Center are named because of local history and/or connections to the individual. The Du Bois Department at UMass was named after the great scholar/activist because he was born only a short distance from Amherst. More importantly, the Du Bois Department is the only department or center in the country bearing his name that had personal connections with Dr. Du Bois. His second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois and his stepson David Graham Du Bois both taught in the department. Now here at KU, Langston Hughes has deep roots in Lawrence and it is important that we celebrate and honor that heritage. It allows the Center to not only celebrate the legacy of Hughes, but also gives us an inroad to discuss local African-American history.
There obviously has never been an African-American president, but what would you say are some comparable milestones in 19th and 20th century African-American history? There are a number of transformative moments in African-American history, but none of them are truly equivalent to Nov. 4, 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as president. A few of the previous moments include, Jan. 15, 1817 when 3,000 African-Americans convened in Philadelphia to protest the American Colonization Society. Another moment was on Sept. 15, 1830 when the first Black Convention was held in Philadelphia. The next moment, was Jan. 1, 1863, when blacks, particularly in the North, waited to see if Abraham Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation that he had promised in September 1862. Another incident was the rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, when Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. An additional moment was May 17, 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. One more moment was Aug. 28, 1963, when more than 200,000 gathered in Washington and thousands more throughout the nation huddled around radios and televisions to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his famous “I have a dream” address.