It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and from the window situated just to the left of me I can see students as they make their way to and from the Court of Carolina. In front of me is seated the very personable and accomplished new Director of the North Carolina State University African American Cultural Center, Dr. Sheila Smith-McKoy. Dr. Smith-McCoy is a tenured professor at the esteemed Vanderbilt University, and an alumnus of North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University. I have just completed what I thought would be a very intimidating interviewing process, but instead an interview that turned out to be both insightful and enjoyable. Pausing for just a split second, Dr. Smith-McKoy gathers her thoughts before giving this genuine and heartfelt response, “I am so looking forward to this opportunity, and I hope to see a lot of students in and out, those faculty who haven’t been coming to the cultural center, I want to welcome them back with open arms and do that by shaping this center in such a way that it will become imperative for you to want to become involved in this center. So, I look forward to making my vision a reality.”
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1958, NC State has always been near and dear to Dr. Smith- McKoy’s heart. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in English from State in 1989, Dr.Smith-McKoy went one to get her Master’s from Carolina and PhD from Duke, making history as the first African American woman to ever receive a doctorate in English from the University. Join me as I sit down for a one on one interview with Dr. Smith-McKoy to find out about her vision for the African American Cultural Center, and also her opinion on an array of subjects, including the controversial political cartoon published in the Technician.
What excites you about embarking on this journey as the new director? What made you want to take on the role of the director of the African American Culture Center?
I love a challenging situation. I love to take something that has a foundation and really build on it. I think we have a foundation at the culture center that really needs to be brought into a different kind of vision, and I’m excited about the possibilities of bringing a real connection between the academic and cultural events that we can have at the center. I’m excited about the possibilities of making it a place for students and faculty of African descent, and for people interested in studying cultures of African descent to be there, and to make that, this center—a center where people know that there are going to be events that mix culture, mix academics, mix ways to bring scholars and students, and members of the community all together to look at what’s going on here.
You are the editor of the literary journal, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora. In one edition of the Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, you featured some of the work of George Moses Horton; in particular one of the things that stood out to me was his quote, “No thought is sweet but home.” You’ve held several positions both here at NC State and at other Universities; also the African American Culture Center has seen its share of directors and interim directors (in all a total of 5). Would you consider the African American Culture center to be your new home?
I will, and it’s going to be a different kind of vision than what we’ve had before. I know there’s been a lot of different people coming in to this center with various degrees of success, but I do welcome a challenge and I think I’ve said this quite often, that sort of a time of transition and chaos is a time of opportunity, to really decide where you want to see the center go and to make it happen. I did not have the benefit of having a strong African American Culture Center when I was a student here. It was something that was just beginning to be thought about and established here, and the fact that we have a center, has so much potential that we can tap in to and I’m so excited about that.
I think most people would agree that a fundamental aspect of home is the feeling of consistency and stability that is offered by it, can we take comfort in knowing that you will provide that as the new director?
Oh yes you can, yes you. I started undergrad as 26 year old, newly divorced single mom, and to come to a place like NC State where there were people from all walks of life, where I wasn’t looked at as some kind of alien because I wasn’t 18 years old, it was just a unique experience to be able to walk in a space, that was such an equalizing space. Even though there were issues on campus, as there continue to be issues on campus that was very important for me. I want to bring that sort of feeling of home, that sort of feeling of stability, that sort of feeling of power that we haven’t had at the African American Culture Center—back. We have a perfect opportunity to do that, and I’m here and committed to doing that task. Not only am I an alum here , I have several close relatives who are alums here, though my brother is an UNC fan, my son is readmitted here, so this is really a home space for me and I am committed to being there and really making a difference, I take that charge very seriously.
What is your vision for the Cultural Center?
I want the center to be the space where academics, where students, where members of the cultural community, come together to discuss, to plan for, to debate about the issues that relate to African and African descent cultures. I envision a space, where for instance we would teach African languages by natives speakers who are in the area. I envision a space where, faculty members who are interested in pursuing a particular research agenda that matches the mission of the center could have an office in the center, and students to work with him or her on that project. That will enrich the student’s abilities to understand what research is and how applied research can work, and also enhance us in terms of having a faculty member who is indebted to and embracing of the center. I envision in it a space where we can bring in scholars from other countries to be with us and also bring a wider vision to the space, so I have lots of plans for the center that I think will make it one of the preeminent centers of African culture in this area and I don’t think it will take us long to turn the situation in that direction.
You were once quoted, “The [NC State] English Department gave me the opportunity to grow in an intellectual environment that valued diversity. I entered the department as a single mother, out of high school for thirteen years. Though I expected to enter the work force right after graduation, I had mentors within the department, professors who encouraged me to seek a graduate degree. Their advice and encouragement shaped my life. They saw the scholar in me.” Obviously you had a strong support system in the professors and staff in the English department, how do you plan to provide students with just as strong of a support system here in the African American Cultural Center?
It was a turning point in my life, and because of the mentorship I received from the two professors of African descent in the English department it changed, it literally changed my life. I had never thought—it wasn’t even on my radar to become a PhD, no one in my family had ever achieved a PhD before, and it wasn’t something I ever would have thought about. What I learned from that experience was the power of a professor, the power of someone to recognize who you are, even before you can see it yourself, and I’ve tried to do that with the students that I encounter. I think, I’ll make a nice connection there with Toni Thorpe, whom everyone calls ‘Mama Thorpe’ , who knows everybody by name, who knows what they’re going to do, who sees the beauty of your spirit, and I think I’ll align myself along those lines and be able to see, and help students see maybe different possibilities than they can immediately see for themselves. I do take it very seriously, to think about how I can make an impact on each student that I see.
