Honors Senior Lecturer Beth Fowler selected for Arts and Humanities grant

Honors Senior Lecturer Beth Fowler recently was selected for the faculty member Arts and Humanities Grant from the Office

Beth Fowler standing in a courtyard at Columbia University
Irvin D. Reid Honors Senior Lecturer
Beth Fowler at Columbia University.

of the Vice President of Research, which will help her on her book project looking at rock and roll music during the Civil Rights Movement. She sat down with us to talk about receiving the grant and to preview her upcoming book. 

What grant did you receive for your research?

This was the Arts and Humanities Grant for faculty members from the Office of the Vice President of Research here at Wayne State. I applied last year, but I didn’t get the grant. But I was encouraged to apply again this year, so I was able to use some of the comments from the people who had looked over my grant application last year and sort of think about, not only how to restructure my grant proposal, but also how to restructure my book project.

How helpful was the Office of the Vice President of Research in helping you prepare your grant proposal?

That was actually really helpful. It was kind of draining. I probably spent about a month working really diligently on this grant proposal, partially because changing the proposal reflected changes that I was making in my book project overall. But I think it was really helpful. So the Office of the Vice President for Research does a really good job of having meetings, letting prospective applicants know what they are looking for, guiding them through the process. I asked Sarah James a number of questions and she was great in helping me out, about trying to figure out what this proposal would look like and trying to think about people who they could contact to actually look over my grant. As well, Arthur Marotti, he is a former English Professor here and Professor Emeritus, he looked over my grant proposal and gave me some tips as well.

It was pretty in-depth, like I said. I had a Humanities Center Faculty Fellowship this year as well, so I had an office over in FAB where I would go two afternoons a week and in the fall semester I was used to going there to work on articles and things like that, and so I had to, sort of, put that on the back burner for February when I was working on this proposal, but at no time did I sort of feel adrift. I really had an idea of the structure they were looking for, the kinds of questions they wanted me to answer, the kinds of questions they wanted me to bring up. It was a lot, but I really think that they prepared me well for it.

What is your grant going to be used for?

The grant is going to be used to help me to prepare my book manuscript. Part of the grant is a month of summer salary, but the rest of it is to fund research trips, which is going to be integral especially since my deadline for my book project is next August. Because I changed my book project a little bit, I do need to go back and do some more extensive primary research than I initially thought I had. Initially I thought I just had to do some oral history, but this grant is going to allow me to go to Mississippi, Wisconsin, and actually I had thought I wanted to go to Indiana, but I think I need to go back to (Washington) D.C.  While I was there, they had way more in their collections than I thought they did once I spoke to an archivist.

There is funding for all of these trips, and they also gave me funding to hire a student to transcribe the new oral histories that I’m going to conduct. It’s pretty substantial and pretty phenomenal in helping me fairly quickly conduct some of this research I’m going to need to do in order to get my draft in by the deadline.

What’s your book about?

My book looks at rock and roll music and the links to desegregation movements from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The big thing that I am changing from my prior project is I’m taking a harder look at how integration was identified as, soft of, the primary goal of the civil rights movement during the 1950’s and the 1960’s, even though that was never supposed to be the only goal – and how both music, which was fairly racially integrated during this period and the ways this campaigns were marketed and portrayed on tv and in newspapers – how they built up an idea of what racial equality would look like for white people that wasn’t necessarily what black people were fighting for.

This summer you traveled to Washington D.C. and New York. Was that part of your research?

Yes

What did you do?

I went to the Library of Congress and looked at the James Forman and Leadership on Civil Rights Records and they were phenomenal. For some reason I thought two-and-a-half days was going to be enough, and it really wasn’t, even though I was working very quickly. So I will have to go back to look at those records, but I found some really interesting stuff. The James Forman collection, he was the head of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and was also the leader of a number of civil rights organizations. Some really interesting stuff about his thoughts on integration as well as some of the other issues he was concerned about privately that never became sort of the goals the organization was looking for outright. There is a lot of stuff about that and a lot of notes that he took when he went to civil rights conferences, including notes he took when he was at international conferences.

So in New York I got to go to the Columbia University archives. I was particularly looking at oral histories. They had a special oral history program for a long time. I was particularly interested in looking at their Apollo theatre project and their radio dj’s project. I know from both my secondary and primary research they did a lot of interviews with dj’s in the 1950’s, but that project seemed to be based on people who had been famous when radio first became big in the 20’s and 30’s, so it wasn’t really relevant. However, the Apollo theatre project was amazing. Lots of stuff, lots of interviews with performers and record producers and the racism they had faced and their thoughts on integration and their experiences traveling around the country, which is part of my research as well.

Plus, I got to speak with one of the old historians who was hanging out at the desk, so I got to talk to him. So not only did he say he would send me more stuff, but he introduced me to a huge collection of oral histories taken in 1964 in Alabama. They have accounts of actual civil rights movements in churches, they have interviews with a kkk member, so much great stuff. He also directed me towards a collection of black journalists who had written about the civil rights movement that were taken in the 1970’s, so still fairly fresh. And the interesting thing I noticed about these people who being interviewed is they were asked about whether they thought having a separate black press helped with integration or whether it hurt it, and their answers are pretty interesting. So not only like, their experiences interviewing people during the movement, but what they thought about having a separate black press. I really think that is going to be helpful in sort of looking at what black professionals and people who were at the forefront of organizing these movements and these campaigns what they really wanted out of the movement verses what they shaped the movement as in order to appeal to white people and then the lasting consequences.

How did you choose rock and roll and the Civil Right Movement to focus on as your research?

The part about rock and roll music and the links with the civil rights movement, that’s not only what I wrote my dissertation on, but my master’s thesis on. I got the idea, when I was young, I was reading a Rolling Stones article about Elvis Presley and it was something in there that said his music bridged the gap between black and white, and I have to say, I was probably 20 or 21-years-old, I was shamefully unaware of the criticisms of Elvis as somebody who stole black music, but I saw that sentence and I thought it was really interesting and I’ve been so interested in studying the Civil Rights Movement as an undergrad anyways, I decided to work on that for my Master’s thesis, and then when I came here to Wayne, I expanded on it quite a bit for my Ph.D. and luckily my advisor looked at this and said you are missing so much, but she introduced me to literature and theories and other ways of thinking that allowed me to make my argument a little more nuanced. Ultimately, it was very amorphous though, as I have been working on articles based on the research I did for my dissertation and reading more and thinking about the questions that I am actually interested in and I think I’ve finally narrowed it down a little bit more.

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