Your Favorite Professor

Georgetown's MVP gets setup by her students, and finds her second visit to Mount Vernon just as bad as the first

This month, I’m celebrating the paperback launch of You NeverForget Your First by introducing you to scholars I admire. So far, you’ve met Jessie Serfilippi in “Chernow Gonna Chernow,” Kelvin Parnell Jr. in “After All that, who is J. Edgar Hoover to her?”, and Dr. Mary Draper in “Runaway Turtle!”  To promote them, I’m keeping the posts public, but I do hope you’ll sign up for the free weekly edition.

ICYMI, I went on MSNBC’s “The Beat with Ari Melber” and “KCRW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand” to talk about impeachment. I went on a Presidents’ Day weekend press bender; it’s always fun to talk to Brian Lehrer Show callers! I fact-checked Nikki Haley on CNN with Brianna Keilar, and I was back the next day to talk about President Biden’s Town Hall. I was also on Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” and Professor John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, interviewed me about all of it. 

Last year around this time, my friend Marcia Chatelain, also a historian, was a co-host of “The Waves,” a podcast on Slate. Her second book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in America, about the relationship between fast-food and civil rights, had been out for about a month and lauded in The New York Times. She lived on Georgetown’s campus with her husband and often posted photos of dishes she’d made for weekly dinners with students; when I visited, it was clear why she was one of the most popular professors at the school. 

By the spring, Marcia’s world radically changed. Slate put “The Waves” on hiatus. Marcia’s events were cancelled, and coverage of Franchise ceased. Georgetown sent students home; she taught in empty classrooms and lived in a ghost town. It was disheartening, so she made the only change she could and moved her family into a house off campus. 

Then, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter protests dominated the summer. All at once, surprising corners of America, including McDonald’s, issued statements of support. That’s when I started seeing Marcia’s commentary and essays everywhere.

The paperback edition of Franchise, published last month, includes a new preface.  “It allowed me to recognize the George Floyd summer and that fast food continues to play this very strange role in black America in moments of crisis and then calm,” Marcia told me. “The original contemporary anchor to the book was Ferguson. Six years later, it was George Floyd. There is a direct line between these two moments of national strife, and my book shows it extends backwards.”

Still, some things remain the same. I can’t change Marcia’s pandemic experience any more than I can my own, but it occurred to me that I could delight a friend with just a touch of subterfuge. 

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alexis Coe: Marcia, you’re the second person to play “Study Marry Kill.” I chose options for Alexandra Petri’s, but I asked a couple of Georgetown alums to give me some tough choices for you. As you know, they’re overachievers.

MC: [laughs] Oh [more laughter], I’m so happy! [much more laughter] What did they say? [mischievous giggles] 

AC: Let’s start with a playful suggestion by Melina because, trust me, you need a warm-up. Of the following, what would you study, what would you marry, and what would you kill? Twitter? reality TV? And fast food?

MC: Oh, my God. They know me so well. Like this is biblical proportions. Melina!

AC: [laughs] Do you want a minute? 

MC: No, I’m ready. It works! It’s hard, but it works. Study is easy: Fast food. There’s so many more stories in Franchise. Okay, Kill. Oh, gosh. I would kill Twitter if I had to! And I would marry reality television, because reality television brings more joy than Twitter does. 

Fannie Lou Hammer, the youngest of 20 children born to Mississippi sharecroppers, was forced to drop out of school as a girl to help her parents pick cotton in the Delta. After she attempted to register to vote, her landlord evicted her, and white terrorists shot up the house where she was staying. She went on to become a leading activist in the campaign to register African Americans in the South and to challenge the hold that white supremicists had on the Democratic Party. (1966 via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

AC: Okay, that was the easy part. Melina also suggested Fannie Lou Hammer, Ida B. Wells, and Gloria Richardson Dandridge — but don’t answer that yet! There was overlap with another student, Colleen, who suggested Ida B. Wells, Recy Taylor, and Herman Petty. Impossible choices! You don’t have to do this! 

MC: I will! I will! I’ll answer this. It means a lot to me that they remember all of these things from class!

AC: I have no idea what I would say. I’d run in the opposite direction. 

MC: Okay, okay. I would … I would marry Fannie Lou Hamer. 

AC: It feels silly to say this, even in this context, but Fannie Lou Hammer had great style. 

MC: What I appreciate about all of the recent scholarship about her and the growing public knowledge about her is that she was very fashionable. There's a lot of photographs of her in homespun dresses, but there’s also a whole body of photography of her just looking really sharp. So I would definitely marry her. 

AC: You’d be great together. Okay, we’re going out of order. We’ve got marry. Let’s go with study. 

Gloria Richardson Dandridge was the leader of the Cambridge Movement, a civil rights struggle on the eastern shores of Maryland, and one of the signatories, along with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, of “The Treaty of Cambridge.” (1963 via LOC/courtesy of NBC)

MC: Study, I would say, Gloria Dandrige, because she has yet to get her full acknowledgement.

AC: And she’s alive! I’ve never written a book on anyone who was alive in my lifetime.  

