Rochester, N.Y. (WROC) — Jeffrey McCune, Jr. has quite the job ahead of him.
While brought on as the director of the University of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies, his main focus now is turning that program into a full-fledged department.
Adam sat down with McCune to talk about his role at UR and his current undertaking.
Adam Chodak: So Frederick Douglass Institute. What made you decide to go for this?
Jeffrey McCune: So I was a Postdoc in the Frederick Douglass Institute for African, African-American Studies in 2006 and 2007. And so after I finished my PhD, I came here to kind of finish writing up my first book. So many people have come through the doors of the Frederick Douglass Institute. And so when I got the call, that was like, oh, would you be interested in directing the Frederick Douglass Institute for African, African-American studies? I was like, wow, what a full circle. And because I am so much about the legacy of Frederick Douglass and what that could mean for the not only Rochester community, but also for the United States and the world, I really wanted to be a part of the next iteration of the FDI and I believe that my colleagues and myself are designing what hopefully will be a kind of state of the art institute and department of African, African-American studies.
AC: And what would separate it from what it has been and what other similar departments are like?
JM: So one of the things that I think is the Frederick Douglass Institute for African, African-American Studies is named after the Frederick Douglass, right? And there’s a brand there, but it’s a brand that I think is commonly unknown to the public. We think of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, we think of Frederick Douglass, the person who fought against slavery, the person who really asked America questions, values and what it was. But I think that there were other questions that Frederick Douglass was asking. And part of why I think Frederick Douglass is one of the godfathers of Black studies is because he asked questions hat really reflected on the intersections of Blackness, right? Like who are Black people, Black people are Black. And at once woman, they are Black. And at once men, there are Black gay people. There are Black straight people. There are Black celebrities, there are Back non-celebrities. There are Black poor people and Black rich folk. And we have to do well with representing all that is Blackness. And also I would add that part of what the FDI has always done has been a space that emphasized the diaspora. So Black people don’t just live in the United States, right? Black people live all over the world and where there are Black people. There are questions to be asked about not only inequality, but also about Black genius and Black creativity and Black cultural production. And those questions are the questions that I think scholars that we recruit to the FDI and scholars who are presently in the FDI will answer.
AC: This is going to sound like a very basic question, but I think it’s an important one. Why is it so important to focus on this particular topic with all of its multi-layered aspects?
JM: I think that the question of why Black studies now is a question that is answered by the present conditions of this America and the world where Blackness still is understood as a problem. So W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the godfathers of Black studies asked the question, how does it feel to be a problem? And that question has guided Black studies historically for forever. But you know, one of the questions that I think that we’re starting to ask more of is how do we become a problem in the first place, right? And the present conditions under which we live, where we see so much anti-Black state violence, right? We are asking this question, like, why is it natural to assume that, for example, I got pulled over the other day and why is it the question? Where are you going? Why is it not assumed that I live in Fairport? Those kind of questions are questions that we’re facing right now in our present moment. And we have to get at why is it that Black folks are disproportionate surveillance and scrutinized? Why does Blackness, why does skin color and or cultural attributes determine how one will engage a citizen of this country or the world?
AC: Where do you hope Black Studies guides society or take society?
JM: So let’s be clear, Black Studies in the United States particularly has always been a kind of temperature taker of Black people. I think that as we continue to think about Black Studies in the now I think Black Studies is trying to address the multifaceted nature of Blackness. So that there’s so many different subjects that we can cover that are not just about the pain and trauma of Black people. It’s also about the creativity, the beauty, the genius of Black people. And so for me, as director of the Frederick Douglass Institute, I want to talk as much about the pains and the sacrifice of a person like Frederick Douglass, as I want to talk about his writing. The audacity and skill of a Fred Douglass to really write down with such tenacity and grace what happened in his life and to other Black people. And so we’ll continue that. But also I think that what’s also important is that the work of Black Studies be communicated to a community larger than academia. The university is a great place, but what good is a body of knowledge if it’s not being dispersed to people. And so, as a director of FDI, what I want to do is make people, of course get to know that the FDI exists and is a community resource for all parts of the Rochester community, but also a resource for the world. A global hub of knowledge and creativity and cultural production. And we have scholars that are doing the good work to advance the lives of Black people, and also to critique anti-Blackness as it appears within our world.
AC: At times some people don’t live up to their legacy. And then I started reading the speeches of Frederick Douglass and you’re feeding into my growing belief that his legacy isn’t big enough.
JM: I remember doing in this interview about Frederick Douglass, and one of the things that really bothered me was I felt that he was being pigeonholed into being a kind of slave abolitionist. Ex-slave abolitionists. And the kind of scholarship that for Dr. Douglass produced is like, he was a professor of his time. He was a PhD without a PhD, which we see so many Black grandmothers and grandfathers and children, quite frankly, who are acting in these roles of genius that we don’t quite get to see. And part of what, one of the things that I really, not only Frederick Douglass, but so many authors of our time is the ways in which they give us space to really recognize that the legacy that they are building is far beyond some isolated topic. There’s so many things that we get from Frederick Douglass, and hopefully, as we embody that legacy in the FDI we can really have faculty that show us the many layers of a Frederick Douglass.
AC: If you wouldn’t mind just talking about the book you’re working on right now…
JM: So the present book I’m working on really attempts to articulate what happens when we begin to disobey, how we’ve been taught to think about Black life and Black condition. Part of what I’m really honing in on is this notion of disobedience as a working politics for Black people is not a new politics is really a politics that Black people have always been utilizing. But what I’m trying to do is suggest that there’s ways in which we’ve learned institutional behavior, such as how the church stories about the church, or even stories about slavery that are incomplete. And so, so many of our cousins and friends, right, have these kind of like riffs on things like slavery, for example. So I had a friend once who I bought him the cover of the African-American odyssey, which was an African-American history textbook. And it has a great migration, these images of people dancing and singing and all of these things, you know, and he says, wow, it’s so interesting to see so many queens on the front of this textbook. And I’m sitting here like, whoa, this is new for me. I don’t know. I didn’t know that they, like, I had never thought of that, but of course there were right. Of course. And because we have decided to not calculate that history, we have a difficult time understanding Black folks in the present and trans Black folks in the future. That opened up for me, a way of reading that I had yet to actually come to grips with. And the book goes through all these different moments where other Black folks, mostly elders, but not just elders, children as well, teach me how to read in these disobedient ways.
AC: From my understanding is right now as an Institute, it offers a guide for students programs and all that, but it’s moving into a department. What does that project entail? And what does that mean?
JM: Yeah, it’s a big project, but we’re grateful I’m able to say that the program will be a department this spring. I’m not sure the exact date, but we are now doing all the paperwork that’s necessary to do that. And it’s not just me. It’s so many faculty at the U of R who have committed their, some of them have committed 20 years to this project, but it’s finally happening. And part of what that means is that we will begin to extend the arm of the FDI to be more than just a notch in the belt of the UR it will become a full force department, highly resourced. That will have outreach to not only the Rochester community, but hopefully we’ll do some work that will have impacts globally. We’ll continue to expand our abroad programming. We’ll continue to do scholars and residents and artists and residents. We haven’t actually done that. We’ll continue our post-doctoral fellowship with, from which I come. We’ll expand that and make it even more rigorous. And we will continue to hire, I mean, the biggest thing is that we will now embark on the journey of hiring new faculty from various parts of the United States and world into the U of R community. So it’s really, really exciting. What’s next for the FDI is fantastic.