Altman Scholar Nishani Frazier is Civil Rights Historian & Activist

by Katy O'Neill, communications intern for the Humanities Center
October 23, 2017

Having a career as a history professor was Nishani Frazier’s fate. “I did not choose history; history chose me,” she said.

Both of Frazier’s parents were active in the civil rights movement, as was her extended family. “I grew up listening to their stories and hearing their stories,” she said. Her understanding of the world was “from the perspective of freedom fighters” who believed individuals could change society.

Frazier, through studying and writing African American history, has been active in the modern day civil rights movement.

Prior to Miami, she was the assistant to John Hope Franklin, known to some as the dean of black history. Then Frazier worked in Cleveland as the archivist for the Western Reserve Historical Society for African American Archives. Later, she worked at the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta.

The King Center, built by his widow, is the main repository of Dr. King’s papers. “I met Coretta Scott King,” she said. “That was a fantastic experience.”

Nevertheless, while African American history has shaped Frazier’s life and career, it was not always her intention to follow this specific path.

 

“Initially I was going to be Indiana Jones. Of course—this is all fictional—I was going to be an archaeologist. I had the hat and everything—I still love hats,” she laughed, motioning to the brightly fuchsia one on her head.

Frazier’s office is adorned with books of all kinds. An entire wall is dedicated to bookshelves.

“I like a good story. This is probably a Southern thing: History really is also about storytelling,” she said. “This is one of those things that came from a combination of forces: my parents and school and fiction, Indiana Jones, and things like that.”

Her heroic-adventure narrative shifted when she began attending an Ivy League school that did not send researchers on archaeological digs.

“I started off studying Chinese history in my early years, the 20th-century rise of Mao and the Communist Party,” she said. “That was fascinating to me because there were a lot of parallels between the black freedom struggle in the ’sixties and what was happening with the communists and the response to the European encroachment and challenging capitalism.”

Frazier’s senior thesis in graduate school compared Chinese history and African American history through Mao and the black panther party.

Now, as a history professor at Miami, Frazier works to merge what she refers to as the “Ivory Tower” of higher education and the reality of the people on ground level. 

“I have fun teaching. I am probably more entertained by the process of teaching students than the students are—partly because I like to throw mini bombs into the classroom to make the students think,” Frazier said. “I think it is fun to think about the complications. That is why I throw the remarks out there, to force a moment where we think of the duality and dissonance, that facilitates critical thinking.”

Frazier said Miami does a tremendous job of facilitating both the academic space and the public space.

In addition to teaching at Miami, Frazier is currently finishing up a book and working with the Next System Project. The group “is part of the democracy collaborative,” she explained. “It is all about how do we recreate society to make it sustainable: environmentally sustainable, ecologically sustainable, economically sustainable, so that spaces become livable for everyone,” she said. “It hits at the heart of inequality.”

“Those are the things that interest me—to merge the Ivory Tower academic stuff with the on-the-ground because we have to change this—that’s the role of a humanist,” Frazier said.

For several years, Frazier has also served on the program committee for the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), which held its annual conference in Cincinnati this fall.

The ASALH was founded by Carter G. Woodson, she said, who also founded negro history week, which became black history month “The organization has been really pivotal as it has been a meeting space to look at how historians are thinking about various issues in African American life, culture, and history and how these things change over time.”

Frazier describes the atmosphere of ASALH as understanding and academic. Most who attend are the only individual in their department in this specific field of work; thus ASALH gives them an outlet to share and discuss the community, culture, and history they know.

“The question for ASALH, as we are now grappling with this moment where you have integration in some places but there is an entrenchment of segregation and an expansion of it in other places, is how are we to address this?” Frazier said. “They call it the crisis of black education, because it is a crisis.”

 

Frazier looks back into history to explain that in urban spaces, the schools were never desegregated because they were based on location. Thus, African American children are forced to attend inner-city schools while other children are in the suburbs receiving much better-funded education. This results in a never-ending cycle that leads to the crisis in black education.

“There are always panels on Cincinnati … and the issues around education in Cincinnati,” Frazier says. Some of this year’s panels focused on Cincinnati were “Crisis in Black Education: Cincinnati,” “Black Cincinnati: Progress or Retreat,” and “The Lessons We Never Learned: Understanding the Migration Experienced by High Poverty, High Performing Urban Schools.”

Frazier also noticed a “reassertion of black women’s studies,” she said. “There is a burgeoning question around black feminism. … I wouldn’t say it is surprising but I can’t figure out why it is basically reasserting itself.”

Frazier explained that African American women have been harassed lately for speaking out about their beliefs; one professor was harassed so aggressively for a statement that she canceled an organized talk.

“I saw a lot of stuff on civil rights, particularly looking at separatists and/or ethnic activism,” Frazier said. “Separatists are not segregationists. In times where you have an oppressive atmosphere the black community then philosophically begins to lean toward operating with the assumption that you will not have assistance from the state. And not that you will not just not have assistance, but that the state is the enemy.”

Frazier describes this as a “big jump” from the collective thought process during the civil rights movement. Historically, African American communities would turn to their state or federal government to enforce civil rights.

“And so now you are now looking at forces that are not only refusing to help you but are actively looking to hurt you, expanding policing, loud policing, powers without questioning what it means to give an individual power,” Frazier explained. “When you see these things begin to emerge, the black community over time sometimes becomes insular … I think that is something that is going to continue to emerge under this administration.”

Although President Donald Trump is the target of activits’ angst and anger, “it is actually [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions because he is creating the problems around voting, policing, and drug laws which most people in the black community expect to only apply to them.”  

Frazier said the political climate shaped several discussions during the ASALH conference. Additionally, discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement were held in considering whether or not they follow the peaceful and respectful aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement.

“Right now, there is this internal conflict … about how to respond to the challenge of respectability conflicts. There is a fundamental question internally [about] what it means to engage in the movement and whether or not to cater to the idea of respectability or not, and in the end, Is it effective or not?” said. “That was something that was significant to me. There was a panel on it, Black Women and the Politics of Respectability, and it was outstanding. That is ultimately a question we keep coming back to in particular because it is always being raised.”

Along with Frazier, Dr. Tammy Brown, a black world studies professor in the department of global and international studies at Miami University, also attended the conference. She can be heard discussing her experience on NPR with the ASALH president Dr. Evelyn Higginbotham: http://wvxu.org/post/mission-association-study-african-american-life-and-history#stream/0