Hartford, Connecticut, March 28, 2017 – Channon S. Miller ’11, an American studies Ph.D. candidate at Boston University and a predoctoral fellow in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT, returned to Trinity recently to discuss her research and dissertation.
Miller’s dissertation, “Migrant Black Mothers,” studies the experiences of native and foreign-born black mothers from the 1980s to present. In her research, Miller considers efforts by black mothers to negotiate race- and gender-based oppression while also addressing the divide between native and foreign-born black mothers. To study this divide and the challenges it causes, she interviewed Hartford women from the Caribbean (Jamaica, St. Lucia, Guyana, and Aruba) and Africa (Sierra Leone, Togo, and Ghana), as well as women who have lived in Hartford their entire lives or who came from southern states. Miller said a main goal of her research was to share real stories that will contribute to real changes.
The March 9 lecture, “Hartford’s Black Mothers Raising Bridges Over Troubled Waters,” was a part of the College’s “Week (and a Half) of Action” programming and was sponsored by the American Studies Department, Women & Gender Resource Action Center (WGRAC), the Center for Caribbean Studies, Community Learning Initiative, Sociology Department, La Voz Latina, Urban Educational Initiatives, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program (WMGS).
Miller’s talk explored the history of black mothers and their roles in Hartford by focusing on three women who fought for social justice: Barbara Henderson, Norma Watts, and Emma Jones. Henderson was a black mother in Hartford who fought in the 1960s for changes to the Park River, also known as the “River of Tears” due to the number of children who drowned in it. To gain Gov. John Dempsey’s attention, Henderson organized and staged a protest on the bridge which resulted in increased safety measures surrounding the river. The bridge was designated Barbara Henderson Bridge in appreciation of her work.
Next, Miller discussed how Watts’s grandson, Aquan Salmon, and Jones’s son, Malik Jones, were both shot and killed in the 1990s by police officers in Connecticut. Both deaths led to social movements throughout the state and nation. Strategy sessions, walks, chants, and committees were all a result of their deaths. Connected by the deaths of their relatives at the hands of police officers, Watts and Jones united to fight for justice for Aquan and Malik, Miller said. While Watts was a Jamaican immigrant and Jones was born in America, the loss of their relatives forced them to view each other as equals. Jones continues to be involved in social justice movements across the nation, including an annual march in New Haven to commemorate Malik’s death.
Professor of Religious Studies and International Studies Leslie Desmangles is already using Miller’s research in his courses at Trinity. “Her work is extremely useful in understanding the tensions that exist between the African American and Caribbean or even African women in Hartford,” Desmangles said.
After completing her dissertation, Miller plans to continue to speak about her research and share it with a variety of audiences to raise awareness. Further, she wants to speak to more mothers of victims of police violence to ensure “that the different constituents and nature of this struggle and systemic oppression are documented,” she said.
When discussing the path to her research, Miller explained that she discovered the significance of the Barbara Henderson Bridge and other Hartford black mothers while taking a Trinity course with Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies Davarian Baldwin. Additionally, she describes her interest as “homegrown activism,” since she grew up in Hartford surrounded by black mothers who were invested in not only improving the life of their families, but of their communities. She said, “It is important to use black women as a primary lens to view society and to learn about America’s oppressive structure, including the forms of resistance created to navigate this life.”
Returning to Hartford to share her research with the Trinity and Hartford communities was meaningful to Miller. “I came home to where my interests and passions for American studies began,” she said. Miller expressed her desire to do well so she could “show the Trinity community and faculty that the education we receive at Trinity means something in the long run. It can lead into making a real impact in how we understand policing and black women’s resistance.” Also, Miller said, “I wanted to present the voices of those I’d interviewed in the Hartford community well and show them that their voices matter and I’m going to do my best to document them in a meaningful way.”
Assistant Professor of American Studies Christina Heatherton wanted to bring Miller back to Trinity’s campus both as an alumna of the American Studies Department and as someone doing research about Hartford. The event, Heatherton said, was partially designed so that Miller could present her findings to the Trinity community and to the broader Hartford community, including her interview subjects who had not yet heard her findings. “As much as we learn in the classrooms, our site of instruction begins at the borders where our college meets the city,” Heatherton said. “Trinity students need to understand the place they are located, the people they live amongst, and the history of struggle they exist within. As a scholar who hails from Hartford, an alumna of Trinity College, and someone deeply connected in life and scholarship to local struggles of black women, Channon Miller was an ideal interlocutor.”
Laura Lockwood, director of WGRAC, added, “Channon’s research is vital to residents of these communities and similar ones throughout the country. Without a deep understanding of institutionalized intersectional racism and sexism in this country, and thus in Hartford and Trinity, we cannot begin to comprehend the damage it has wrought or how to heal and rebuild communities.”
Written by Annelise Gilbert ’17