Faculty Q&A: On the Intersection of Black History and American History with Dr. Donelle Boose

News Story categories: Black Studies Faculty History

Dr. Donelle Boose steps into her new role as assistant professor of History and Black studies at RMC this fall on the heels of earning her doctorate in U.S. history from American University, where she was an adjunct instructor. Her doctoral research focused on the origins of the Black Power movement and civil rights activism in Washington, D.C. Boose earned a bachelor’s degree in African American studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in Africana studies from Cornell University.

While her scholarly interests make her a perfect fit in the Black studies program, Boose’s arrival to Randolph-Macon is arguably kismet. Her grandmother worked for decades at Randolph-Macon Women’s College (now Randolph College), where young Boose visited often as a child growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“This seems right—poetic,” Boose said. “Now I’m doing something that my grandma could only dream about.”

Read on to learn more about Boose’s background and expertise in her own words.

When did your interest in history begin?

My initial interest in history began in middle and high school, in the general European and American history courses. I was captivated by all the different stories you learn in those classes, and I’m still drawn to the storytelling aspect of history. But I went to college to study audio production at Emerson College. Audio production was a passion project, but I quickly learned that I was more interested in the humanities training I was getting. So I transferred to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and that’s where I developed my interest in history and more specifically African American studies. Those were the classes in which I was writing my most passionate essays. And I was fortunate to have wonderful faculty members encouraging me and telling me I had a knack for history.

You didn’t follow a straight line from your undergraduate to your graduate training. Tell us about the path you took.

I considered graduate school right out of undergrad but decided instead to move to Washington, D.C., where I began working for a nonprofit called The Posse Foundation. We helped connect talented young leaders and scholars in urban areas with some of the top colleges and universities in the nation. My role was in recruitment and student support. I was regularly involved with meeting students, and I loved the work we were doing, but I knew I wanted to be in the classroom more, and the university seemed like the perfect place to participate in scholarship and community work at the same time.

I enrolled in Cornell University for a master’s degree to deepen my understanding of Black studies beyond African American history because with Africana studies, you’re looking at African-descended experiences all over the world, not just in North America. Then I went to American University for my Ph.D. because they have a wonderful public history program, and I knew that would be important for the kind of work I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to have one foot in the community and one foot in academia, and specializing in public history seemed like a natural way to keep community ties alive.

Your doctoral thesis centered on the role of women and youth in civil rights and Black Power activism in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. What drew you to that topic?

The inspiration for my dissertation came from having lived in Washington, D.C. since 2006. I recognized from being in that community that there was a really important history—one that is inseparable from the broader civil rights movement—that people inside the community knew about, but that went largely unacknowledged in broader society. As a historian, I felt that was a contrast worth exploring.

Popular conceptions of the civil rights movement tend to focus on icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was local activists in communities like D.C. that drove so many aspects of the national civil rights movement. What I wanted my research to get at is that there are countless local activists making change at the community level that tend to be overlooked in our traditional history narratives. My broader research interest is in tracing how smaller-scale community activism comprises bigger movements.

How has historical scholarship changed your idea of what history is?

One of the biggest misconceptions about studying history is that the practice is rote memorization of facts about the past. These are the key events and dates and figures to memorize, etc. But when you study history at the collegiate level, you are going to discover competing narratives that are shaped by place, time, and politics. So the work of historians in the classroom is to point out those competing narratives to encourage students to critically analyze the past for lessons to inform life today.

After a serious, broad study of history, I’ve learned the importance of the practice of thinking historically. To think this way means approaching a narrative of the past with a commitment to understanding the context in which it was created and discovering intent behind the narrative. In other words, to do history is to be personally involved in a process of investigation about the past. It is not at all passive absorption of information. It is about critically assessing our renderings of yesterdays to better understand what it means to be human right now and, with luck, avoid some missteps in our future.

What attracted you to this position at Randolph-Macon?

There’s a lot to be excited about! Firstmost, I’m looking forward to growing and building engagement for the Black studies program at RMC. Randolph-Macon’s campus stands out to me because of how community-oriented it is at all levels, especially compared to bigger institutions I’ve been a part of. Since RMC is small, you can really get to know your students (and vice versa). I’m also excited about coming back to Virginia after spending so much time elsewhere. I’m originally from Lynchburg, and I have family all over the state. When I first saw the job posting, I thought this could be a good opportunity to go home.

How would you describe the benefits of majoring in Black studies?

Black studies is important as a distinct discipline and as a field that complements other professional tracks. Even a basic exposure to Black studies helps you think critically about how society exists today and the major events and ideas that made it that way. Basically, a Black studies curriculum gives you a more acute awareness of the importance of context. And in professional settings, a greater awareness of context is helpful.

For instance, if you’re going into healthcare, it’s important for you to understand the reasons why many social groups have trust issues with doctors. Many Black people are among those groups, and their apprehension is often rooted in specific historical developments. Having a Black studies background could help illuminate that history for you and perhaps deepen your compassion for patients. I would add that this benefit holds true in other ethnic studies, too. For example, if you studied Native American and Indigenous studies, you might learn of a similar hesitancy and history in healthcare. Knowing of people’s historical and societal contexts can help you better serve all your patients.

Developing awareness of the histories and cultures of many makes you not just a better employee, but actually develops your leadership skills. It will reshape the way you think about societal narratives and cultural influences you learned up until that point but never thought about. Just like Asian studies and Latinx studies, Black studies will force you to see your blind spots. That’s a real benefit that makes your thinking more sophisticated. It challenges you to mindfully consider the language you use, the images you convey, and the stories you tell. And those are precisely the qualities that will make you stand out as a candidate in whatever field you choose.