Black faculty members connect their personal experiences and family histories to their contributions to the academic enterprise at Tufts
In recognition of Black Legacy Month, Tufts Now asked Black faculty members to share their perspectives on how their research, scholarship, and practice connect to their sense of identity. Whether looking to give back, remedy historical wrongs, prevent ongoing societal distress, or connect with their forebears, they all see clearly how what they do is informed by who they are.
A Long Line of Maternal Activists
I founded the Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice at Tufts University School of Medicine. It’s the only center in the country that focuses on maternal health inequities. Because the health system doesn’t value the birthing experiences—or the lives—of Black and brown people, our work is so necessary. I can trace a direct line from my heritage to my work: I hold a professorship that carries the name of my grandmother, who was a village midwife in Nigeria. She delivered hundreds of babies—including my mom. In the 1970s, my parents emigrated to the United States. My mother raised four kids in a foreign country where she had no family support. I come from this legacy of strong women who are servants in the maternal space, and that absolutely informs my work and the way that I approach maternal activism.
Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, Julia A. Okoro Professor of Black Maternal Health, Tufts University School of Medicine
As a mathematician, I focus on harmonic analysis, which seeks to understand functions or signals in terms of basic building blocks. If you had asked me two years ago whether there’s a connection between the work I do and my heritage, I might have said no. But recently, I became interested in something that I realize now is directly connected: the intersection of language, culture, and mathematics. Back in Benin, where I’m from, my maternal grandmother spoke a derivative of Yoruba, and, because she bought and sold marketplace items, she was always counting money. I learned to count from her, but only recently did I start thinking about how the conception of numbers in Yoruba is different from the conception in languages like French or English. In western culture, numbers are based on the decimal system; you count from zero to nine and then you repeat. In Yoruba culture, there are many different bases; you count in base five, base 20, base 200. As a result, there are different ways of saying the same number, and there’s an art to saying a number in the most eloquent way. I’m excited to delve deeper into this topic—and into the ways in which my grandmother’s counting influenced me when I was a boy.
Kasso Okoudjou, Professor of Mathematics, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences
Taking Care of Mothers and Babies—on Two Fronts
In preschool, I declared that I wanted to be a doctor someday. My commitment to health care started early! But it really took hold when I was older, and my mom gave birth to my brother, who had a terminal genetic illness. We didn’t get a diagnosis immediately but eventually did; he died at four months old. I knew then that I wanted to go into genetics, but I also held on to my dream of becoming a doctor, and, specifically, an obstetrician. Now, I’m one of a few thousand medical geneticists in the United States, one of about 40 OB/GYN geneticists—and one of about ten Black medical geneticists. My experience with my brother made me want to become the person that my family needed but didn’t have at the time. But Black maternal morbidity and mortality are top of the news these days, and every day I see how scared my Black patients are. Coming into an appointment with a provider who, rightly or wrongly, they feel they already have a connection with I think comforts many of them. I’m glad I can be that person.
Dallas Reed, Assistant Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine and Chief of Genetics, Tufts Medical Center
One Generation Removed from Sharecropping
By training I’m an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, as is my father. I came to the field following his footsteps—though I started out trying hard not to do that! Instead of going to dental school, I went to medical school. One day, as a general surgery intern, I found myself performing oral surgery, and I said, “Uh-oh”: turns out, I really was interested in the work my father did. Unlike him, however, I was not the son of Louisiana sharecroppers. He didn’t have shoes when he was young, and he was nearly taken out of school when he was 12 to work on a farm that someone else owned. Essentially, he grew up under the last bastion of slavery. I had a very different upbringing, but I spent summers with my grandparents, and I learned from an early age that Louisiana—not suburban Massachusetts—is where I come from. I was very aware of my privilege. Now, I have transitioned from private practice to a career in academia, but I always knew that I would work to take care of people in one way or another; helping others is the best way for me to give back.
Jonathan Stephens, Assistant Professor, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Chief Medical Officer, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine
Engineering as Prevention
I grew up in rural Texas, which was part of the segregated South. My extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—belonged to what was called a “Black colony” in the state back then. Many of them lived right next to a highway, two and a half miles outside of the nearest town’s limits. A couple years after Brown vs. Board of Education, my mother was one of six African Americans to integrate her high school. As a child, without fully understanding, what I saw again and again was what happens when people in power do not focus on a whole community. When I became a civil and environmental engineer, that’s what drove me: I wanted to help reverse the negative impacts engineering sometimes has on marginalized groups and individual lives. Now, in my work I try to take a preventative stance; I give clients the relevant information. “So, you want to build 1,000 acres of subdivision homes? Okay, but know that these are Native lands” or “Okay, but this land is associated with a community that has long been there.” The client might move ahead anyway, but I hope they’ll stop and think.
Chris Swan, Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Dean of Undergraduate Education, Tufts University School of Engineering
Giving Back to the Deep South
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist who coined the term “Mississippi appendectomy,” referring to the forced sterilization of Black women. That was a practice that started in the early 20th century and continued through the 1980s. I was born in the 1980s, in Mississippi, and Hamer was a hero of mine. Very early on, I saw so many avenues of injustice around me, so much inequity; I wanted to know why some people have and some people have not. That, along with my love of learning, set the foundation for my career as a health equity research scientist. I investigate, design, and apply evidence-based methodologies that address the complexities and intersectionality of racism, gender bias, and gaps in policy to elevate the quality of life for many underserved communities. In both my teaching and my research, I center the use and establishment of equity initiatives to optimize sexual and reproductive health and nutritional health justice. Recently, I was in the Mississippi Delta working, in conjunction with colleagues from the Friedman School, on a study aiming to help people in the community improve their diets. I felt a lot of pride in going back home to use my resources and connections in a way that can help me give back to my original community. In everything I do to work toward health justice, I keep my background in mind.
Vanessa Nicholson, Assistant Professor, Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine
Growing Up Bi-Cultural
I’m an African American man who grew up in a predominantly white suburb outside of Detroit. My experiences there contrasted sharply with the experiences of my relatives who lived in the city. The people I was raised around, the way I spoke, many of my activities—those things made me stereotypically white in cultural terms. Meanwhile, my appearance was stereotypically Black. I was often put off when people seemed to perceive me in ways that, to my mind, didn’t reflect who I was. Those experiences shaped the work I do as a social psychologist. I focus on stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. In particular, I look at the nuances of racial phenotypicality bias—in other words, at stereotyping within racial groups, such as how lighter-skinned Black people view darker-skinned Black people. I also explore ways to help people cross racial groups and boundaries communicate more effectively. I believe that if we all examine ourselves and look at the contexts in which we’re making judgments, we might be able to focus on changing biased situations and procedures—not just on changing biased people.
Keith Maddox, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Leadership Program, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences