This Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 12:30 p.m. in the Stetson Room, Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown kicked off the flagship event for the university’s READ series, featuring “Americanah” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel is a rumination on race and identity from the viewpoint of an African in America, and was offered free to students with the understanding that they would read it and subsequently attend the Values Day dialogue. Shankar-Brown is a professor and the university chair for social justice education, with a loud, commanding voice but a friendly, smiling demeanor and a bindi between her eyes.
“READ really stands for two things today–the first being Reflect, Engage, and Affirm Diversity,” she said, standing at the front of the room with a microphone. She began on the small stage, before a wooden podium. She introduced the event with an easy manner, chatting up the audience about the turn out–perhaps between thirty and sixty students, professors, and faculty–and the university’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. The projector hummed quietly, showing on the wall behind her a page from the npr.org author interview series entitled “‘Americanah’ Author Explains ‘Learning’ To Be Black In The U.S.” The podcast played softly in the background, a murmur underneath Shankar-Brown’s words, and her eyebrows raised as she realized what was happening.
“Layers of narrative,” she joked, moving to mute it. Rather than return to the stage, she then simply moved to the front of room, alternately sitting and pacing. Through this she matched everyone else’s eye level, a fitting metaphor for the dialogue the event hoped to facilitate between speakers and attendees. The second thing READ stood for was Read, Engage, and Discuss.
Also speaking was Lindsey Graves, Assistant Director of Interfaith Initiatives with Stetson’s Cross Cultural Center and Diversity Programs.
“This book is about hair,” she said in a measured voice, before launching into a small spiel about both the literature and its real-world application. She had a pleasant, careful air about her, in contrast to Shankar-Brown’s aura of intensity and authority. They made a balanced team of speakers for the event, each encouraging different audience members to engage in different ways.
As it was discussed, hair serves as a metaphor for the intersection of race and culture, as well as gender, in our society. Shemeca Smith, a Caribbean student in attendance, shared her hair care experiences, relating to those of the “Non-American Black” mentioned in the novel excerpt that was looked at as a handout.
Another student, passably white from North Bay, Fla, recounted the experience of a friend of hers: a woman of color who received points off of a class presentation for wearing her hair natural, which was not deemed “business appropriate.” Shankar-Brown nodded along, her brow knit, before sharing her own story of casual discrimination due to her appearance.
“Even here on our own campus, there is still plenty of work to be done.”