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Françoise Hamlin on "Paying the Favor Forward"

This interview with Françoise Hamlin, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University, comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

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Françoise Hamlin on "Paying the Favor Forward"

  1. 1. Interview FRANÇOISE HAMLIN On "Paying the Favor Forward" Interview by Henry Jacob, SY ‘21 Transcribed by Eva Magyar, DP '22JULY 17, 2020 The pleasure is mine. Undergraduates at Yale and Brown are very industrious and creative so I’m glad you are archiving this moment. Before we started recording, you mentioned that we are lucky to have new platforms to record the pre- sent. Are we also cursed to have this much informa- tion? As a historian, I direct students to the archives. But in our current moment we are lucky to have alternative ways to document what we see on social media. Social media has accelerated this movement, particularly with Black Lives Matter. Technology enables us to document these lynchings and bring awareness to populations un- familiar with this reality. But I also worry that there’s too much out there. There isn’t much quality control. At the same time, quality control can also be a form of gate-keeping. This leads me to a few difficult issues. As a historian, how do you archive digital matter when there is so much avai- lable and plenty of it is private? And then how do you access that? Your generation needs to figure out these questions. Again, I love seeing all this stuff being digitized. Stu- dents can access oral histories from their homes. Tech- nology has changed the field as well as the records. Youtoucheduponthegate-keepingofthearchives. Could we instead use the phrase selective censorship to describe this regulation of knowledge? Or would that be too strong? No, it’s not. But the terms have shifted; we face the problem of inundation rather than restriction on social media. Yes, and then how do we teach people to be discer- ning readers? How can we teach folks to think critically about where they get their sources from? Is this a think piece, as opposed to an argument with evidence and sources? You cannot use emotion to change minds — it doesn’t work. We must tie morality to facts because you can’t refute the truth. The record will stand. You face this pedagogical challenge every day. But you do not just teach undergraduates at Brown. You participate in the Choices Program and teach youn- ger students as well. Not all of our audience will be familiar with Choices. Please describe your role in this initiative and its ambition to offer a world-class oday I have the pleasure of speaking with Françoise Hamlin, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University. T 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  2. 2. education beyond the confines of a college campus. Choices provides curriculum materials for teachers across the country and the globe. Choices creates edu- cational materials based on the scholarship we’re doing in our department, filling holes in the national curri- culum. I have helped to create units on American his- tory. Through Choices, educators can insert alternative voices into their curricula In the summer, teachers can attend workshops to receive training on how to use the materials and earn certification credits. ForthelasttwoyearsthehistorydepartmentatBrown has housed Choices. Given its small size, Choices creates an amazing product. Ultimately, I am an educator so it is a pleasure to help them. It’s worthwhile work that makes a difference, reaching a larger audience beyond the ivory tower, and making the work accessible. In the history department we do everything from Greek and Roman mythology to Black Lives Matter. It’s all volun- tary, the faculty can say yes or no. After all, I write about folks who don’t have access to much so I want to make sure they can use this resource! ​I admire the breadth of the lessons that Choices offers. I also appreciate your comment on blending your role as an educator and as a writer. ​Connections make everyone stronger, so I’m glad you’ve found Choices. I wish I could write like they do! ​But you are a wonderful writer in your own right! It’s work. There are some people for whom it just rolls off the pen. For me, it’s a process. But, thank you, I appreciate that. ​I loved Crossroads at Clarksdale. It’s fascinating history and I recommend our readers to check it out. What are you reading now? What would you recom- mend? You mentioned fiction. ​I’m trying to write. Brown just announced that we have a three-semester year. As DUS of Africana Studies, I need to spend the rest of the summer re-planning eve- rything. I teach the introduction to Africana Studies, which involves guest faculty lectures. We can’t do that this year, so a lot of that is going to happen online with taped conversations that happen over the summer. My summer is pretty much shot in terms of what I hoped to do and what I will do. But in the general scheme of things I can’t complain. The pandemic has allowed a lot of us to reconnect with folks using social media. I spend lots of time on Zoom connecting with old friends and colleagues. A group of people from England and the U.S. asked me what they should be reading, so I have a little BLM book club, and we meet every two weeks online and have a conversa- tion. It’s not a seminar, but it’s fun to see different