Students and teacher in front of Professor Jacob’s School, early 1900s, Lake Waccamaw, NC. The professor is seated in the middle wearing the three-piece suit. From the General Negative Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC. Courtesy of North Carolina Digital Collections.
Often in life, opportunities that you initially thought would be temporary are the ones that forever change your life. That is what I thought in October 2017 when my thesis advisor, Dr. Jessica Parr, at Simmons College (now Simmons University) forwarded me an email from the New Books Network’s founder and editor Marshall Poe, because they were recruiting new hosts for the network. I was already familiar with the New Books Network in general and the New Books in African American Studies channel in particular due to host James Stancil’s 2017 interview with Dr. Daina Ramey Berry about her prize-winning book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh. Dr. Parr pitched the podcast to me as a smart way of connecting with potential PhD programs and advisors since I already planned on applying for PhD programs in History and African American Studies that fall. Considering my putrid GRE scores, I needed all the extra support I could get! What I did not realize at the time I accepted Marshall’s invitation, though, was how much New Books in African American Studies would change my entire life. Entering my fourth year interviewing scholars on the New Book Network, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the hundreds of hours I have spent interviewing the leading scholars in the field like Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, Dr. Vincent Brown, Dr. Leslie Harris, and Dr. Derrick Spires has reoriented my understanding of how graduate students can use social media as a dynamic way to promote public access to life-changing educational materials.
Besides God and my loved ones, social media (especially Twitter) has been one of the most important factors in my development as an academic and public historian. In graduate school we learn how to write in academia, typically for our advisors, yet not often to publics outside of our academic buildings. As a Black historian who places himself within the long Black intellectual tradition, I already knew coming out of my MA that writing for my advisors was important, but singularly insufficient for my larger goals based on the training I received from Africana Studies scholar Dr. Theresa Perry at Simmons. Dr. Perry trained me that my work must speak to the political, social, and economic worlds of our historical subjects, along with the world we inhabit today. Seventh-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Black history might seem far away, but we collide with its important legacies all the time.
As a historian of colonial and Revolutionary-era Black women’s history, the orienting principle in my life is being a (never the) medium between the histories of the Black past and how those histories affect and shape us today. That is one of the many reasons why I am blessed to serve for the next two years as the Association of Black Women Historians’ (ABWH) National Social Media Director, under the leadership of my advisor and mentor, National Director Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar. My job is to do what I became known for on Twitter: publicly acknowledge, congratulate, celebrate, and gin up support for, the best and brightest historians in the game, who just so happen to often be ABWH members! In a major way, amplifying ABWH member accomplishments is at the center of my formation as a historian because I wholeheartedly believe in vigorously citing and engaging those whose works and efforts have transformed my life and the lives of countless others.
My intellectual growth though, was not simply cultivated in the seminar room. Rather, learning about family stories at reunions and funerals were where the first seeds were planted within me that would later sprout into my career today as a budding historian. As a teenager, I spent countless hours at the literal and proverbial feet of my elders and future ancestors learning about our family history, especially at family reunions. Stories, trash-talking, tears, and expletives filled the Winter Park, Carolinas, Riviera Beach, and Brooklyn homes we congregated in. From an early age I was enamored with how family members told stories of kinfolk I only saw in photograph form, and I wanted to one day acquire the storytelling prowess that made each person come alive like they were living and breathing right next to me.
From left to right: the author, his cousin Henri Johnson, his cousin Arthuree, and his mother Kyle McNeil, in March 2017. Courtesy of the author.
Many of those storytellers were Black women. In particular, I must highlight my recently deceased cousin and family griot—Arthuree Loney Ricks— whose oral history my mother and I thankfully documented during Spring 2019 before she passed away not long afterward. Cousin Arthuree knew more than anyone about our Loney family ancestry, and I cannot begin to explain the immense pride I have knowing that she was proud of my work as a professional historian and the future family storyteller. Second, I will highlight another cousin—Dr. Rosalyn Jacobs Jones—whose 1983 Middle Tennessee State University dissertation Upward Mobility: A Historical Narrative, The John W. Jacobs Story, was a family history about the patriarch of our family, Professor John William Jacobs, who lived from 1852–1925. At our most recent family reunion in Riegelwood, North Carolina, I gave the family history lecture, and at the end of my lecture I told the family to rise and bestow upon Cousin Roz a standing ovation for the central role her dissertation plays in familial knowledge about the family’s history in Columbus County, North Carolina. Through both of their examples, I learned about the beauty, power, and privilege of not only knowing about our family history, but also about the power and importance contained in our ability to return to the land and community our family has owned since the late 1800s. Rooting myself in these powerful, violent, hilarious, and joyful stories motivates me to continue to foster relationships in the spaces and places I work in to ensure the work I produce is available to the communities that continuously nourish me. My life as a historian means nothing if my loved ones who instilled the love of storytelling into me are left in the dark about what the hell I do!
