Q&A with Tracy Vaughn-Manley

Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley is an assistant professor on a tenure track in Northwestern’s African American Studies Department. She previously taught literature at Northwestern’s Qatar campus. She has three degrees, all in English, one from California State University-San Bernardino the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was born in Chicago, where she currently resides. She is passionate about students recognizing the importance of studying African American history and experiences, mainly because American history, and the history of the world, is inseparable from the history of Black people.

Imani Harris: What’s your research focusing on?

Tracy Vaughn-Manley: The research that I’m doing now is examining the ways in which post-Civil Rights Black women writers–Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Lynn Nottage and Terry McMillan– use the Black aesthetic quilting tradition as a means of catharsis in their work. 

I’m also looking at Black women quilters who use their quilt work…to mark the legacy, to mark their presence, to define themselves as artists, and to really enter into the framework of those who are creating and preserving American folk culture. I’m using the post-Civil Rights writers, and looking at the way that there was a growth in Black women quilt groups after the Civil Rights, and more specifically after the Women’s Liberation Movement, because in many ways they did not feel included. So after the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 70s there was a large increase in these liberated women looking at domestic arts in a new way. There was this big surge in quilting–but it was all white. Black women have been quilting, and continue to quilt, since the time of enslavement, but they weren’t being included in the conversations. They weren’t being welcomed. 

And so I’m trying to, in my work, look, first of all, at how the Black women writers are noticing the same thing I’m noticing and saying “no, this is something that has been apart of our culture, and Black women have used this space to not be wives, to not be mothers, to not be accountable in that way but to be artists.” And through their quilt work they are creating art, through their stitches they’re leaving their signature. But also, the process of it enables them to have a free space, to escape whatever they’re going through and for them to come together, as women in a community of women, to create and get through some of life’s trauma. 

I see this quilt here that I’m noticing for the first time, did you make this quilt? Do you quilt?

I am a quilt artist and a quilt scholar. I’ve had a number of exhibitions, both locally and internationally. I had the first quilting exhibition the country of Qatar has ever had in 2011. 

“As Large As Life” by Professor Tracy Vaughn-Manley

So yes, I’m a quilt artist and scholar, but this was done by a [member of my quilting group]. Before I moved to Qatar I had a community quilting group, called the Black Threads Collective, and we met on south side at the Carter G. Woodson Library. I wanted to have it somewhere on the south side in a place that had a lot of traffic. So we had a number of folks who were apart of the collective, we had a number of exhibitions there, at the Noyes Cultural Center, at the Skokie Public Library, here on campus in 2008, that picture there, was one that I had of my work and the collective as well. That was the first time that the Dittmar featured the art of a faculty member, so that was a big deal. We had about 3,000 people come to that exhibition. I’m in the process of planning another exhibition at the Skokie Public Library for February, and that’ll be the first one I do since I’ve been back. 

 “Back in Africa Again,” by Bettye-Jo Bonds, a member of the Black Threads Collective

What do you think is the significance of an African American studies department, specifically at a PWI like Northwestern that’s student body is only about five percent Black?

I think the African American Studies Department is significant in that we present the study of America. Toni Morrison has said that American studies is unintelligible without recognizing the contributions, the significance, of Black people. You can’t even make sense of it all. The way in which African American culture and life has permeated, and interwoven, with what we call American culture, pop culture, economics. Much of the economics of this country is based on beginning as an enslaved culture and how the free labor, provided by Black bodies, played out…

And I would argue that it is most important at a school with such a low percent of Black students. There’s this misconception that African American Studies Departments are Black studies departments, and only necessary, or relevant, or important to Black students. No; students who are not Black need it more than anybody. So, I think especially in those circumstances where there are fewer African Americans, you need to have a strong African American Studies Department. And we are one of the strongest in the country.

That leads me to my next question. What’s something that makes the African American Studies Department special?

Everything Imani, you don’t know that yet? (laughs)

All of our faculty are doing things that are contemporary, relevant, cutting edge; in many ways, we set the trend…So there’s a real investment, not just in the research as an academic exercise, but about using the work to make a real difference in the  lives of our community. 

The other part of that is the work that our graduate students, who are in the process of becoming scholars, once they graduate, how they go out and what they do having been affiliated with this program. It’s the way in which our graduate students, and our undergraduate students, are going out having been through this program, and having an impact and making a difference as well. 

Why do you think that students may be hesitant to minor or major in African American studies?

I think that they see it as limiting, as opposed to what Toni Morrison has said. She says that she’s never seen herself being Black or female as limiting; she’s seen it as limitless. It makes her even more expansive, it’s more from which to draw. I think that many of our undergraduate students are told, by family or others, “what are you going to do with that?”

It’s not just with African American studies, it’s the same with anyone who says that they want to major in humanities. I remember catching the same thing when I said I wanted to get a Doctorate degree in English. It’s just small, limiting thinking. But once you are able to see that this is, in fact, limitless, and the limitless ways in which you can apply what you learned here, because of its interdisciplinary nature, there’s a way in which you can go into other areas–technology, history, law, social services, non-profit work, you can go into the academy, you can become an educator, you can become a physician or go into the medical field–there’s a whole range of limitless possibilities. You’re only limited by yourself and your vision, because there’s always going to be a need for what you are researching and learning in this department.

Is there anything else that you want to say about the African American Studies Department, or yourself?

I think being apart of this department–this is a really special place–and being able to engage in the work of learning, exploring issues that are relevant to Black folk in general, Black folk in America, and even more specifically Black folk in Chicago, is an incredibly rewarding job. It’s a rewarding opportunity. To be able to do that and bring it to our students here has been one of the most fulfilling things of my life. I love this department, I love my students, I love this university. I’m very proud to be apart of this program, this discipline, and the process of sharing with our students the richness of what Black writers (in my area of study) and what Black folk artists do, and have done, in this country, to make it even better.


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