Davis brings African-American history alive

February 12th 2015
Arts & Humanities
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Thulani Davis believes in the power of a well-told tale. No surprise there — the new assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison grew up in the South, for one thing, and comes from a long line of readers and thinkers who love to talk. She's also been an award-winning writer and journalist for the past 40 years.

But Davis is intimately connected to one of America's greatest full-circle narratives. And in finding a way to tell that story, she helped ensure its place in the national consciousness.

In 1862, Davis' great-grandfather, William Roscoe Davis, piled his family in a farm wagon and sneaked through the countryside of Tidewater Virginia to Fort Monroe, which had just fallen to the Union army. Davis had gotten word that post commander Major General Benjamin Butler was declaring all slaves in the vicinity "contraband of war." For Davis, 50 years old and a slave all his life, that was the first step to freedom. Along with thousands of other blacks seeking sanctuary from Civil War strife at Fort Monroe, Davis and his family eventually became the founders of a unique African-American community in Hampton, Va., that is still flourishing today.

As a child growing up in Hampton, Davis heard the story of her great-grandfather's bold dash for freedom. But the one thing she never heard was that Fort Monroe, the place where slavery ended for her family, was the place where it began for everyone else.

"Many of us were taught that the first 20 documented Africans were brought from Angola to Jamestown in 1619, but they were actually first traded to Virginians at Fort Monroe," she explains. "That just wasn't commonly known for a long time. But once I found out, it was amazing to me. Two hundred years after their ancestors had arrived there in bondage, these Virginia slaves began freeing themselves by coming to the exact same place."

"All kinds of struggles waged by African-Americans have led the way to changes in the way we practice democracy."
— Thulani Davis

Davis, who went to speak at a celebration commemorating Hampton's 400th anniversary, was enlisted to help convince President Obama to designate Fort Monroe a national monument. She wrote an impassioned letter, describing her own great-grandfather's journey, and drew on her vast writer-activist-scholar network to garner 80 signatures from well-known figures.

The request was granted: in 2011, the president declared Fort Monroe the first national monument to commemorate the history of slavery.

"To the extent that my letter helped Obama make up his mind, I think it was a good illustration of the power of storytelling," Davis says, with characteristic understatement.

Her own story is somewhat unusual, as well — not too many assistant professors enter academia after a long and fruitful career in the public realm.

"We are lucky to have her," says Craig Werner, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies. "She brings a wealth of experience and connections that is very difficult to achieve. Our students will benefit hugely from that."

Davis has written her way through a remarkable period in African-American history, from Jim Crow to the Obama presidency. Her novel, 1959, chronicles growing up in the segregated South. Her articles for the Village Voice reverberate with the perspectives of black visual artists, musicians, and poets. She has penned poems, plays, and even a few operas about the black American experience; performed in musical and spoken-word productions; interviewed black activists such as Angela Davis; worked as a screenwriter and documentarian; won a Grammy Award for album notes for Aretha Franklin's "The Atlantic Recordings;" and taught writing at Barnard College (plus a few other places).

For most of her life, Davis has been guided by her fertile imagination, but when it comes to the Reconstruction Era, a historical period in the United States spanning roughly 1865 to 1877, she plays no guessing games.

"Writing history is completely different than any other kind of writing," she says. "Every sentence must be fact-checked. You can't take any liberties with the material. And yet the narrative should be thrilling."

Last fall Davis enlivened her undergraduate course on Reconstruction with the struggles of individuals and families whose stories she had encountered while finishing her dissertation.

"My head is full of anecdotes," she says. "These make the history vivid and alive. I am intensely interested in that period, and I find the students don't know much about it — they never learned it in high school."

In 2015 Davis is hoping to teach more courses that reflect the longstanding interdisciplinary nature of African-American studies.

"I'd like to teach about the poets and novelists who had an impact on political history," she says. "I'm thinking of Octavia Butler, for example, and Claude McKay, whose poem 'If We Must Die,' was a response to the 'Red Summer' of 1919."

If that event doesn't ring a bell, Davis would not be surprised. But she will say, emphatically, that its relative obscurity is precisely why the field of African-American studies remains vitally important.

"Most young people today are not really steeped in knowledge of how our culture has been influenced by African-American life, from slavery onward," she says. "All kinds of struggles waged by African-Americans have led the way to changes in the way we practice democracy. The marriage equality debate, the struggles over the voter ID laws, show us that repression and discrimination are still very relevant. The way we go about resolving these issues owes a great deal to the path laid by African-Americans."