Black Girl Creative
I wrote and illustrated my first story when I was seven years old. I remember the thrill of realizing I could imagine worlds and bring them to life on the page. What a feeling of freedom for a black girl growing up in a highly segregated Midwestern city—just a stone’s throw from the heart of Ku Klux Klan country! The experience awakened in me a passion for storytelling, for black worldmaking.
In college, I chose to major in English Literature and Africana Studies. It was there that I fell in love with the writing of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Jessica Hagedorn, Edwidge Danticat, Joan Morgan, Greg Tate, and many others. I learned to appreciate the intellectual gymnastics of post-colonial theory. I studied modern dance and performed with a traveling dance company. But, more than anything, I came to see how my jazz-loving father and dress-designing mother gave me the gift of the arts, grounding me in a sense of self and community, long before I stepped on campus. I eventually went on to earn an M.A. in Afro-American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2005) and a Ph.D. in 20th Century U.S. History from Indiana University-Bloomington (2011).
Along my intellectual journey, my love of creative writing and analyzing the cultures that animate our world has never died. I have found immense joy in being a professor of history. My favorite histories and stories to tell are those of complicated women, particularly women who lived through the tumultuous social movements of the mid-twentieth century. I aim to write stories that allow us to be messy and flawed, fully HUMAN. In 2016, I earned the title associate professor, with tenure. And in fall 2019, I was promoted to full professor—joining the woefully small cadre of black women who have achieved this rank in our profession.
Writer & Cultural Critic
I have written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, ELLE, Aperture, the Root, The Feminist Wire, and NPR’s Cognoscenti, to name a few. I thrive on reading the daily news and tackling difficult public conversations with the full range of my expertise.
Writing books is challenging, but something in me can’t resist showing up to the page. In June, 2019, St. Martin’s Press published Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, which tells a black girl-centered story of some of the most iconic American garments and the cultural and political crosscurrents that gave rise to them. I also co-authored Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019), on the acclaimed documentary photographer. And Liberated Threads: Black Women Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (UNC Press, 2015), which narrates the powerful intertwining histories of the Black Freedom movement and the rise of the global fashion industry. I’m currently hard at work on a new book, tentatively titled The Glamorous Life: Socialite-Activists and the Black Freedom Struggle from World War II to the Age of Obama, that looks at the women who were instrumental in raising millions of dollars for Black Freedom movement organizations and causes.
My research has been supported by institutions such as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Ford Foundation, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Center for Black Music Research, among others. Such funding has been crucial at every turn in my career, and I’m grateful for the amazing people with whom these fellowships have allowed me to connect and collaborate.
I care deeply about engaging directly with black and brown communities, primarily in the United States but also in other parts of the African Diaspora. As a “community historian,” I enjoy working with families, communities, and organizations to document, archive, and curate local histories. I also use my resources to aid in social justice efforts on the ground in those communities.
I started this work in 2009, when I was living in London as a dissertation fellow at the University of London’s Institute for the Study of the Americas. I was inspired by the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC), a group of radical feminists of color from around the world who were working to preserve the personal papers and public legacy of activist Olive Morris. I’ve borrowed from ROC’s model and from others, including Drusilla Dunjee Houston, Dorothy Porter Wesley, and the Combahee River Collective, in fashioning my own ethics of community engagement.