#MAKEITHAPPENDr. Marcia Chatelain, Historian & Professor of African American Studies
Dr. Chatelain is a renowned academic—currently a Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University—and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In 2020, she wrote Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which examines the intersection of the post-1968 civil rights struggle and the rise of the fast food industrial complex.
We spoke with Dr. Chatelain about the significance of Black History Month—now and going forward.
For me, Black History Month is an invitation to rethink the ways that American history has been told, and an opportunity to discover the people and moments that aren’t always taught in school. As its evolved through the 20th century, it is a means of not only telling a fuller story of the past, but it is an essential to solving the most daunting problems of the moment.
Black History Month programming on television, at community venues, and educational sites presents a nuanced and dynamic view into Black history and culture, and the sources—the books, the documentaries, the music, the dance, and the art—that these programs draw from are such a beautiful representation of the complicated histories of struggle and beauty.
Your book Franchise won the Pulitzer Prize. Can you share with us what you hope your readers will come away with an understanding of?
In my book Franchise, I bring together two seemingly disparate, but definitely intertwined histories—the direction that the U.S. civil rights movement took after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the rise of the fast-food industry in communities of color. The connective tissue between these two moments is in the question of what role business and the marketplace have in facilitating the process of social change. I want my book to service as a cautionary tale about how racial justice campaigns collide with corporations and the longstanding effects of these relationships.
History provides us the tools to reflect on past failures, recognize structures of oppression, while also celebrating the incredible survival instincts of individuals and communities. There is hope and inspiration to be found in the scores of people who saw a problem and tried to solve it, sometimes failed, and returned to the challenges ahead of them with new strategies, more allies, and greater confidence in their newfound wisdom.
You've been recognized by the Harry S. Truman Foundation as a distinguished public service leader. What does being a leader mean to you?
For me, leadership is about recognizing what we have to offer others and being open to receiving what others have to offer us. I believe that what makes for good leadership is to be a person in a position of authority or influence who uses one’s power to be in service to others. You can’t have great leadership without a spirit of service, and as you grow in your service commitments, your leadership skills develop. The intertwined nature of leadership and service have always guided my decisions!
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