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College of Arts and Sciences

Rural Humanities initiative to focus on Black lives

By: Kate Blackwood
Cornell Chronicle
July 30, 2020

The Rural Humanities initiative has chosen “Rural Black Lives” as its theme for 2020-21, and its projects and programming will concentrate on the visibility of Black lives in rural central and western New York state.

The initiative, housed in the Society for the Humanities, chose the theme in response to recent calls, both locally and nationally, to change systems that perpetuate violence and injustice against Black Americans.

“Black Lives Matter is now perhaps the largest protest movement in U.S. history, with millions taking to the streets not only in the major metropolises, but also in small-town America,” said Paul Fleming, the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator of the Rural Humanities initiative. “Black Lives Matter has come to Main Street, challenging the image of rural America as white and conservative.”

The region has a deep connection to Black history, including: Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester; Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn; and a stop on the Underground Railroad at Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church.

Events at Cornell connect to Black history, as well, including the 1969 occupation of Willard Straight Hall, and the establishment that same year of the Africana Studies and Research Center.

In the coming year, Rural Humanities, which is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will collaborate with faculty, the student group #DoBetterCornell and local community partners – such as Black Hands Universal – to host a series of events addressing the past, present and future of rural Black lives in central New York and beyond.
Events will include webinars, community reads, showcases and discussions with invited guests.

Students can apply for microgrants of up to $350 for independent research projects on any aspect of Rural Black Lives in Ithaca and central New York. Faculty are invited to apply for collaborative grants of up to $10,000 per year.

In addition, the spring Rural Humanities Seminar (SHUM 4800/6800) for advanced undergraduate and graduate students will be dedicated to Rural Black Lives. Led by Gerard Aching, professor of Africana and Romance studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator of the Rural Humanities initiative, this seminar in public and engaged humanities will examine 19th century alliances among free African Americans, Black churches, abolitionists, Quakers and ordinary citizens who facilitated and sustained the Underground Railroad in central New York.

Students will have the opportunity to explore the abolitionism collection in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, and work on one of several communication or anthropological projects at documented Underground Railroad stations. The seminar’s contemporary content focuses on the revitalization of diasporic agricultural traditions and the circumstances, livelihoods and challenges of Black farmers in this region.

“This seminar is intended to train students in the various methods and practices of public humanities and community-engaged work, to think collectively with and beyond disciplinary interests, and to share research on rural Black lives with local communities and a broader national public,” Aching said.

In addition, the Rural Humanities Summer Practicum in 2021 will invite applications dedicated to projects addressing Rural Black Lives. More events are possible, Fleming said, as conversations with partners continue.

“More importantly,” Aching said, “for the duration of the Rural Humanities initiative, we commit to intersectional research in public and engaged humanities, equally addressing the rural Latinx and rural Indigenous lives, who are also all-too-often effaced, exploited and expropriated in what is a rich, diverse and colorful rural landscape.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.