Patricia Williams Lessane has served as executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston since August 2010.
Before joining the College, Lessane was a faculty member at Roosevelt University and a consultant for The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Fisk University, a master’s in liberal studies from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D in Anthropology from University of Illinois at Chicago.
Q: As a cultural anthropologist, one of your research focuses is on Black life in popular culture. Can you talk about this topic in the context of what you have accomplished at Avery?
A: I think our public programs — specifically the conferences, film screenings, and public lectures — best reflect my interest in Black life in popular culture and the intersection of race, class, and gender in Black life. We’ve been able to bring some of the best minds to the College, including Drs. Harry and Michelle Elam (Stanford University), Dr. Joyce Ann Joyce (Temple University), Dr. Cathy Cohen (University of Chicago), filmmaker Julie Dash, and Dr. Johnetta Cole (Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art) to name a few.
Q: What are some of your current projects?
A: I teach every semester. It gives me the opportunity to connect with our students, and I enjoy talking to them and discussing the topics I am passionate about. I teach courses in African American Studies and Anthropology, including African American Society and Culture, Black Bodies in Television and Film, and The Peoples and Cultures of Africa. Next spring (2015), I will teach a First Year Seminar course on the Great Migration.
I am co-editing with Dr. Conseula Francis, an anthology of essays on the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, and co-editing with Dr. Violet Johnson (University of Texas College Station) and Dr. Gundolf Graml (Agnes Scott College) a volume of essays, Deferred Dreams, Defiant Struggles: Critical Perspectives on Blackness, Belonging and Civil Rights (part of the FORECAAST Series by the Collegium of African American Research).
I am working on an essay about the 50th anniversary of Nothing But a Man, a film by Michael Roemer and Michael Young. And, I am so excited about our recent NEA award to develop a documentary about the remarkable life and work of Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor. So I will be making a film with Julie Dash!
I am equally thrilled that our 2014 symposium, “The Marrow of Tradition: The Black Film in the American Cinematic Tradition,” will screen and highlight the work of African American filmmakers and generate critical dialogue about the Black film tradition and the salient ways issues of race, class, gender, oppression, resistance, and liberation struggles have historically inculcated in the work of radical pioneers of race film and many that followed.
We take our name from Charles Chestnutt’s remarkable novel of the same title. A fearless commentator on racial violence and injustice, Chestnutt’s novel chronicles the events, which lead up to a fictional race riot in Wellington, North Carolina.
Q: What object, story, or person associated with Avery has had a strong impact on you and why?
A: I have spent a good deal of time on the papers of Dr. Millicent E. Brown, so I’ve gotten to know a great deal about her life and work in civil rights and as a Black pedagogue. While I haven’t done any research on the Septima P. Clark collection, I am just so proud to be able to say that we have it. She is such an important figure in African American history, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Charleston.
Most recently, I used the Joseph Towles Collection for my Anthropology 322 course — The Peoples and Cultures of Africa. It’s such a rich collection. As an anthropologist, having the work of anthropological luminary Colin Turnbull -a brilliant but unsung African American anthropologist — at my fingertips is truly an added bonus of working here. My dream is to develop a mixed media traveling exhibit about Towles.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about Avery?
A: Three of our Avery staff members are headed to the Ivy Leagues this summer! I am headed to the Harvard Institute of Higher Education Management Development Program, and Mary Battle and Shelia Harrell-Roye will both be at Yale for the Yale Public History Institute.