Q&A: P. Gabrielle Foreman

MacArthur Fellow P. Gabrielle Foreman leads efforts to digitize records of early Black organizing.

conceptual illustration of early Black organizers by Stuart Bradford

Q: Congrats on the MacArthur Fellowship. How do you feel?
This is one of the few awards that recognizes people in the cultural arts, as well as scholars and those organizing for social change. Through my scholarship and public- facing initiatives, I’ve tried to braid these areas together, so there’s no other award I’d be more honored to receive. At the same time, I have long been committed to creating and working within collectives; this is an individual award, so I’ve had a little bit of an identity crisis!


Q: You and your colleague Jim Casey have been working on The Colored Conventions Project for 10 years. Can you describe the work?
Jim and I started the Colored Conventions Project with others in a 2011 graduate course I was teaching. It’s a research hub that tells the stories of early Black-led organizing that’s been largely overshadowed by the history of abolition and the underground railroad. Our team has trained hundreds of undergraduate researchers, developed scores of graduate student leaders, worked with teaching partners at universities across North America, and collaborated with librarians and archivists to make the records of the convention movement freely available and searchable in one place. We’ve also created digital exhibits that bring the stories of this buried movement to life and include a curriculum that can be adopted in college and high school classrooms.


Q: What are some highlights of your own research?
My career has always centered public-facing and collaborative work, as well as scholarship, but it’s my non-traditional scholarship and community building that have made the biggest impact. There’s the CCP, and another example is Writing about Slavery, Teaching about Slavery? This May Help, a short, community-sourced guide I collated after consulting with senior slavery scholars of color that’s been adopted in thousands of classrooms and by hundreds of cultural institutions worldwide.


Q: You’ve also staged, through dance and theater, some of the histories that you’ve uncovered.
I have a partnership with University of Delaware dance educator Lynnette Young Overby and the poet Glenis Redmond. For the last decade, we’ve staged stories of little- known Black writers, potters, and Black women agitators, and they have brought my research to life, including pieces about David Drake, the enslaved poet and potter, one of the few writers who has never published anything on paper: He wrote his couplets on his pots. 


P. Gabrielle Foreman, professor of American literature, African American studies, and history, is co-director of the Colored Conventions Project with Jim Casey and leads the Center for Black Digital Research with Shirley Moody-Turner, both professors in the College of the Liberal Arts. Read the interview with all three scholars.