At the beginning of the school year, Dr. Karida Brown joined Fisk as the university’s inaugural visiting Diane Nash Descendants of the Emancipation chair and director of the John Lewis Center for Social Justice — both roles named for and established in the spirit of Fisk graduates and icons of the civil rights movement. The endowed chair position, which Brown describes as “dripping with legacy,” was established in May as part of a $2.5 million grant from Amy and Frank Garrison.
Brown brings experience as a professor at UCLA’s departments of African American Studies and Sociology and director of racial equity and action for the L.A. Lakers. Though she will be on official leave from UCLA, she will continue her role with the Lakers and serve on the boards of the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the Du Boisian Scholar Network. Her husband, artist Charly Palmer, is also teaching at Fisk. The Scene spoke with Brown to discuss her goals for the coming year.
What do you hope to bring to your role at Fisk?
My term is a one-year appointment, so I really want to be focused on setting an agenda for the [John Lewis Center for Social Justice]. While the center has been around for a little over a year, coming back to the campus in this hopefully tail end of the pandemic, my goal is to hit the ground running by setting an agenda with programming, but also doing a lot of listening with faculty, staff and students to animate the center. The purpose of a center on any college or university campus is to serve as the lifeblood [of the] campus, connecting departments across disciplines, connecting people across their various interests, but also a conduit for doing outreach … into the community. So with the John Lewis Center for Social Justice, our aim will always be rooted in justice-oriented initiatives, organizing programming and scholarship, but the point is to be that throughway, that lifeblood that I mentioned.
Are you receiving a lot of guidance as you step into this new role, or is it open for you to interpret and shape as you see fit?
The role was created out of a very generous endowment by the Garrison family of Nashville. In that process, the endowed chair was imagined with some parameters around it there. By the time I came into the conversation with the Fisk administration, there was lots of room to have a lot of dialogue about what resources particularly could I bring to the table in serving as the visiting chair in this one-year capacity. So there were some things that they obviously would like, which includes teaching, which I can’t wait to do — I’ll be teaching two courses come this spring in the center — and some programming that the John Lewis Center for Social Justice already had underway before I came, so I’ll assume those responsibilities as well. What’s super exciting about this chair and the fact that it is an inaugural chair is the fact that I do get to bring ideas to help shape the role and to really animate the programmatic aspect of the position, and that’s the part that I’m really excited about, and committed to doing this role justice.
Can you talk some about Diane Nash’s legacy here in Nashville?
Diane Nash’s legacy, yes, is rooted and centered in Nashville and a part of Nashville civil rights history and city history, but I think it’s important to remember that her reputation and her legacy has a global reach. She’s been honored with a National Medal of Freedom. She is one of the leaders of and architects of the American civil rights movement as we know it. So yes those roots run deep in the city of Nashville, and I’m really excited to get more intimate with that as I come onto campus and learn more about the city and Fisk University. But when I first heard of this chair, and from what I know about Diane Nash through my own research and study, I’ve always understood her to be a global legend and a hero.
Have you been able to consult with her about this role?
Not yet, but I’m so excited about that. That is one of the first things that I plan to do in this role. … For me, I just want to say thank you. I want to thank her for the sacrifices and commitment that she has made in her life, especially during her time at Fisk to make that commitment to the civil rights movement, to the Black freedom struggle. I want to thank her for allowing her name to be used in this chair, in this most honorable way, and also make the commitment to her that I plan to do this named chair justice, keeping her legacy in mind.
Is there a Fisk alumnus in particular that you connect with the most, or who is the most influential to you?
There are just so many, I feel like that question is totally unfair because there are so many of our elders and ancestors who really just blazed a trail for me to even be able to exist in this space right now. Lots of that comes from the contributions that they’ve made. But if I had to name a person … it would have to be W.E.B. Du Bois, whose alma mater is Fisk University. He is one of my intellectual heroes. I’m a sociologist by training, and Du Bois was a sociologist. One of the reasons why I decided to earn my Ph.D. in that discipline was because of Du Bois’ 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. It changed my life, and just knowing all that he did over his 95-year life, completely dedicated to — not only, yes, the Black freedom struggle — but he fought for all people of color, and all humans to have an equal place of safety and quality of life and rights and justice in this world. And he did that in so many different and amazing ways. But the fire was lit in his belly a lot at Fisk, and he writes a lot about that, about how his time at Fisk left an indelible mark with him, especially with the awakening of his racial consciousness. So I’d have to say Du Bois, so much so that myself and my co-author José Itzigsohn recently published a book on The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois. That book came out in March of 2020, so I mean it when I say he’s my hero.
What are some aspects of Nashville that excite or concern you?
Nashville’s history is so very rich, and that is one of the things that, again, I plan to dive deeply into in a very intimate way. So I don’t know that Nashville always comes to top of mind in the meta-narrative about the origins of the civil rights movement or the Black freedom struggle more broadly. And I say that to say, you’ve got lots of activism and organizing that came out of this city. … I think that the stories need to be told in a more amplified way to just remind folks — Nashville is here. It’s been on the map, it’s going to stay on the map, and Nashville still has something to say in this realm of social justice.
Could you see yourself sticking around after this one-year appointment is up?
Anything is possible. I’ll just say, circle back with me in a year and let’s see how it goes. But I can tell you that for the year that I have committed, I’m going to leave it all on the court. I plan to just hit the ground running and be here ... listen to folks, partner and collaborate and make an impact. That’s what I’m coming here for. So for how long, we’ll see how that goes, but you know you’ve got me for the year.