Telling the Story
How journalism has been a grounding force for Assistant Professor of African-American Studies Sonya Donaldson
Assistant Professor of African-American Studies Sonya Donaldson, who started teaching at Colby last fall, centers her research on negotiations of identity, genres, and interstitial and contested spaces, examining them through the lenses of African-American studies, Black diaspora studies, and the digital humanities. She previously taught at New Jersey City University and Hampshire College, and she is the recipient of a 2019 Virginia Humanities Fellowship and a 2016 Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellowship. Donaldson earned her doctorate in English language and literature from the University of Virginia.
She spoke about her background, her research, and more. This conversation has been edited.
Before becoming a professor, you were a journalist. Why did you choose that profession?
I’ve always loved reading and writing and grew up with lots of books and lots of stories. In my high school newspaper, I wrote about entertainment and sports. In college, I became the editor-in-chief of my college paper. I was eager to be a journalist. I had this idea of myself primarily as an arts journalist. I like to tell students who are stressed about their majors that I think I had something like 72 minors in college because I wanted to try everything. I wanted to embody the practices that I was going to be writing. So I took theater, I worked onstage and backstage, and I learned how to design a set and how to do all these things.
Your first job was at the Los Angeles Sentinel, an enduring African-American-owned weekly that was your local newspaper. Why were you thrilled about this opportunity?
I had wanted to work there since I was a little girl. I learned about the history of the institution and how it began, which was in the 1930s with a campaign telling Black folks to not spend money where they’re not allowed to work. For me, it was just such a powerful thing.
Your career took you to New York, where you eventually became the technology editor for Black Enterprise magazine. What was that like?
I had the opportunity to really expand my range and to be in charge of technology coverage for the publication, to cultivate writers and help develop structures in terms of pay equity for writers and things like that. One of the things I did was to recruit writers who weren’t necessarily technologists but were really great writers. I found that it was a really good experience to train them to look at technology in a practical way, but infuse that with their own voice.
While you were working there, you decided to go back to get your undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, where you were a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and wrote your undergraduate thesis on Black German autobiographical narratives. How did this ultimately change your career trajectory?
I’d heard about Afro-Germans through a poem by Jamaican-British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. As a journalist, I started researching. I found Audre Lorde’s work and read about her experiences with the Afro-German community in Germany. And my research led me to this community and network of African Americans who were also Black Germans who had been adopted out of Germany in the post-war era. I’d done research and collected the materials, and I went to a mentor and said, “Well, I have all this, and I don’t know what to do with it, but it’s really interesting.” And he said, “Why don’t you make that your thesis?” And another faculty member said, “So you’re applying to grad school, right?” And that’s kind of how I began my journey in the academy.
Next fall, you’ll be teaching Black Digital Cultures, which is another important research area for you. Can you explain a little about what digital humanities are and why it’s part of how you teach?
Digital humanities is the engagement with digital tools, discourses, methods, and practices to answer questions around the human condition. The human is at the center of the question, but digital tools, digital technologies, discourses around technology and technology uses, and engagement with that can help us answer some of those questions. I’ve been able to bring a lot of the tools that I developed as a journalist into the classroom, which is one of the things that I really appreciate about the academy—that I didn’t have to leave my other self behind.
More than 10 years ago you began working on Singing the Nation. It’s a Black digital humanities project that aims to stir discussion about the meaning and resonance of Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song that is popularly known as the Black national anthem. Can you talk about this project?
It began with Amiri Baraka. I went to see [the writer, teacher, and activist] give a talk, and a student group sang the first stanza of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Baraka was introduced, he went up to the podium, and he said, “There’s a lot more to the song.” And so for the rest of the night, I kept thinking, what is this “more”? For me, there was a chord that was struck.
I remember as a kid growing up in Los Angeles that this was a part of how I became included in the African-American community, through the singing of this song. It was at barbershop openings, beauty shop openings, we sang it at churches, and in club meetings. It was everywhere. It was a way to bring people together in community, whether or not you were from here. It’s a diasporic song. And that kind of led me to start thinking, when I got older, that we don’t really sing the song anymore. I reached out to a scholar and music producer, and she said, “We still sing it in the South.” So that’s how my research started, by just looking for people singing the song and thinking about what does this song mean to us, and why do we still sing it? We’re still singing it, with the most recent evocation of it at the Super Bowl, when Sheryl Lee Ralph sang it. It was a big deal because this was the first time it was sung inside an arena at the Super Bowl. In some ways, and for some African Americans, the song kind of charts a movement of African Americans from margin to inclusion.
What’s something that you’re excited about teaching?
Next semester there’s a course I’m super excited about. It’s called African American Stories of Migration. This course is a combination of a seminar and workshops, so students are going to be getting trained in journalistic techniques and interview methods. They’ll be doing research in African-American history and then they’re going to be in structured interviews with expats and exiles. We’ll set up a workshop with journalists so they can be in conversation and get training from working professionals. And then we will produce these interviews for the semester. Part of what is intended with this course is to create an archive at Colby that will serve as a resource for students and faculty who want to teach certain aspects of whatever ideas and themes the interviews bring forth.
Why did you come to Colby, and what are some of your hopes for the future here?
I came to Colby because I was excited about the possibilities that came with a growing program that was in the process of becoming a department. I’ve always been interested in spaces that are in transition and undergoing transformation. But what really made me want to come here was just having conversations with students, rich conversations. And very big questions from students about what I would do here, about my work. It was the students’ questions, really, that got me.
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