MC: She's alive, and she's still with us. And she has carried that same energy for nine decades, despite those who sought to undermine her power. 

AC: That leaves Ida B. Wells, who died in 1931. 

MC: I would say that this is kind of cheating, but I will kill Ida Wells because her spirit cannot die.

AC:Despite so many peopletrying to kill it. We can stop here! If we don’t, there’s Recy Taylor and Herman Petty.

MC: Taylor, Taylor, Taylor. Oh, my God. These kids and their retention of knowledge just warms my heart. I would definitely marry Taylor because she seemed like such a graceful and thoughtful woman. One of the things that I really appreciate about [historian] Danielle McGuire's capturing her story and then later narratives about her is just this wisdom she must have acquired through all of these incredibly difficult experiences. I would want to talk to her about whether she was fully aware at the time that she had all these Black women, like Rosa Parks, standing up for her;  If she  understood the weight of her importance to them; and if she could have ever imagined the weight of her testimony for future generations. 

AC: And you’d study Herman Petty, the first Black man to be offered a McDonald’s franchise, who appears in Franchise. He’s definitely worthy of his own book. Well done! 

MC: Thank you. Wow. So where are you in the research for — 

AC: I said “well done,” not “done!” There’s a second part to this surprise: “Dr. Marcia Chatelain is a gifted historian who has personified passion for the work — for Black people and our stories. For all that she has taught me and for her endless wisdom, I am grateful.”

MC: Where is that from?!

AC: Colleen. I asked her and Melina for testimonials. 

“When the pandemic happened and [students] started moving out of the dorm, there was such a deep sadness about watching that process unfold and not being able to safely say goodbye or meet their parents. It was abrupt, and there was a long period of time that we had no idea when things would resume, and we would just see glimpses of them like a book that was left behind or a pair of socks that fell out of the box in the lobby. I mean, it was devastating.” (Marcia’s author photo was, of course, taken by a Georgetown student, Francis Shad.)

MC: Alexis! She's a — oh, Colleen. I haven't told my husband this, but if I had a little sister, I hope she would be like Colleen. I adore her. She's so sweet, she was so present in class, and now she's going to be an amazing civil rights attorney. 

AC: Melina weighed in, too. She confirmed you have a “verifiable fan club among students,” called you “an incredible teacher,” and noted that “the most interesting and applicable learning I did in college came about in the first five minutes of class when she would share her ever salient, and at times comic, thoughts on current events and how they tie into meaningful historic trends.” Melina called you “an integral piece of many students’ support systems,” and that she has “always felt and continue to feel that I can go to Professor Chatelain with just about anything and that she’ll give me honest, empathetic advice about whatever I’m facing,  and I am very certain I’m not alone in that feeling.”

MC: I’m overwhelmed ...This is … It's totally what I needed. 

AC: [self-satisfied]

On a related note: 

Six months after we spoke at Georgetown, Marcia was first in the signing line after my book talk at Mount Vernon. “Attending events for people you like at plantation museums is problematic because they are oppressively white,” she later told me. It was her second visit to George Washington’s historic home and forced labor camp. She’d vowed never to return after slavery went unmentioned on a tour she took with colleagues. 

At the time of Washington’s death, there were 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon; Washington owned 123 Black people, and 153 bondspeople belonged to Martha and the heirs of her first husband. This is not the celebratory history that many of Mount Vernon’s nearly one million visitors a year come for, but most interpreters — the people who show visitors around — are committed to emphasizing this undeniable part of Washington’s life. Others are not. Visitors who venture beyond the mansion house will see plenty of evidence of the 56 years Washington enslaved people: slave cabins are just beyond the president’s crypt, signage at various points, and plenty in the education center and museum. But that’s for the able-bodied and those who go beyond the “main event,” which is Washington’s home; if they don’t hear about it on the tour, they likely don’t hear about it at all. 

“Attending events for people you like at plantation museums is problematic because they are oppressively white.”

It's a larger problem at Mount Vernon, in no small part because everyone who holds a decision-making position is white. Although enslaved people made up 90% of the population of Mount Vernon at the time of Washington’s death, the modern staff in no way mirrors that makeup. The curator of an exhibition on slavery is white, as is the rest of the curatorial staff. The research library is entirely staffed by white people. Until 2019, no Black people had been named research fellows. The education team and the Leadership Institute are white. The entire senior staff is white; Interpreters (tour guides) are mostly white, as are the people who appear in photos on the website and social media, with the exception of reenactors who play enslaved people. It is not uncommon to see entirely white panels, symposiums, or discussions on slavery occurring exclusively between white people. 23 out of 24 members of the Ladies of Mount Vernon are all white women. (A seat on the board is by invitation only.) This would be problematic for any organization, for or nonprofit, let alone a former plantation.

With the exception of places like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, many former plantations — with Mount Vernon ranking high on the list —are places where white people can easily avoid history that makes them uncomfortable. Black people cannot, whether the history is told or withheld, and many therefore elect to go to institutions and museums that offer an honest account of American history.

That explains why, of the hundreds of people who came to my event that night, Marcia was the only Black person in the audience.  

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