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Three women pose smiling standing close to each other.
Tamika Nunley (left), Nichelle Schoultz (center) and Shealyn Fraser (right). Credit: Shealyn Fraser

On Young Black Scholars Navigating Historically White Places 

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This is a guest post by Shealyn Fraser. Fraser is a 2023 Kluge summer intern, where she worked with Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History Tamika Y. Nunley on her projects examining Black women’s knowledge of the law and reproductive rights. She graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in American Studies in 2022 and Master of Arts in American Studies in 2023, both from The George Washington University. In addition to her academic work, Shealyn works for two different magazines in the DC area. She is the associate editor of “The Vibe Room,” a Black-owned publication that highlights creatives in the DMV, and has a column titled, “BLOCK POLITICS” for Kolossal Capital Brand Hip-Hop Culture Magazine, which showcases opinion-based pieces on life events that affect the Hip-Hop community. 

This past summer, I interned as a research assistant at the John W. Kluge Center, working under Cornell historian, and Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History Tamika Nunley. If there is anything I have learned during my time at the Library, getting in the door means absolutely nothing if you can’t carve out your own space in an institution that resists change. What you do, the people you seek out, and the knowledge you acquire are things that can only happen on your terms, and they hold the potential to make or break your entire experience.

On the first day of my internship, there were 50 or so people including interns, staff, and scholars gathered for orientation at the Kluge Center. With myself included, five of us in the room were Black. This is a common experience for me and other Black individuals in primarily white spaces. But one of those individuals was Professor Nunley. Before we had properly introduced ourselves, I spotted her across the room and noticed that her hair was down and curly. I also had my hair down and curly. If I am being honest, at that moment, the only thing I could hear in my head was Queen Latifah’s voice singing, “U.N.I.T.Y., love a Black woman from infinity to infinity.”

 

Two women stand smiling in an embrace.
Shealyn Fraser (left) with Tamika Nunley (right). Credit: Shealyn Fraser

 

That day, Nunley’s hair symbolized a lot for me. It felt like I was not alone in the journey I was about to embark on at the Kluge Center. The existence of another Black woman in this space gave me a sense of security and kinship. As described in the article, Fictive Kinship Relations in Black Extended Families, scholars Linda Chatters, Joseph Robert, and Jayakody Rukmalie explain, since the Atlantic slave trade, Black individuals had no choice but to develop bonds with others outside their biological family. As these fictive kin networks developed throughout time, they became increasingly necessary for Black survival. This kinship remains ingrained in all brown-skinned folk today to ensure our mutual well-being. But beyond our kinship, Nunley’s deep brownish-black curls symbolized a freeness of constriction. She has entered the historically white spaces of academia unapologetically herself, and rose to the top of them. As an award-winning social historian, Professor Nunley has more than earned a top spot within her field.

My direction under Nunley was to research legal cases involving enslaved and free Black women from the colonial period to the present, with a specific focus on pregnancy, childbirth, infanticide, abortion, and gynecology. Alongside legal cases, I looked for early studies and archival records about obstetrics and gynecology, as well as for sources about Black women’s healing and botanical practices, medical remedies, and foraging techniques. When I first started researching, I made a progress tracker that provided a list of sources with their titles, relevant page numbers, a summary, and their location in the Library. From this tracker, I moved on to create an annotated bibliography, with each citation having multiple bullet points detailing essential information about each source.

What I have thoroughly enjoyed from doing research at the Library is that you never know what you will find on any given day. Often, my research leads me down rabbit holes of information that I was not looking for but that proved useful nonetheless. For example, while reading Secret Cures for Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, I came across the French words “bois royale” and “bois fer.” With further investigation, I learned that those were the names of plants with medicinal properties, which brought me to French articles about healing. Between 1719 and 1723, some 2,083 enslaved people were imported into the French Louisiana colony. Creole language emerged from this contact: a mixing of the French, Spanish, and African languages spoken there. In this way, French words for specific plants or healing properties entered the lexicons of enslaved people.

The bulk of the sources I discovered within the Library came from the Manuscript Reading Room, the Law Library, and the Science and Business Reading Room. In particular, the Manuscript Reading Room quickly became one of my favorite places in  the Library. There, I found 18 archival sources including slave letters, estates, wills, newspaper articles, slave sale booklets, and more. The wealth of knowledge I have gained during my time here is indescribable. There are many elements of scholarly research that I can now do with ease and confidence because of how much I was exposed to here.

Aside from the research itself, the people I met at the Library and the connections I now have with them changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. Within my first week, I met Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, without yet knowing who she was, and I spent 20 minutes talking her and her senior advisor Nichelle Schoultz’s ear off about my thesis research. I would talk to the president of the United States the same way I would talk to a bus driver since, at the end of the day, we are all human and deserve to be treated as such.

From that encounter, Schoultz took me under her wing and continued to check in with me throughout my time at the Library. She took me to lunch, asked me how I was doing and even introduced me to Maya Cade, the creator and founder of the Black Film Archive and Scholar in Residence at the Library. This was the first time in my life I was surrounded by powerful, successful Black women every day. In one of the oldest, whitest buildings on Capitol Hill, I somehow managed to make my experience incredibly Black, and gain some new aunties!

When the people who look like you are few and far between in any given place, it is easy to get to know all of them. It didn’t take long for me to realize that powerful Black women like Dr. Hayden and Schoultz are not the only ones who keep this place running. In navigating the underground tunnels that connect the Library buildings, I encountered the unsung heroes of the Library—the people tourists rarely ever encounter but who the staff depend on. More often than not, I saw more Black individuals in the tunnels than I did above ground. It is there where people say hello, ask you your name and send you a little “God bless you” as you’re walking by. There, I encountered people like Larry, a Capitol architect, who helped me find my way around the tunnels my first week because I had no clue where I was going. Or there was Meaza, who knows my coffee order like the back of her hand and asked me every Monday without fail what I got up to over the weekend. There was comfort and safety in knowing that no matter what, I was not an invisible Black being in this space. Others saw me, cared for me, and wanted the best for me.

 

Four women stand in a row, smiling, for a selfie.
A selfie of Nichelle (far left) and Shealyn (center left) with Scholar in Residence Maya Cade (center right) and Deeana McCray-James of the Office of Communications (far right). Credit: Shealyn Fraser

 

My life today is miles beyond where it was when I started working at the Library of Congress two months ago. I was blessed to gain entry into a space like the Kluge Center, but it was entirely up to me to determine what I made of my time here.  I have acquired knowledge like no other. My hands have touched letters written by enslaved women and men, and receipt booklets holding the prices of Black flesh. But as much as I have learned intellectually, I have learned just as much, if not more, about how to socially navigate historically white spaces. The best advice I can give is to never conform to a system where your color was once counted out. The best way to move your way up is to be authentically and unapologetically yourself. That is what people crave. Laugh when you want to laugh. Show your excitement rather than reserving it. Allow yourself to recognize where you are, how far you have come, and how much you deserve the seat at the table that you’ve created for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. What an incredibly well thought out and written piece. Beautiful and inspiring. I hope the author goes far, achieves all her dreams, and empower other young Black academics.

  2. Official Congratulations,

    Excellence!!!

    @Alcir Vogel

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