When I arrived in Holland, MI and at Hope, I arrived without community. Having lived in Washington, D.C. since 2008 and having been surrounded by hues of brownness and blackness at The Mecca that is Howard University (HU), my arrival in Holland, at Hope was a slight shock. I adjusted. However, as I met a few Black students on campus, I slowly realized they were in dire need of hope. In fact, the hopelessness and despair were palpable with one student in particular. What could I do to affirm her blackness in the wake of the marginalization she experienced on campus?
The answer came to me as I attended the 2014 College Language Association (CLA) conference. Founded by Black teachers and scholars in 1937, CLA is an organization of black teacher-scholars who discuss, critique, and engage matters that pertain to them and the communities they serve. As I attended session after session, as I presented my work, as I saw my mentors and friends, as I was encouraged by folks I didn’t know, and as I was welcomed “home” by an extended hub of intellectuals, I knew just how I could offer my contribution to affirming my student’s blackness, beauty, and boldness.
Emerging out of that moment is what I affectionately call a “Howard-Hope” undergraduate panel at CLA. For two years, I have had the privilege of moderating that panel, and I look forward to continue doing so.
Though the CLA conference theme varies from year to year, the requirements for Hope students I invite to attend remain the same. Students must:
- receive the endorsement of a CLA faculty advisor (me) before submission of an abstract and/or panel to CLA;
- present on some aspect of African Diaspora literature or film that fits the conference theme;
- participate actively in the conference by attending sessions, networking, and engaging scholars.
In April 2015, Mariana Thomas (‘16, History Composite) and Katharyn Jones (‘15, English) attended CLA and presented alongside recent Howard University graduate Ansharaye Hines (‘14) on the panel “Strange Versions of the Lives We Imagined: Transnational Identity, Race, and Crisis in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.”
The importance of the 2015 Howard-Hope undergraduate research panel was not lost on the president of the organization, Dana A. Williams. Based on the success of the 2015 panel, Dr. Williams, chairperson of the HU Department of English, CLA President (2014-2016), and my mentor, extended a personal invitation for Hope students to attend the 2016 conference.
Hope students Drew Monroe (‘19) and Sarah Harvin (‘16) were invited to attend the 2016 conference, “Dialogues between Africa and the African Diaspora in Languages, Literatures, and Film,” and they presented alongside Layla June West (Howard ‘16) and Alexis Boyd (Howard ‘16) on the panel “Speaking Truth: Using Rhetorical Strategies to Explore Historical and Contemporary Black Experiences.”
The 2016 panel generated fruitful conversations, and the audience members—ranging from untenured faculty members to full professors at tier 1 research universities—were impressed with the knowledge, poise, and confidence with which each student presented his or her work. Such a legacy is worth continuing.
Next year’s conference will be held April 5-8, 2017, at the University of Missouri, with the theme “Interdisciplinary Studies and Diversity in Languages and Literatures,” and my goal is for the CLA conference to be an annual experience for Hope students.
For both sets of Hope attendees, CLA was—and continues to be—an important, formative experience, especially for those who have a vested interest in decolonizing their minds.
Taking students to CLA is more than just an exercise in mentorship, a chance to refine public presentation skills, and an opportunity to learn from the “best-of-the-best”; it is a chance to expose students in general, but Black students specifically, to a community of diverse teacher-scholars from across the African Diaspora and in the fields of languages, literature, rhetoric, and cultural studies. CLA allowed Mariana, Katharyn, Drew, and Sarah to witness a Black intellectual tradition at work, but it also allowed Mariana, Drew, and Sarah, in particular, to see themselves reflected in every aspect of the organization.
One student commented, “I’ve never seen so many Black PhDs in one space. It really was eye-opening for me,” and another student remarked: “This has been one of the best experiences of my college career.” My students realized they were part of a larger intellectual community, and that realization went beyond attending the conference. My colleagues, mentors, and friends took my students under their wings. They “adopted” and nurtured my students. In fully embracing my students, CLA did what few on Hope’s campus do for Black students.
At the end of each trip, as my students and I journeyed back to Holland, I noted a subtle yet marked difference in the countenances of my Black students. There seemed to be a new awareness, a new realization: there was indeed an academic space created for and by people who look just like them. In leaving CLA, my students returned girded with the newfound hope that CLA represents for them.
Cheers to keeping the CLA spirit alive!