Exploring Abolitionism with Scholar in Residence Dr. Alcenat


Chapin’s 2020-2021 Scholars in Residence – Professor Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99, Professor Naomi Extra and Dr. Westenley Alcenat – are sharing their extensive knowledge of and expertise on Black American life and the African diaspora with the School community through a roster of illuminating classes and lectures.

One recent example enhanced The American Experience, a year-long interdisciplinary course in Class 11 that examines the complexities of what being American actually means through history, literature and the arts. Dr. Alcenat, who serves as Assistant Professor of History and Affiliated Assistant Professor of Urban Studies & American Studies at Fordham University, taught a compelling unit on abolitionism that culminated in a roundtable discussion connecting this 19th century anti-slavery campaign with today’s anti-racist protest movements.

“Good morning Chapin,” Dr. Alcenat greeted the students in sections C and D one Friday in mid-December. (Sections A and B participated in the same lesson at a different time). “Thank you for taking time to read my article,” he continued, referring to “New Age Activism: Maria W. Stewart and Black Lives Matter,” which appeared in “Black Perspectives,” an award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and was required reading for the students.

Leading up to this class, History teachers Jonathan Ruelens and Ellen Baylor, who is also Head of the History Department, welcomed Dr. Alcenat into their virtual classrooms. After introducing abolitionism, Dr. Alcenat gave the students a list of terms to consider such as reformer, activist, visionary, conservative, moderate, progressive, radical and revolutionary. He also asked them to think about questions including “What does it mean to be a change agent in a democratic society?” and “What does it mean to be part of a universal and/or inclusive body politic?”

Next, fortified with this new understanding, the students broke into groups to research one notable abolitionist figure. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah Parker Remond and Maria W. Stewart were among the extraordinary individuals Class 11 learned more about during this absorbing exercise.

In the following class, the students, serving as proxies representing the views of their assigned abolitionist, took part in an imagined meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), a New York City-based abolitionist group founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappen whose prominent members included Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other activists.

Facilitated by Dr. Alcenat, the classes embarked on discussions framed by such questions as “Should the AASS support ‘colonization’ schemes to send people freed from slavery to Africa?” and “Should the society support efforts to gain greater equality for women?” No doubt these conversations were enlightening and informative.

Back in Friday’s Zoom room, Dr. Alcenat introduced the Class 11 students to another distinguished scholar, Professor James B. Stewart, an American historian who focuses on the

history of white supremacy and the role of white people in sustaining the Black Lives Matter movement. A history professor emeritus at Macalister College, he is the founder of Historians Against Slavery, an organization that supports global anti-slavery movements.

“I’m very excited to speak with you today,” said Dr. Stewart, who joined from his home in Minneapolis.

Dr. Alcenat and Dr. Stewart commenced a sweeping discussion that centered around abolitionism and current anti-racist efforts but also touched on topics from the women’s movement to the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality. Guided by the professors, the students made cogent connections between past and current activism. For example, they discussed the contributions of Black abolitionists and their white allies, comparing this partnership to the Black leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and their white supporters.

Actively and passionately, the students drew on the previous days’ studies to contribute in a meaningful way to this essential dialogue. Many used the chat function on their computers to submit dozens of questions and comments to the two professors, who tried their best to answer in the allotted time.

We are so grateful for our partnership with Dr. Alcenat and his fellow Scholars in Residence as we work to elevate understudied narratives, perspectives and cultural contributions from the African diaspora.

Professor Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99 and Professor Naomi Extra will also be visiting upcoming American Experience classes to share their particular areas of expertise. Stay tuned for stories about their ongoing work with Class 11. In addition, the three Scholars in Residence will be giving lectures to the Chapin community; everyone is welcome: Professor Naomi Extra on Tuesday, February 9 at 6:30 p.m.; Dr. Westenley Alcenat on Thursday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m.; Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99 on Thursday, April 29 at 6:30 p.m.

To learn more about the three Scholars, click here: https://www.chapin.edu/about/community-life-and-diversity