Engaged Scholars: Hasan Kwame Jeffries

News — September 29, 2022

Engaged Scholars: Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Engaged Scholars: Hasan Kwame Jeffries

October 2022

Engaged Scholars is a series highlighting Ohio State faculty who have made an impact in our communities through their community-engaged research and teaching.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries
College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Associate Professor
Department of History

My community engaged scholarship centers on four areas. First, I work with museums and historic sites on historical exhibitions. I've served as the lead historian for design and development projects for the National Civil Rights Museum and President James Monroe's Highland, and as a consulting historian for the National Parks Service Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Second, I work with professional educational organizations, such as the National Constitution Center, and school districts in Central Ohio and nationally, to help teachers teach American history honestly and effectively. I also developed the OSU Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme K-12 Difficult Subjects program to bring Ohio teachers to OSU for the same purpose. Third, I work with new and old media to bring African American history to the public. I have advised and appeared on screen for documentary projects for PBS, the BBC, Showtime, CNN, NBC, and BET, and hosted the podcast Teaching Hard History for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which received over 1 million downloads during our four-season run. Lastly, I speak regularly to public audiences around the country on the history of race and racism, civil rights, and democracy in America.

Why is it important to engage the community in your research and teaching?

History is more than dates and names. It is the study of the human experience. I engage community to help people understand the past, so that they can make sense of the present, and have the knowledge they need to build a more equal, just, and democratic society in the future.

What led you to the path of engaged scholarship? How did you get started?

Long before I became a historian, when I was a youngster growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, in the shadow of the civil rights and Black Power era, my parents, who were social workers, used to take (drag from my perspective at the time) my brother and I across the city to attend lectures by scholars in the newly emerging field of Black Studies. I didn't appreciate these excursions until later in life, but upon reflection, these scholars demonstrated the importance of engaging community through scholarship and, equally important, modeled how to do it.

How has your scholarship benefited from engaging with community partners?

Community partners have helped me reimagine what the production of historical scholarship should look like. I've learned it's not just what we pull off a bookshelf in a library. Rather, historical scholarship could and should be delivered in a wide range of modalities to reach the widest possible audience. Impact can be measured in the number of citations a journal article receives (a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand is excellent), but also in the number of visitors to an exhibition (some 400,000 visitors tour the exhibitions at the National Civil Rights Museum that I help develop annually). In other words, they have taught me how to translate my academic research into forms accessible to the public.

What has been a highlight of your community engagement experience?

I've consulted on several projects at James Madison's Montpelier, the historic home and plantation estate of America's fourth president. Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, also enslaved over one hundred African Americans, never freeing a single soul. Starting in 2018, I began taking OSU students to Montpelier, not only to see the site's historical exhibitions on slavery, freedom, and the Constitution, but also to engage with Montpelier's community of enslaved descendants. Taking the classroom into the community has been the most rewarding experience of my professional career.

What advice would you give to faculty and students who are interested in engaging the community in their scholarship?

Community engaged scholarship is not linear. As scholars, we don't descend from Mt. Olympus to bring enlightenment to mere mortals. For far too long, this is how scholars have approached communities, creating an understandable reluctance among many community members to engage with scholars. Instead, scholars interested in community engagement should begin by conducting background research (know what you know and what you don't know before you ever reach out to a community), share that research with the community (no secrets; full transparency), listen to the observations of the community, learn from their insights, build collaborative projects that are mutually beneficial, and then together, create something new, imaginative, and transformative. Enter community engaged scholarship humbly, acknowledging that community members have as much to teach us about our areas of specialization as we can teach them. Although different to be sure, what each brings the table is equally valuable.

Sample Engaged Scholarship

Exhibition design and development, National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn. (Phase 1 2009-2014; Phase 2 2019- present)

Editor, Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019

Historical Advisor, Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World, PBS/BBC Studios, scheduled to air January 31, 2023

Director, Difficult Subjects: K12 Teaching Institute, Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme (2020- Present)

OSU Montpelier Field School, Defining the Color Line: Race, Democracy, and the Enslaved Community at James Madison's Montpelier (Offered in 2018, 2019, 2021)