MSU African American and African Studies ‘Unicorns’ Drive Black Futures Beyond Survival Into Wellness

Originally published by WKAR

Ruth Nicole Brown is the inaugural chairperson of Michigan State University’s Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS), and she’s an MSU Foundation Professor. Community-accountable scholar, educator, and poet LeConté Dill joined AAAS in September 2021 as an Associate Professor of Black Feminisms, Genders, and Sexualities Studies.

AAAS at MSU was initially founded as a Ph.D. granting program in 2002. On July 1, 2019, AAAS became a department. In Spring 2020, MSU appointed Brown the inaugural chair.

“We insist that Black Studies uncovers and creates technologies of living for Black people and Black futures,” Brown said. “And when we say Black people, we mean all Black people. And when we say Black futures, we mean beyond survival into wellness. We are continuing to build and expand with the addition of new faculty hires and new courses.”

Brown says that students can major in African American and African Studies at MSU. And she describes how the department is evolving. The department is getting exciting new physical space in Kedzie in time for fall semester that will include wellness and social rooms.

“That was a resounding message that I heard from the students is that they want opportunities to be together, certainly for our AAAS majors, but for all students who feel connected to our curriculum and are excited about the vision in Black Feminisms, Black Genders, and Black Sexualities Studies.”

Brown talks about the accomplished and passionate additions to the department’s faculty. Dill talks about her background and what attracted her to AAAS at MSU.

Woman wearing a black dress and black belt standing with her hand on her hip
Inaugural chairperson of AAAS Ruth Nicole Brown

“What attracted me to AAAS was the centering, the unapologetic centering of Black Feminisms, which is unique and rare and nuanced, particularly in Black Studies, but also across disciplines in the academy,” Dill said. “It was this calling and shouting out that Black Feminisms are the center. It’s not an elective, it’s not an afterthought; it’s the center for everything they do. And so, much like I’ve lived my life and grounded my scholarship in that, that attracted me.

“I sometimes describe myself as a unicorn. Having this horn sticking out, this mythical character. But I specifically came here to AAAS because I realized that there were other unicorns. There was a whole department of unicorns, knocking through doors with our magic horn. But also landing safely and sometimes softly here at MSU that is welcoming us. Being here is not the disruption. We’re realizing that the other dreams that we have and are still manifesting might be the disruption.

“I am focused on Black girl wellness. I’m trained in public health, so a lot of my public health training has been thinking about not just illness and not just disease, but wellness, thriving, and resilience. And I love that part of AAAS’s mission and vision of beyond survival into wellness. I’m excited here at AAAS to think even more broadly around wellness.”

Dill talks about how poetry goes hand in hand with her scholarly work and how it perhaps even informs it.

Woman wearing a pink dress standing with her hands on her hips
Associate Professor LeConté Dill

“I’ve been a poet longer than I’ve been a scholar. I’ve been writing poetry since I was in elementary school. I developed more of my poetic techniques as a high school student, using it as my own coping mechanism, running to my journals, but also running to Black poets either on my mom’s bookshelf or in the bookstores that I found in my community who were sometimes reflecting my life, sometimes imagining lives that I hadn’t even imagined, but also running to the pin to get out some things that I couldn’t always articulate in words or out loud.”

Dill shares her poem Testimony and talks about some of her responsibilities in AAAS. She also describes the importance of mindfulness and meditation. Brown describes the “creative intention” that permeates AAAS and shares the poem Study by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz.

“We have a tremendous amount of gratitude for our MSU colleagues for being there and welcoming us at every step of the way,” Brown said. “They have served on committees and shared their generosity and ideas. It has made a world of difference in terms of us being able to do our best work. We are indebted to the sacrifice and receive well the responsibility to carry forward the dreams of generations, and we are acting with great hope and with great enthusiasm for the generations yet to come. So, to the alumni, please keep sending students to us. We look forward to actively working and building with you all. And to all those administrators who are noticing what we’re doing, who are creating the space and providing the resources for us to do our best work, we are in partnership, and I like to think we are just getting started.”