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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Innis

Black Study, Community, Media, and Memory: An Interview with Taylor Dews

Taylor Dews describes herself as a bit of a nomad. She’s lived in Detroit, Michigan, Blacksburg, Virginia, and Chesapeake, Virginia; attended undergrad in Atlanta, Georgia; and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Spelman College last spring and now attends NYU as a PhD student studying media and anthropology. A long-time childhood friend and fellow virgo of mine, Taylor joined me to talk about school, research, community, media and the ways that Blackness—both the study of Blackness and the existence within it—define her work and purpose in the world.

The Path to Graduate Research

“I was like, you know what, I want to study people, but like, not in the psych way, I think I want to study people in the sociology way.”

Taylor describes her turn from psychology to social anthropology—the former as part of a pre-med track intended to appease her father, and the latter speaking to her interests in the humanities, Blackness, memory, media, and society—as one that was gradual, falling into place piece by piece. Introduced to humanities research in an Advanced Placement high school course, Taylor sought it out while continuing her academic career at Spelman. One college summer break, Taylor conducted a film studies project at Johns Hopkins where she was introduced to the field of anthropology. Shortly after her discovery, social anthropology opened up the academic world for Taylor where previously quantitative and empirical research were hailed as supreme methodological projects. Taylor wanted to imagine something different.

It was Taylor’s UNCF Mellon Mays Fellowship—an undergraduate fellowship encouraging students to enter PhD programs in humanities research— that carved her path to New York University as a graduate student earning a dual degree in anthropology and film. Because of her background in film, Taylor wanted to apply to a program that offered film studies. But she also wanted to be involved in the creation of the films themselves. “I discovered that anthropology has a lineage of filmmaking,” Taylor says, and she traces this lineage back to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the first ethnographic filmmakers who also documented the lives of Black folk in the American south in the early 1900s. An anthropologist as well, Hurston forged a bond between the anthropological field, filmmaking, and writing.

Taylor Dews graduating from Spelman

Mellon Mays was the natural pipeline to a PhD program. After becoming a fellow, Taylor began researching graduate programs, GED prep, talking to graduate students, and further embedding herself in the academic world. Her film studies research at Mellon Mays inspired an interest in media and anthropology and later influenced her senior thesis at Spelman on international film festivals that took place virtually as a response to the pandemic.

From Atlanta to NYC

Now that Taylor has completed the first year of her graduate studies, she’s been able to reflect on her experience at NYU so far. A fierce academic force—balancing extracurriculars, student activism, fellowships and more AND named one of Spelman College’s five valedictorians—Taylor was more than prepared for NYU’s rigor. However, as a predominantly white institution with over 50,000 students in the biggest city in the Northeast, NYU was a culture shock. Taylor knew how to deal with white people: she attended a predominantly white middle and high school. But at Spelman, white people were at more of a distance, and Taylor flourished in the community she found amongst her Black friends, peers, and professors. “So I've been around white people,” Taylor says, “like I've had that experience, but really, when I went to Spelman, I think I let that all out in my brain. I re-configured my imagination around Black people and Black walls, and especially Black women and Black non-men.” In stark contrast to NYU, Taylor’s studies were interwoven with her community at Spelman. Even after long days of class and coursework, Taylor spent hours in her dorm’s lounge talking with her friends about the material they were interested in. Taylor excelled at Spelman, not because of some random, natural inclination to academic work, but because she belonged. Learning was not wrought out of pure genius and individual struggle, but out of community.

“So it [Atlanta] was like the Black Mecca quote, unquote…I'm not gonna see a white person till I hit Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport,” Taylor jokes. She describes any existence she had alongside white people as “cohabiting.” It was like a practice, a muscle that needed to be exercised. “My ability to cohabitate with white people,” Taylor reflects, “was out the wind.”

Taylor also found belonging in film studies, especially through her senior thesis work on the BronzeLens Film Festival and its curation of Black feminist transnational solidarities spearheaded by Black women and femmes, rooting her research to a Black diasporic history (and future). Arguing that Black, international festivals allowed more people globally to engage with media and Black media in particular, Taylor examines how Black people are connected through mediations (in this case, representations on screen) that link us historically. Thus Taylor contends that Black international film festivals–instrumental to her conceptions of Blackness, community, and place–are a kind of “Black mediation,” and “conduit[s]… of [cultural] travel.”

In addition to the demographic shift from Spelman to NYU, NYU proved a draining environment with, at best, “culturally insensitive” and at worst, racist, professors. Once, a professor showed a film demonstrating a lynching in Taylor’s ethnographic film class and she was shocked when none of her peers seemed to be phased by it. “Nobody is disturbed,” Taylor said. “They really showed a Black death. They showed a Black death in class today.” While for her mostly white and non-black peers this was unsurprising, Taylor was deeply upset. The labor required of her to address the situation afterwards—sending emails back and forth and holding discussions about the experience—didn’t really seem worth it. Black death had been made a spectacle to consume and the supposed resolution only sapped even more of Taylor’s energy.