parts of my life meet each other and have a conversation. I love to hear what’s going on in different parts of the world. That’s been a blessing in the midst of all this. I pay my skills forward and reach different au- diences. We read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mis- sissippi, and this week we read Carol Anderson’s White Rage. Carol and I are friends, so she just popped onto the meeting and surprised everyone, which was really cool. She’s a superstar to everyone else, but to me she’s Carol (the superstar); I love her because she’s so sweet and generous yet frank and honest. We have Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You A Terrorist next. It’s fabulous to have discussions with my friends about books that I usually have with my students. Folks can give books to someone else, and give them the tools and language to talk about this. Most of my friends who are taking part are white, and are anti-racist (or else they wouldn’t be my Facebook friends). Being armed with facts and information and not just emotion is the best way to have meaningful, transformative conversa- tions. It’s important to talk to each other - but we’re prea- ching to the choir. Brown has an open curriculum, so the folks in my classes come on their own volition. We need to increase knowledge rather than argue for why the field should exist. Before coming to Brown, I wor- ked at UMass Amherst where they have a general edu- cation system. Folks are forced to take a class in history and they’re forced to take a class in diversity. In doing African American history they could do a two for one. 3 YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  3. 3. For this reason, we had huge classes but tons of push- back. Many students didn’t want to be there and didn’t want to hear what I had to say; they just had to pass the class to get their degree. This is a very different, difficult kind of teaching, but it made me a better educator. I couldn’t assume things, I had to be persuasive and model empathy. They don’t teach you that at school — that’s on the job training. I think that experience helped me to work outside of the bubble. I love my job and cannot imagine doing anything else. It’s about seeing my kids - I call them all my kids - go off and do amazing things. I have four or five of my students at Yale Law School right now. I have students making three times as much money as I do - but that’s amazing! They write to me and say how they saw so- mething on TV that reminded them of my class they took ten years ago. That’s why you do it. I might not be the most prolific writer, but when I think about the other work I’m doing I think it’s as im- portant if not more. At the end of the day, who’s going to read Crossroads apart from those who are really inte- rested in it? You have to demonstrate the kind of world you want. You are an educator who puts education first. Even more, you extend the conversation even when others do not want to listen. As alluded to before, we both inhabit “publish or perish” ecosystems. Because of this, I find it even more refreshing that you place mentorship at the center of your career. I did worry that I’m not a prolific publisher. But I felt that I was doing a lot of service to Brown. I’ve won pretty much every teaching award at Brown, so the ins- titution recognizes my work. As someone who plans to go into academia, I appre- ciate your sentiment. For me, mentoring should be the driving force of the teacher’s profession. ​I would not be here without my mentors. I promised to pay it forward. Students are grateful and they see the work I do. They see it just as I saw it when I was their age. My charge to you is to pay it forward. You can always help folks, and you get better at it as you get older. Then you become everyone’s mama, and that’s great too! There’s a place for that, especially at universities like Brown and Yale. Students sometimes just need a hug. We had gradua- tion which was a non-graduation, all the seniors just disappeared. As DUS, I sent everyone a hand-written graduation note. I love graduation and I was heart- broken we couldn’t have that moment of ceremony. The response was amazing - the students notice, they see the difference it makes. There are so many ways to do our work, but at the end of day you need to figure out what you really believe in and then follow that. If you live with integrity, you will find your place. I sound really Oprah-ish right now, and I don’t mean to, but for me this mentality enabled me to stay com- mitted and focused on what I need to do. It makes work interesting, because every year is different. You guys keep me young, young in spirit at least! ​No, you don’t sound Oprah-ish at all! By writing handwritten notes, giving virtual hugs, and educa- ting those within and beyond the ivory tower affirms the value in scholarship. At the beginning, we men- tioned social media as a double-edged sword. But conversations like this one remind me the value of the internet. We live in a very trying time. But this is also a moment for connections. It’s been a pleasure to meet with you. You have set us an example that will be hard to follow. ​I know you’re going to pay it forward, because that’s what you’re going to do with this project. You’re fin- ding your way, so go ahead and do it. Make it mean something for you and then it will mean something to other people. 4FRANÇOISE HAMLIN

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