You made history as the first African American to graduate from Duke University with a PhD in English, how do you plan to leave your mark/ legacy here as the Director of the NCSU African American Cultural Center?
Well, I guess the best answer to that is a two-fold answer. I hope to leave my mark with programming and innovations that I bring to the center, but most importantly I hope to leave my mark with the students who come in and out of the center—who can have a transformative experience with the kind of visionary leadership that I will bring to the center. The legacy for me will not only be what I do, and the programming I bring, and the things that I establish there, but how the students are benefited by that, that they can carry forth with them in a different light, kind of like paying it forward. So, my biggest legacy will be the students whose lives we change at the center.
While NC State is campus that values and seeks to promote diversity, recently we have experienced some blatant acts of discrimination (ie. The Free Expression tunnel) what role, if any, should the African American Cultural Center play in response to incidents of this nature? What are your plans to extend the reach of the African American Culture center outside of the walls of Witherspoon Hall?
Are you speaking in terms of The Free Expression Tunnel? [Yes] The Free Expression Tunnel incident is really part of a larger problem that I think American Wide, where we’ve had instances, particularly on campuses where there’s been a history of ‘so called’ equality and ‘so called’ collaboration where these sorts of things have come out. I think we can’t discount the power of the media that gives a voice to polemical organizations that gives people the nerve to step up and do the sorts of things that they do. But, I would see the center as one of those vehicles where we could articulate a different stance, where we could address those issues head on and directly. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about giving a party line, I’m talking about rigorous involved responses to these kinds of events.
In a recent edition of the Technician a political cartoon suggesting that the Nubian Message was just a shadow of the past was featured. This cartoon has sparked conversation amongst many on the significance of the Nubian Message here on campus. Do you feel that one paper can adequately address and cover issues relevant to the entire NC State student body? Why or why not?
Well, it certainly would be possible, but it’s not possible in this case. It is possible for us to conceive of a newspaper that would have a multicultural focus, but in practice, it just doesn’t happen. In practice what happens—not only on university campuses, but in communities—is that the news is not just the facts, it has a certain polemical slant, and because of that, because of the realities of our situation in this country, in this city, and on this campus, I think the Nubian Message is imperative, it is imperative that it exists, so that there can be other conversations that don’t necessarily involve those in the majority culture, so that there can be other conversations that people in the majority culture might not even recognize from a different point of view. In my opinion, that particular political cartoon should never have been printed. It certainly shouldn’t have been printed with full permission, without having some sort of response from the Nubian Message. What if, for instance, you had been given the opportunity to present your own political cartoon in response to that? Now that’s a conversation. This is one such example, if the Technician could address the multicultural focus of all the cultures on this campus, then this cartoon never would have been published. So, I think it’s one of the things that you can use to prove that the Nubian [Message] needs to exist.
The African American Culture center is located in Witherspoon Hall, named after Augustus Witherspoon. Committed to African American success, Dr. Witherspoon was the first African American to receive a PhD in Botany from NC State; he was also active in his community amongst many roles serving as a youth baseball coach. Are you active in the community/ do you volunteer?
Yes I am, but I’m not a youth baseball coach. A thousand years ago I was a basketball coach for a group of six year olds, and at least two of my students, my former athletes went on to have successful college careers, and I’m sure they don’t even remember me, when I was running up and down the sidelines with them when they were five and six, but I remember, and it’s important to me. I’m a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and though I am an advocate of sorority and fraternal life, I’m also aware of the pitfalls of hazing. My son was a victim of severe hazing and it has really sidetracked his life in particular kinds of ways, so one of the things that I hope to do in my role as an advocate is to talk about the difficulties of that we face in these organizations, where we have forgotten what it really means to be a sister or a brother and instead we replace it with hazing rituals that are damaging to not only the individuals but dilutes the power of the organizations.
The purpose of the African American culture center (per its website) is to promote awareness and appreciation for the African American experience, enhance academic excellence, and strengthen cultural competence for the campus and surrounding communities. As the new director of the cultural center, how vital do you think the African American Culture center is to the NCSU campus? Why?
I think it’s not only vital to the NCSU campus, but it’s vital to our sister institutions in the area, it’s vital to those institutions in the area that are HBCU’s because we can provide a good deal of programming and interlocked programming that we can both benefit from, and it’s a vital thing for this community. One of the benefits of having grown up in Raleigh, and having a stake in this place is that I know people who are in positions of authority and government, and industry— in fields that our students can also benefit from. So, I see this, I see myself as a way to bring those things together. The intellectual, the communal and the student focus, and also the collaboratory model that I want to bring into focus. I look forward to us collaborating with the Sonya Stone Center at UNC, with the Williams Center at Duke; I have connections at St. Augustine’s again because I once taught there, but also at Shaw University. I think there is a whole cauldron of scholars in this area, not only those associated with North Carolina State University, but those who can affiliate with us by virtue of their areas of interest, who can also assist our students in significant kinds of ways. One of the people I would like to bring in for instance to work with the students in the Nubian Message is Cash Michaels, who has been a journalist for over 30 years, who knows what it’s like to work for a minority, so-called African American minority newspaper, who has been the voice of justice in this city and Wilmington for over 30 years. So, part of what I see myself doing is facilitating those connections and making that center useful for our students, certainly they are our primary objective, but we can also do that by enhancing our connections with other institutions and with people in the community to assist us with getting to those goals.