“At Spelman I was very involved in activism,” Taylor says. “Particularly student activism and advocating for students…because I was invested enough in the space to alter it.” Her experience speaks to a very real struggle that Black students, particularly those interested in student activism, face: should Black student labor be spent on an institution invested only in its own profits? “NYU is a huge company that serves white people and that serves white students, and I’m not trying to use my Black labor to make this place better.” NYU—with ownership of 14 million square feet of land (and counting) across 110 buildings in New York City— is more invested in the seizure, cultural sanitization and cleansing of its surroundings than of the well-being of its Black students. “How can I curate this space to serve me?” To both make the university survivable and “at the same time not become a mule?”

NYU's campus map, spread across Lower Manhattan (source: NYU Web Publishing)

Outside of NYU, even Taylor’s neighborhood was off-putting. She spent her first year living in off-campus housing in a pseudo-community composed of mostly grad students and white families in StuyTown. It was a similarly isolating experience to the one she had started at NYU. There were no cookouts or other social events in the area. People didn’t say hello or good morning to each other as they walked along the neighborhood's circular bends. And the security guards’ quarters flaunted a transparent, glass room full of surveillance cameras capturing the residents’ every move. Taylor describes the area as a gentrified project, a “white utopia” where white families (and some people of color who have assimilated) live sheltered, individualistic lives.

Black Media and Black Performance

Despite struggling as a Black woman at a PWI, Taylor has begun to make her way through her studies of Black art and performance. While film studies is a special interest for Taylor, television, music, visual art and other forms of Black media shape her studies as well. “Really what I’m wrapping my head around is Black mediation, the umbrella concept of Black traditions of performance.” Black traditions of performance include historical methods of communication and preservation such as the song or the story, and Taylor’s work examines how Black traditions of performance have been carried through time, “through all of the the ravages of the Middle Passage,” through what has been lost and what has survived.

Further, through her studies and research, Taylor reconfigures modern society’s genealogical timeline of globalization, outlining how global connection was incited on a mass scale by the Transatlantic Slave Trade: “Black mediation preceded what academics or media scholars would argue the inception of globalization is, which is at and around the printing press. Whereas prior to that, a big moment of movement for the world, like global movement, was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where people were dispersed across the globe or across geographies.” And what mediated this massive dispersal and dispossession, Taylor argues? Black traditions of performance.

Taylor is currently working as an intern for Bric Arts media, where she applies her research on Black media to her work with artists in NYC. One artist in particular, Adema Delphine Fawundu, is a multimedia visual artist and photographer depicting and representing the African diaspora. Raised in Brooklyn by her Equatorial Guinean Bubi mother and Sierra Leonean Krim father, Fawundu is known for her photography documenting Hip-Hop culture in the 1990s. Taylor describes one of Fawundu’s most recent printmaking projects she saw as an intern at Bric (which you can read and watch more about on Bric Arts Media’s website); for this project, Fawundu conceals her grandmother’s textile prints within her own printmaking work, creating something new altogether. At the same time that a unique project is being forged, the original artwork, along with Fawundu’s ancestry, remains retrievable.

Adama Delphine Fawundu: In the Spirit of Àṣẹ (source: The Newark Museum of Art)

Similarly, Fawundu is conducting a simultaneous destruction, preservation, and recreation of Black lineage through a scroll she made composed of various portraits she’s captured of communities in Brooklyn. As part of her artistic process, Fawundu hung this scroll outside for three months on the window of a butcher shop she grew up going to. To prepare the scroll for an exhibition, she began to repair it in the places it had been damaged—transformed, even— by the sun. Taylor, serving as researcher and cultural critic, interprets this repair as an invitation to witness the creation of something new, born from something that has been weathered away: “[Fawundu] invites and accepts that weathering…that weathering of the scroll is metaphorical to the weathering of the middle passage or the weathering of time.” According to Taylor’s studies of Black media and performance, Fawundu carves out an ontological timeline that is only legible to her people, to Black people: “There’s a Black ontology too, ‘cause you don’t have to read a book to know this shit,” Taylor says. Ancestral memory comes in myriad forms–unbound by text, you can “know” Blackness by being Black.

Even further, Taylor compares this visual remembering and reparation to various cultural passing downs that transpired during the Middle Passage: “Like what happened to say Black West African languages or religions, like over time. You start with a traditional West African religion, and then through time you come out with like, Voodoo or the Southern Baptist Church…you come up with this other thing that's been re-crafted or repaired. But still holds onto the essence of what it once was.”

Although Taylor was uninspired by her StuyTown neighborhood just steps from NYU’s campus in Washington Square, she’s feeling her inspiration return in BedStuy. Simply put, there’s more Black folk and more community in BedStuy. “It's like, like, I could just already see my life here and being able to re-engage with community work, and, you know, just being a part of a neighborhood. And that's something that I feel will inspire me further.” Being around Black artists and even just walking down the streets in Brooklyn has ignited Taylor’s creativity and passion for the community and belonging she felt in Atlanta.

Taylor’s time in Atlanta was instrumental to her understanding of the way community shapes research and archival knowledge. Her classroom extended to her personal relationships and her research found its cultural niche. As for her role as a student now living in NYC, Taylor doesn’t want to be led by her own ideas around what fields and mediums she encounters but rather by what’s actually happening in real life. “The field tells you what to research,” Taylor says—and she intends to let it.

Edited by: Defne Egbo

Find Cecilia (she/they) on Instagram at @cecilia.innis

Find Defne Egbo (she/her) on Instagram at @oge.defne

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