A new postdoctoral fellowship in African American studies has launched with the beginning of the 2008-2009 academic year at Case Western Reserve University. The fellowship is the first of its kind at the university and will be directed by Rhonda Y. Williams, associate professor of history.
Laila Haidarali is the program's first fellow, chosen through a rigorous search process and from an international pool of applicants. Haidarali earned her doctorate from York University in Toronto in 2007. Prior to that, she received her master's degree in history from University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, and her bachelor's degree in history at Brescia College, University of Western Ontario.
During her one-year residency as an African American Studies Fellow in the history department at Case Western Reserve, Haidarali will continue her research into African American women's history in the pre-civil rights era between 1920 and 1954. More specifically, Haidarali will examine ideas of beauty, sexuality, complexion and class among African American women.
Conventional contemporary thinking envisions the light-skinned African American woman as the idealized vision of womanhood between the 1920s and 1950s, but Haidarali's research shows that a middle brownness was, in fact, more of a representational ideal.
"Light and dark skin tones were seen as out of the norm," Haidarali said. By the early post World War II era, "Ebony magazine, as well as the modeling industry, actually provided instruction on how to behave and dress to acquire 'Brownskin' respectability without actually having brown skin tone."
Haidarali is among the first to research the history of professional modeling as a career opened to African American women during the early post World War II era. Research on this aspect of her work was published in the Journal of Women's History and later reprinted in Unequal Sisters, an influential text that emphasizes the diversity of U.S. Women's History.
Her research plans during her tenure at Case Western Reserve includes an oral interview with Ophelia DeVore, a pioneering model of that era, who established one of the first modeling agencies to book, promote and represent African American models. She expects to finish her book manuscript on the subject by the end of the year.
Williams is pleased with the research Haidarali is conducting as the first postdoc in the new program.
"Laila's work provides a cultural and ideological framework for understanding how African American women operate in American culture and how they see themselves," said Williams, author of the award-winning book The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality, who first suggested the creation of the postdoctoral fellowship program.
"This fellowship was created to support junior scholars doing their own research as opposed to working on research projects for others," said Williams. "We want to help these individuals move through their academic career path."
Williams proposed the African American studies fellowship to former university provost John Anderson, who approved it and provided three years of funding with the provision that Williams seek additional dollars for a continuation of the program. Since then, Cyrus Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has made the fellowship a permanently funded position.
While the fellowship was created prior to the university's new strategic plan, Williams points out that it fits in nicely with the plan's call for greater academic diversity. The postdoctoral fellowship enriches the humanities and social sciences at Case Western Reserve by bringing new perspectives and ideas, enhancing research and teaching on race and black communities, and providing students with an opportunity to take classes with up-and-coming scholars working in the field of African American studies, Williams said.
Haidarali, as well as next year's fellow, will both be a part of the history department. In the third and subsequent years, Williams will decide to which other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences the fellowship will expand. Fellows in this program are required to teach an African American studies class in their appointed department in the spring semester. Haidarali will teach History 318: Black Women's History in Spring 2009. The courses will be cross-listed with the Ethnic Studies Program. Fellows also will give a lecture open to the entire university community.
"I'm honored to be the first African American studies postdoctoral fellow at Case Western Reserve," said Haidarali. "This program will help me and future fellows establish ourselves in the academic world not long after we receive our doctorate."
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