The digital sphere, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has opened opportunities within the complete chaos of this moment that otherwise would have been unavailable for people like my mother to peek into the scholarly world I spend countless hours within. Social media in particular has been the main avenue I have used over the past few years to inform my family about the various public history projects and speaking engagements I am involved in. Open-source intellectual spaces also have a special place in my heart due to a personal experience. My beloved grandmother, Eva Vernett McNeil, passed away two years ago, and about two months before she became an ancestor my uncle read the Black Perspectives review of Martha S. Jones’s Birthright Citizens I wrote to her. Although Grandma Eva often told my brother and me how proud she was of us, her telling me she was proud of the Birthright Citizens review was and will always be a particularly poignant moment in my life. Most graduate students do not gain access to publishing opportunities until they have almost completed their degrees. Without social media, I would not have found Black Perspectives or built a digital relationship with the blog that led to me being offered a regular-contributor opportunity. Which means that without social media, my uncle would not have had free access to what I wrote, and Grandma Eva more than likely would not have listened to it before she became an ancestor. Although everything I write in my career will not be freely accessible, I believe that to honor the communities that made me, versions of my work should circulate with them as well. As a result, not only will more local communities have access to the work we produce via pay-wall-free distribution channels, but we also are building on the Black intellectual tradition blazed by the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Carter G. Woodson, Dorothy Porter Wesley, Arturo Arthur Schomburg, and more.
Connecting to my New Books in African American Studies, Black Perspectives, and The Junto audiences opened up growth and learning opportunities to expand my base of knowledge across digital and social borders, while also giving me a community of support during the past year. Weekly I receive inquiries to guest-lecture, write for different spaces, interview scholars and writers about their books, contribute to book projects, and lead discussions on various topics largely based on my social media presence and contributions. One of the best feelings in my world is receiving an email out of the blue thanking me for a discussion I convened on New Books or learning from an educator that they are using a piece I wrote or a podcast I created in their classrooms. With that said, I also understand how atypical my experience has been thus far as a graduate student. Which is all the reason to spread opportunities out to those I know whenever I learn about them, because my intellectual community taught me to never hoard and have faith that what is yours is yours.
Nevertheless, I am a walking testament to the immense opportunities Twitter and other social media platforms canprovide a graduate student. The heart of my message is to have fun with the space. I have uploaded dozens of videos and photos from archival trips over the past few years, along with one in particular about the joy I received finding microfilm reels for a seminar paper. Considering that I do not know the next time I will get to comfortably sit in an archive again, these videos and photos are an archive of Black joy that fills the well of soul whenever I set my eyes on them. Within them, I experience a living embodiment of why I know I am living within the calling of my life. Having this knowledge does not blunt the impact of bad days, but social media provides a socially distanced space for graduate students to bleed and bind our wounds together in a relatively affirming communal space.
Which is why I thank you, Jesus, for digitally connecting me with Black historians like Antoine Johnson, Elise Mitchell, Dr. Bradley Craig, Dr. Kimberly Monroe, Ayah Nurriden, and the rest of the #QuarantineHappyHour crew, because since the nation shutdown in mid-March 2020, our weekly convening space has meant the world to me. #QuarantineHappyHour provided and still provides many of us a weekly escape from the hell wreaked upon the world by the COVID-19 pandemic and the full-frontal assault on Black, Brown, and poor lives at the hands of the state. And you guessed it, readers, many of us would not have known each other if not for Twitter! In closing, graduate students and contingent faculty need support communities as much as ever before. Social media spaces like Twitter can go a long way toward bridging geographic and departmental divides, while simultaneously bringing folk together for everyone’s betterment and pleasure.