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'Pay it forward': Renée Alexander Craft celebrates Tanner Award recognition

Renée Alexander Craft, interim chairperson of the Deptartment of Communication smiles for a portrait in Portobelo, Panamá. Photo courtesy of Oronike Odeleye.

Renée Alexander Craft's approach to being a professor at UNC has been shaped by the support she has received from her own teachers and mentors throughout her career.

Now as the interim chairperson for UNC's Department of Communication, Craft wants to invest the same energy in her students' education.

Last month, she received the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, an award that recognizes five teachers for their inspirational teaching of undergraduates, with an emphasis on first-years and sophomores. The teachers are nominated by members of the University community.

“It means a great deal to me to feel as though I’m continuing to pay it forward in the way that my mentors invested in me,” Craft said. “As I got to gather with the recipients, and even when I saw the list of names, I just felt honored to get to be among them.”

Della Pollock, a retired communication professor, said Craft has an uncanny ability to meet students exactly where they are and draw them out to a higher, more creative place than they ever imagined they could go.

Craft brings grace and collegiality to UNC faculty, Pollock said. She was elated when Craft received the Tanner Award.

“I just trust it’s the first of many to come," she said.

Inspiration and mentorship

As an undergraduate student at UNC in the early 1990s, Craft said she found a mentor in D. Soyini Madison, a former UNC professor in the Department of Communications and professor emeritus in the Northwestern University School of Communication.

Though she did not take any classes with Madison until graduate school, Craft saw Madison take time to make connections with her students, linking their real-world experiences with course curriculum.

“That was meaningful to me,” Craft said. “I’m a person who was a first-generation college student and the first person in my family to become a professor, and so to be seen and recognized and have the kinds of stories I was surrounded by rendered visible and important was really key for me.”

Madison said Craft thinks, listens and observes deeply, which is what she thinks led her former student to become a successful writer, scholar and teacher.

She said Craft receiving the award brought together all the dimensions of who she is and the experiences the two have had together.

“The path she chose to take is evidenced in many things, but it’s so beautifully evidenced in the Tanner Award,” Madison said.

Research endeavors

Craft said she first discovered what she wanted to research during her graduate years at UNC, when artist and scholar Arturo Lindsay came to work with the UNC Institute of African American Research and talked about his research based in Portobelo, Panama.

Lindsay’s work at the time focused on Portobelo and the Black Christ figure, as well as the unique Afro-Latin carnival tradition found there called “Congo,” Craft said. 

“As he shared pictures, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways so many of the Afro-Latin community members he shared looked like they could be my kin from what we often call ‘down east’ in North Carolina,” she said.

From graduate school to professorship, Craft’s research has centered on Blackness in Panama. She said she is interested in performances of Black resilience and Black joy — from questions of Black identity, ethnicity and the carnival tradition.

But, she said she knows not to make the mistake of projecting American notions of Blackness onto other communities, especially when considering how people in Panama view themselves.

“With what I see as an experience as Blackness in the U.S. does not mean that those people necessarily would self-identify as Black,” Craft said. “They might identify as Mestizo or mixed. They might identify along multiple lines, and I needed to understand that.”

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Craft said her research changed her perception of her own race and position as a Black woman.

Before she started her graduate research, Craft received the Frances L. Phillips Travel Scholarship, which provides funding for students to self-direct international travel experiences and engage in projects. Craft said she chose to go to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where, for the first time, she thought of herself as “American Black.”

“I realized in the course of researching for that trip, and then moving around, that my Americanness sometimes stepped in a room before my Blackness did, and that I wasn’t viewed as Black in a South African context,” she said.

Craft said she kept this in mind when she started doing research in Panama, and continues to think about how the experience of race is contextual. From geography to regionality to ethnicity, there are many parts to the idea of race, she said.

The essence of a researcher

Craft said she often didn’t see her identity and community experience modeled in school.

“You want to be able to see the complexity reflected in scholarship that you witness around family reunion tables, or you witness from wonderful people in your family who are telling you, or in your broader communities, that are telling you these stories,” she said. 

Craft said she is interested in filling that gap, and in stories of how Black communities create their own systems to share their history and mechanisms of self-care, motivation and empowerment.

“I like being able to shine a light on some of that, because there are multiple ways to be, to know," she said. "There are multiple ways to get to display our brilliance, and I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to make space for those.”

@jenniferhtran_ I

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