As a teenager in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and the daughter of an African American father and Russian mother in Colorado, Sharmaine Jackson, PhD, JD, “grew up in a much freer time.”
“I walked around in a much freer America than I do today,” said Jackson, an assistant professor of sociology who in August was named director of Stetson’s African Studies Program. “Fast-forward 30 years later, and I would not engage with law enforcement like I did at 16. If I did, I would be shot and killed.”
Jackson “lived a middle-class upbringing” with “boomer” parents, she described. Her father served in the Air Force, and her mother worked for a police department for almost 30 years.
“My dad will talk in the ways many Black people of his generation will. Because when they were born, there was no Civil Rights Act, and they saw great progress over the course of their lives,” Jackson noted. “But, I’ve experienced the downward trend into my adulthood.”
Black studies and African American studies programs were spawned at U.S. universities in the late 1960s/early 1970s, following efforts of the Civil Rights movement and significant social upheavals, as Black students protested “for a curriculum that centers on thought and scholarship at the core of the Black experience, in lieu of one centered in whiteness or the eurocentric experience,” Jackson said.
Africana Studies was advocated by Stetson students, with Kristen Williams Hardy as the first graduate of the program in 2003.
“Having a program that centers on the Black experience in the U.S. and globally fills a much-needed demand to diversify our curriculum, and provides stability and continuity for this kind of intellectual work, which does not exist otherwise on campus,” Jackson added.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Black Americans were able to emerge “out of the Jim Crow era and their second-class citizenry into the middle classes,” Jackson pointed out. Cultural observers in the 1990s began to speak of a “post-racial America” without the need for affirmative action and quota programs.
Seemingly, though, the more things changed, the more they have stayed the same.
“What we have seen is that we do still have these problems,” Jackson added, citing that race relations during 2020 have “definitely become a political tool. It doesn’t matter what side of the line you are on, race has been activated.”
This year has seen the police killings of African Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, an upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement (even spawning protests overseas), the removal of Confederate statues and (arguably) a U.S. president whose statements and policies seem indifferent or even hostile to people of color.
“In fact, that is what drew me to take on the directorship — I leaned in for that reason. Because of the importance of the issues, of this very critical time, and my background, lived experience and expertise, I knew I really could help. This is the moment in time where you step up and step in.”Sharmaine Jackson, PhD, JD
It would seem Africana and Black studies programs find themselves at a pivotal, momentous time in history not seen since the 1960s.
With that national scene as the backdrop, Jackson has emerged as a leader on campus at Stetson, arriving in 2016 with uncommon perspective.
“In fact, that is what drew me to take on the directorship — I leaned in for that reason,” Jackson continued. “Because of the importance of the issues, of this very critical time, and my background, lived experience and expertise, I knew I really could help. This is the moment in time where you step up and step in.”
Jackson succeeds Susan Peppers-Bates, PhD, associate professor of philosophy, who directed the program from 2010 to 2012 and again during the 2019-2020 school year. The program, a minor, is described on its website as “the examination of and critical reflection about the experiences, history and civilizations, intellectual and economic development, social organization and cultures of the peoples of Africa on the continent and in the Diaspora. Multidisciplinary and global in nature, Africana studies provides … access to Afrocentric and other cultural studies perspectives.”
The program draws on faculty from sociology, philosophy, history, political science, economics, English, education, music theory and decision and information sciences.
Immediately, one element Jackson would like to change is the perception that Africana Studies is “for Black people.”
“I definitely imagine that is the perception,” she said. “But we know that these programs have a lot of white students, and graduate programs are producing many PhDs in Africana Studies who are white. So that would not be correct, in fact it’s a knowledge that is important to all of us.”
To that end, she has created Race in the 21st Century, a series of virtual panel discussions that is broadcast live on Zoom on Friday afternoons, followed by a chat session, and then they are archived on YouTube.
“I wanted to create a space to talk about race, to engage various faculty, students and community members on the issues of race,” Jackson said. “In the first panel I had, there were three white students who participated in Black Lives Matter protests and had engaged counter-protesters who were basically telling them they were on the wrong side. The theme of that panel was racial courage. I thought the students were very courageous and really were stepping up to set an example for all of us.”
Other changes also might be in store.
The program is undergoing a review by Jackson and a committee that will evaluate the curriculum, funding, enrollment and even a possible name change. The review will explore “how we can re-center the program to include our contemporary student experience, in a way that reflects the lived experience for our students,” according to Jackson.
“This program can prepare students to engage in a society, which is very racially diverse, not just in this country but globally,” said Jackson, who also teaches a course on race and ethnicity in the sociology department that is cross-listed in Africana Studies.
Such thinking largely was borne out by a trip she took in 2009 to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef — a trip that “changed so many things in my life.” Jackson “fell in love with Australia,” but she also experienced racial prejudice when locals mistook her to be an Aborigine, one of the country’s indigenous peoples.
“Wow, some of the racist things that were said to me, and especially how I was treated when people thought I was indigenous,” she commented. “It was really very poor treatment, and then they would hear that I was American and it would flip — ‘Oh my God, we love Americans!’ And I’m thinking ‘What are you doing? I’m the same person being perceived differently on the basis of cultural meaning.’”
While that experience gave her a “particular lens,” her flight back home led to another change when she met an African American man who had been teaching Australians krump dancing — an urban street dance created as an alternative to gang violence. That chance encounter led to Jackson’s dissertation on krump for her doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Irvine in 2014. Her thesis provided the basis for her forthcoming book, titled “The Unmaking of a Gangbanger.”
“I think change can be a very scary thing for people,” Jackson explained. “Change can be very disruptive. I have an 8-year-old daughter and parenting her has really taught me the value of routines [she laughs]. But now, on a national scale as well as the local level, we are experiencing large, sweeping changes continuously. People are unsettled. But, at the same time, it’s exciting because you can make great changes very quickly, which ordinarily might take decades.
“I embrace change.”
Peppers-Bates, her predecessor, applauds Jackson’s style.
“Dr. Jackson embodies the multidisciplinary and global approach at the heart of Africana Studies,” Peppers-Bates said. “As a sociologist, she understands social systems and racial formation. As a JD, her work explores the nature of law, violence and the state. As a scholar of Australian racial-ethnic relations, her intellectual mastery of race and power stretches beyond the U.S. to make world connections.”
Africana Studies must be a “vital part of Stetson’s mission to prepare culturally competent, innovative global citizens dedicated to social justice,” Peppers-Bates concluded. And she believes Jackson is making a real difference — with the promise of more to come.
“In her few months at the helm of Africana Studies, she has already organized and facilitated regular Friday conversations around racial issues in the U.S. [Race in the 21stCentury], and she has organized a flash panel on the presidential debate and the dog-whistle politics seen there in,” Peppers-Bates said.
“She has the brilliance, energy and enthusiasm to take Africana Studies to the next level.”
– Rick de Yampert