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Spotlight: A Conversation with Dr. Michell Chresfield

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

I had the privilege of having the brilliant Dr. Michell Chresfield, an African-American historian, as my Social and Political History lecturer for one semester. Dr. Chresfield joined the University of Birmingham in 2017 from being a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh – a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania state, US.

With research that “examines how Americans of Native, Black, and White descent have used social science, medicine, and the law to negotiate multiracial identities during the regime of Jim Crow,” Dr Chresfield lectures in both American History from 1890 – 2000, and Gender and Sexuality at the University of Birmingham but has a resume that proceeds her. Not only did she attend two top 20 National universities in the United States (Vanderbilt University & University of Notre Dame), she contributed to the online History textbook, American Yawp, on “The Sixties”. She has also contributed to The Journal of Black Studies (July 2012) through the piece “Model Blacks or ‘ras the Exhorter’: A Quantitative Analysis of Black Newspapers’ Coverage of First Wave Afro-Caribbean Immigration to the United States.”

Whilst I was already familiar with her previous work and her forthcoming Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture, having her as a lecturer was the perfect opportunity to have a conversation about her journey to the UK as well as her thoughts on some of the social issues here, especially as a ‘foreigner.’

How did you make the transition from Pittsburgh to the University of Birmingham?

[Because] I am obsessed with learning about new places, I spent hours and hours on the internet pouring over advice guides for living in the UK and adjusting to UK HE (Higher Education). I spent weeks trying to get the verbiage alone. And I'm still learning. The shift from 'course' to 'module' took quite some time for me to master!

Why Birmingham in particular and not London?

Birmingham was a happy coincidence! I saw a job posting for a US historian and a good friend and colleague who already teaches in the UK encouraged me to apply. When researching Birmingham, I was happy to know that many people compared it to cities that I have quite long histories with, most notably Birmingham, AL (which is my mother's home state) and Pittsburgh, PA (which is where I did my post-doc).

What has been your observation of Black Britishness in comparison to African-Americanness?

I fully expected Black Britishness and African Americanness to be different because while I think there are certain things about the black experience that transcends national boundaries, the black experience remains a highly fragmented and particular phenomenon. Nevertheless, in terms of my personal settlement as an immigrant in this country, I've appreciated the ways in which transnational conversations around police violence, racism, and representation have allowed me to make connections in the UK.

Yet despite these connections, I still feel there are important differences. For example, many of the people I've met since living here are negotiating identities and histories against a backdrop of colonialism that both constantly evokes and elides sharp divisions between the notions of the foreign and domestic. Some have families who have been in Britain since the 1940s, if not earlier, and thus Britain is the only place they know. And for others, that question of home is more complicated.

As a person who does not know from where on the continent her ancestors originated, my Americanness is the least interrogated aspect of my personal identity.

It just is. For me at least. So, this difference in terms of thinking about the nexus between nation and identity has been a new and fascinating thing to really think about.

Do you think that Black British culture has been developed/cultivated in the image of African-Americanness? If so, do you think the black experience is universal?

No, I don't. I think that in this particular day and age with the connections of social media and the way people move about the world it would be impossible to say that one culture hasn't rubbed off on the other, and vice versa. But from language, to dress, to fashion I've noted unique differences that I think gives each culture its own flavor.

What made you decide to be a part of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of African-American Culture?

One of the editors heard about my thesis research and asked me to write an entry on the Geechee-Gullah.

Do you think African-American identity and culture still need to be revised and reconstructed? And by whom?

I think African American identity is under constant negotiation. As it should be. Not even the African American experience is monolithic, and I think that we continue to have numerous important conversations about what it means to be African American. Do I think we'll ever settle on an answer? I hope not! As that is not what's most important. I think that as long as Black Americans continue to pose and debate the question, we're in a good shape.

How has it been engaging with ‘foreign’ interpretations and opinions of African-Americanness and Americanness as a whole?

It's been extremely humbling. Humbling in that I've never thought myself a believer in American exceptionalism, but I think living abroad gives you a new appreciation for the ways in which things, both bad and good, are often framed as uniquely American. The opportunity to examine US history alongside that of Britain and other nations has been really illuminating in my own understandings of continuity and disjuncture and how I engage those themes with my students. Moving abroad has been great not only for my scholarship but for my personal growth as a global citizen.

Do you think this Encyclopedia is so much more important now that you have experienced such ‘foreign’ interpretations and opinions?

I do. I think that because we as a society have become so accustomed to 'hot takes' on issues without a lot of background knowledge, reference materials such as this encyclopedia can go a long way in educating the public.

What do you hope to achieve through the Encyclopaedia?

I hope that the encyclopedia becomes an often-consulted reference in many parts of the world. For my entry in particular: I wrote it in the hopes of presenting a narrative about the Geechee-Gullah, one of the oldest surviving black communities in the United States, which highlights their rich and important significance for both African American and American history.

Do you see yourself staying in the UK for a long time and Why?

I have really enjoyed my time in the UK. From my students to the diverse conversations and people I've encountered outside the classroom, I would be pleased to remain here for the considerable future.

Written by Esther Adeyemo, Editor of Hi-R Online Academy.

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