July 14, 2020
Fourteen on the 14th with Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting
By: SEC Staff
SECU (Twitter: @TheSECU)
You know the SEC. You know its 14 member universities, their school colors, chants, and slogans. But do you know the people? The faculty? The staff? The students? The administrators? Maybe you caught a glimpse of someone on the sidelines of a game or in a campus building, and wondered, “Who’s that?” You’re curious, and you want more insight. More stories, more advice, and more favorites. Well, we have you covered.
Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting is a Vanderbilt University Distinguished Professor of Humanities (African American and Diaspora Studies and French), and she was recently named a 2020 SEC Faculty Achievement Award Winner. She has distinguished herself as a leading international authority on race and gender in Europe, the French Atlantic world, and comparative black cultural movements.
Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Sharpley-Whiting; her research on African American literature and culture; her love of Nashville restaurants; and why her students are her biggest inspiration in our July edition of Fourteen on the 14th.
1. How would you describe your research to a person with little knowledge of African American and Diaspora Studies?
I research African American literature, culture, and music – and I study Black France and Black Europe. I look at Black people who reside in those spaces to understand what it means politically, how they live their lives, what it means to be a Black European, and what it means to be Black and French.
2. How did you know this is what you wanted to research?
I pursued French Studies after I had taken the language in 8th grade. It captivated me, and I was intrigued by the culture because of my grandmothers. They talked a lot about Josephine Baker, and for them, watching her succeed made France this site of racial equality. Obviously, that wasn’t true for native French Blacks. I was led down a rabbit hole exploring representation, especially of Black women, in 18th- and 19th-century French literature. At the time, there was very little scholarly research on French representation of Black people, and I thought it was odd given France’s engagement with Africa and other parts of the world. The research I’ve done encapsulates this idea of Black people and African Americans being global people.
3. How have the current events surrounding the African American experience and movement influenced your research?
It’s new for some people to understand how elements of our culture work, but I’ve been exploring issues of race and racism in the context of the United States and globally. So, some of the problems concerning engagement with officers, the pandemic, and its disproportionate impact on communities of color are not surprising. For me, the pandemic’s meeting place with these current issues around policing and systemic poverty is what one might call a syndemic.
4. How is the 2020 Black Cultural Movement similar or dissimilar to previous movements?
People today are shocked when they see a very multicultural movement. But the demonstrations have always been multiracial, and we’d be mistaken to assume they were not. The Rodney King riot was an uprising. It was an explosion of anger concerning policing, as we had allowed specific issues to go on for way too long. I believe this is a continuation. This time we can see things more readily with social media, but this has awakened people because we would like to see our democracy live up to its ideals. We can’t push forward with this concept of American Exceptionalism when we’re continually failing on this matter of racism.
5. What’s been the most gratifying part of your teaching and research experience at Vanderbilt University?
One of the courses I love to teach is an introductory one because I get many first-year students. I find there are gaps in their knowledge about U.S. history and the world concerning Black people. There’s a moment in the classroom when you see the light in their eyes as connections are made, and they understand. That, for me, is an impactful experience. One of the MOST gratifying experiences for me was when a student recently asked if her mother could listen in on the class because she was learning and had been sharing so much with her mother.
6. What does it mean to be named Vanderbilt’s 2020 SEC Faculty Achievement Award winner?
It was such an honor. It was recognition by an institution that has always recognized my scholarly achievements – but it was an honor for the institution and the SEC to acknowledge my work. It was, in many ways, a capstone of my career. Certainly, there will be others, but this was a highlight.
7. If I spend 24 hours in Nashville, where do I have to visit?
I’m a foodie. You must try Nashville hot fish at Ed’s Fish. It’s a cool place in North Nashville with hot whiting or catfish, and it’s to die for. I’m originally from St. Louis, and when I came to Nashville and found hot fish, I knew this was the city for me. Then, you should visit Prince’s Hot Chicken. There’s one near Third Man Records, so you could eat and walk over and see this trendy record store with vinyl and books of poetry. I also recommend you save room for Slim and Husky’s pizza! It is unbelievable, and it’s Black-owned. It’s a little different than the round pizza you’re used to, but it’s incredible, and they have hard ciders and beers on tap. Finally, if you like Jamaican, I would sample Rhythm and Spice. It’s probably some of the best Jerk chicken I’ve had when I can’t get to Jamaica. After all the savory food, I’d top it off at Five Daughters bakery in 12 South. They have one of my favorite donuts. It’s called the maple glaze, and it is basically a buttery – not too sweet – treat.
8. How do you define leadership?
Leadership is actively providing opportunities for others to be their best selves. I can talk about vision, but I want to enable my colleagues to be the best people they can be in and out of the classroom. It’s generosity with your colleagues and living by the idea that you shouldn’t attribute to malice what incompetence might explain. I tend not to get riled when people do or say something that seems odd.
9. How do you handle pressure in your career?
I find academia invigorating, but “pressure” isn’t what I’d say we’re experiencing. It’s more tension and inklings of change. Many of the things my older generation peers have experienced — racism, sexism, etc. — paved the way for us. Those pressures don’t come down on me in the same way they would’ve 30 years ago. The things I can’t control, though, I balance with exercise. I try to get in an hour a day on the elliptical and the rowing machine.
10. What keeps you up at night?
The world that my daughter is going to inherit, and the idea that she’s going to go off to school, and I won’t be there to protect her in specific ways. Those kinds of things give me pause. I know she’s prepared, but it makes one a little nervous.
11. What do you want to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for having birthed and raised a productive, global citizen who’s also a feminist and believes in justice. Being a mother is a vital part of my identity. I think people move through the world with the idea that what they do is who they are, but that’s only part of who I am. Research wise, I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped pioneer discussions about the intersections of race, sex, class, and Black femininity in French literature.
12. Who is your biggest inspiration?
My students. I watch them come in curious or incurious. By the time they leave, I think they’re inspired, engaged, and thinking differently. To see that process year after year is wonderful. I don’t think it will ever get boring. Their curiosity makes me want to read and write more. They’re why we’re here.
13. What is your favorite quote?
I said it earlier! “Never attribute to malice what incompetence will explain.” That’s one I live by in life events and professionally. One of my good friends said it to me, and it stuck with me. It takes a lot of pressure off a person when you stop looking for people to do ill.
14. Who would you ask 14 questions to?
Toni Morrison. She was just so brilliant, and her words continue to be so absolutely inspiring. There’s something beautiful and melodic about her voice, and she was such a deep thinker. I am curious what she would say about this moment — as I would someone like James Baldwin. I was lucky enough to have had dinner with her and be in her presence. I was in awe, listening, and learning. So, I would need those 14 questions!
We’ll be back on August 14 with 14 more SEC questions and answers! In the meantime, learn more about the SEC Faculty Achievement Awards here.