When Renee Alexander Craft visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the first time in junior high school, she fell in love with the town. Years, new cities, and new countries later, this love affair with Carolina endures.
“UNC was always one of my dream schools,” Alexander Craft said. When she applied to colleges, UNC was her first choice. She wanted to be a broadcast journalist at the time and Carolina had exceptional programs in the field. That was the reason for applying that she gave to her parents and counselors, anyway. In reality, when Alexander Craft had stayed in Chapel Hill for a radio-journalism summer camp as a young teenager, she had realized she’d discovered her home.
“I fell in love with UNC’s academics and aesthetics and feel […] I knew that I could live here and make it mine for four years,” Alexander Craft said.
Alexander Craft was not disappointed with her choice when she finally took up residence in the student halls. “My time at UNC really meant everything to me,” Alexander Craft said. “It profoundly shaped my trajectory.”
As a freshman she was approached by Dean Woodard after making a presentation at a black student meeting, who asked when she would begin writing her memoirs. His faith in her was influential. “That he valued my voice and thought, whatever my story was, that I had something important to say and something important to give, was powerful,” Alexander Craft said. Woodard’s support made her feel like she was able to make a real difference. The first intimation that this would be through ethnographic research came after she won a Francis Phillips Travel Scholarship to South Africa and Zimbabwe in 1995, which sparked her interest in studying transnational blackness further.
Michelle Thomas, who was an upperclassman when Alexander Craft entered, similarly affected her path. Thomas asked her as a freshman what her legacy would be at UNC. Her subsequent desire to “leave a footprint someone else might follow in […] changed everything.” She consequently began the first African-American literary magazine on campus, Sauti Mpya, which survived many years after she graduated.
With a degree in journalism and English and a literary magazine under her belt, Alexander Craft became a magazine editor in New York. She soon realized, however, that this was not where her passions lay, and returned to UNC for advice.
D. Soyini Madison, a faculty member in the Department of Communication, and Don Luse, director of the Carolina Union, had known Alexander Craft through her with work with Sauti Mpya, and offered her a job while she found her feet. “[Luse] said they had a new position as a fundraiser, and I was pretty good at begging money for the literary magazine, would I be interested? I was,” Alexander Craft said.
Back in Chapel Hill, Alexander Craft knew she wanted to return to the classroom to teach. She considered applying for M.F.A programs, but Madison dissuaded her. “She said, ‘I know you, that’s not what you want. What you want is to deal with poetry, literature, theory, in an embodied way.’” So Alexander Craft received her master’s at UNC and her Ph.D. from Northwestern in Communication Studies.
“Getting to teach and engage in critical research and mentor undergraduates as I was mentored is valuable to me in ways I cannot articulate,” Alexander Craft said.
It is no wonder then that when she searched for a faculty position, UNC was once again her dream school. “It was incredibly important for me to teach, create research and knowledge and give back to UNC,” Alexander Craft said.
Broadly, Alexander Craft researches the relationship among colorism, nationalism, nationality, language, gender, sexuality, class, history, religion and region in mapping the contested terrain of “blackness.” Her work analyzes dialectical constructions of “blackness” and performances of black cultural nationalisms in the Americas.
For the past eleven years, Alexander Craft’s research has centered on an Afro-Latin community located in the small rural town of Portobelo, Panama who call themselves and their performance tradition “Congo.” The twentieth century marked the first time that Congo performance, a cultural practice that emerged as a performative response to enslavement in Panama, was embraced by the Republic not only as a performance of a specific ethnoracial identity, but also as one of national identity. The Congos of Portobelo, like other Congo communities along the Caribbean coast of Panama, use ritual performance to celebrate and share their history, traditions, and cultural practices. Such performances generally include embodied storytelling enacted through costumed dancing, singing, and drumming. The main drama of the tradition takes place during carnival season (Congo season), which begins on January 20 and peaks on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the beginning of Lent. Portobelo presents a rich case study for the tradition because it is one of the few Costeño communities founded during the colonial period in Panama with sustained global engagement for trade and or tourism.
“I want to know what is the nature of this performance? What does “blackness” mean in Panama? And how has it changed over the course of the twentieth century? Or, more broadly: how does race come to mean what it means, and how does it shift and change? What does cultural nationalism in this particular community mean and how is it performed? How does the collective performances of identity create space to question, celebrate and advance an agenda about identity?”
Craft is currently completing two manuscript projects, which reflect this research. The first is an ethnographic monograph entitled When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama. The book analyzes the transcendence of “Congo” from discrete ethnic performance to national folklore, within local, regional, national, and global discourses of race, culture, and nationalism. It further examines the tradition within the political economy of Panama’s growing tourism industry to explore the differences between performances enacted for the community compared with those done for predominately white tourists from the US and Europe. Finally, When the Devil Knocks historicizes “Blackness” in twentieth century Panama by examining the dialectical relationship of the country’s two African-descended populations—Afro-colonials and West Indians.
The second book she is working in is a novel based in part on her field research, entitled My Father is a Country. The novel spans three generations of two black middle-class families, one situated in the Southern US and the other located on the Caribbean coast of the Republic of Panama. At its core, it asks: Is a truth that might shatter family better than a lie that might preserve it? The book mixes magical realism, myth, memory, and history, as it engages the dilemma of how stories make us “real” whether or not they are “true.”
This is not the first time Alexander Craft has delved into fiction. Alexander Craft is also the author of the children’s book I Will Love You Everywhere Always, which is dedicated to her Carolina classmate and sorority sister Maleikka Hardy Williams who passed away from breast cancer in 2008. She wrote I Will Love You in the hope that the book would help create a space for Hardy’s daughters Sydni and Makala, as well as other young children suffering from loss, to ask questions and hear stories about their loved one.
Alexander Craft has come a long way since first setting foot on campus as girl who dreamed of being a television