M: Would you mind talking a little bit about your past, where you come from and how you made it to the University of Oklahoma?
D: First of all, Miles, thank you for inviting me to engage in this interview. I was born and raised in Scotland, and met my husband, Dr. Tim Davidson when he was a doctoral student at Edinburgh University. We got married in Scotland and came to the United States. I got my MSSW and PhD in Social Work from the University of Texas at Arlington because we lived in Denton. My first teaching job was at the University of North Texas (UNT). I got tenure there, but was recruited for lots of jobs elsewhere and so we moved to New York where I taught at Columbia University School of Social Work. It was a fabulous opportunity for my career, but ultimately we had to move back to Denton because we couldn’t sell our house there. That’s when my husband and I both interviewed for jobs at OU, and moved back to Denton with our two sons, traveling back and forth until we moved to Oklahoma. We’ve been at OU for 22 years.
M: What role do you see yourself having in the world of racial justice on your campus but also in society at large? Whether that be back home, here in the US or otherwise?
D: I think practically everything I’ve ever done has had a focus on racial/ social justice. I started off my work life as a high school teacher in the most economically challenged area in Scotland. I was also a special education teacher and of course a social worker working with families dealing with child abuse and neglect. Later on, I was a consultant for child welfare supervisors in OKC, staffing their most difficult cases. So outside of the academy, I’ve always worked with people on the margins, often the disempowered. I can’t really imagine not having that kind of work involvement. I can’t imagine doing work that is not of consequence. On campus, much of my work—of course— has been as director of African and African American Studies (AFAM.), 2002-2017. I think we set the standard for the large public, racial justice type programs that we now see more frequently at OU. We brought in great activists like Danny Glover, the nationally known lawyer Ben Crump, outstanding academics like Molefi Asante, and progressive policymakers like Kahlilah Harris from President Obama’s White House.
M: What struggles or hurdles were there in building the AFAM Department here at OU?
D: We were always on a shoestring budget and mostly relied on adjunct faculty and non-tenured faculty until we finally got two new tenure track positions about six years ago. Still, we managed to serve over 1200 students in our classes every year. I recently counted how many adjuncts and supportive OU faculty we’d had involved with AFAM in the course of my time as director and the total was 67 so we reached out to the community for talented instructors and to doctoral students, and OU faculty in other disciplines, and definitely were the leaders in putting Black faculty in OU’s classrooms. Most importantly, we graduated probably around 120 students between 2002 and 2017 and these graduates are now earning advanced degrees, are lawyers, teachers, social workers, business entrepreneurs, journalists, medical professionals. The list goes on. We have a lot to be proud of.
The first two directors of AFAM were Dr. Jidlap Kamoche and Dr. Charles Butler. They both worked hard to establish our discipline on campus, but it would be fair to say they did not have the resources they needed. Still, some excellent students graduated from the program even in these early days of struggle and Drs. Kamoche and Butler are to be admired for their contributions to our students. I started in AFAM in 2002, and in 2003 we went from being a “provisional” program to having “permanent” status. This gave the program and students some stability and a better platform on which to build. This is a time when our growth in students was exponential. Right now we have three full-time faculty members and we will be joined, in the Fall, by two new senior faculty members. We also now have a Departmental status. All in all, we are moving in the right direction. We have a very strong Board of Visitors too, supporting our students and Department.
M: Would you say that your institution—and most institutions for that matter—are supportive of AFAM/Black Studies departments? If not, why do you believe this to be the case?
D: Our discipline is often described as having emerged out of struggle, and of being marginalized on campuses all across the country. That happens when a university does not have the vision to appreciate the importance of the discipline and the incredible worth of Black Studies faculty. However, some universities have been extremely supportive of AFAM/Black Studies, recognizing how the discipline enriches the whole campus, students, faculty and the surrounding community. Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Texas, The Ohio State University, UC Berkeley, Temple University, Georgia State and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are good examples. I hope we can reach that kind of level here at OU.
AFAM enriches the intellectual abilities and emotional intelligence of all students who take our courses. This includes students of all races. We teach them to think differently, to be much better critical thinkers, and to have interdisciplinary knowledge about African and African American content that they are not taught elsewhere. I think we also make our students feel valued, as part of the AFAM family as we sometimes put it, because we take time to know them, and have strong mentoring relationships with them.
M: Can you talk a bit about the importance of your scholarship?
D: If we look at what I’m working on right then I’m currently working on two books, as you know. One is the second edition of my textbook African American Studies. The first edition did well and so I was asked by Edinburgh University Press to edit a second edition. I have lots of new chapters that I’m excited about—you’ve read some of them and thought they were “dope”, so I hope they will inform and inspire other students across the country and in the UK and other places in Europe. My other book, an autoethnography with the title Black Lives in Scotland: Telling Our Stories, also to be published by Edinburgh University Press, tells the stories of Black people who grew up in Scotland from the mid-20th century to the present day, and also of new immigrants to Scotland who are from African countries. I think the work has value in telling stories first of a population that was pretty much invisible… but we were there, so our voices need to be heard.Our history needs to be told: our challenges, our strengths, our agency, our contributions to the country. With the new immigrants, we need to know their truths. People in Scotland think they are welcoming to immigrants, more so than other countries in Europe, but often things do not work out so well for new residents, refugees, and asylum seekers. People I’ve interviewed for the book want me to tell their stories in the hopes that it will help make the way smoother for people of African descent in the future as Scotland becomes more and more racially diverse. I hope it will be a great book for academics and for everyday readers.
M: What is the biggest crux in bringing racial justice to our world?
D:That’s a huge question! That’s a whole book or series of books. If I focus on one part of the world, Scotland, I know that right now, actually since 2007, there have been considerable efforts in Scotland to deal with its historical truths related to race. People, primarily academics and activists, are uncovering the past, interrogating heroes, differentiating between myth and reality, all related to Scotland’s culpability in slavery and the legacy of that history to its people and institutions. When people, countries, institutions, deal with the truth about race, uncover the secrets and lies, and try even to atone, these are at least steps in the right direction toward increasing racial justice. Along with being such truth seekers, we need also to embrace, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu would say, a spirit of ubantu, and be bound together by the bonds of a caring community.
M: What message do you have for marginalized students on college campuses?
D:My message is to let your voices be heard about your concerns. Claim your space on your campus. Let faculty and administration know what would make the campus safe for you. Maya Angelou says, “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.”
Dream big; make positive alliances; be clear about your short and long term goals; do your homework about what resources are needed for the campus you envision; build on the strengths and resources already on campus, and remember the cultural legacy of strength you have inherited. These are some of the tenets of the STRENGTH model I teach in class. It is a valuable conceptual frame. Articulate these as you help faculty and administrators understand your situation and talk with them about real solutions. You are important, valued members of the university, even if some people in power don’t understand that. We need you.
Change will come to OU. There is an articulated awareness that we need to move forward, and meet the needs of the 21st Century. If we are to be a force for good, if we are to have legitimacy as a center of learning in the real world, change will occur. If for no other reason it may happen because the demographics of this country are changing, but it can happen more quickly if the university adopts best practices that have been helpful at other universities addressing the same challenges related to racism and all matters of intersectionality and inclusion. We all have to work together to have Martin Luther King’s “Arc of the moral universe” bend towards justice.