An Interview with Kelisha B. Graves, Editor of “Nannie Helen Burroughs”

Kelisha B. Graves is the chief research, education, and programs officer at The Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Her research focuses on the global Africana experience with specific interest in education, intellectual history, and philosophy. The University of Notre Dame Press will publish her book Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959 in paperback in July 2022. She recently answered some of our questions about her research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I first got the idea to write this book around 2017/2018 after discovering Burroughs’s name mentioned in the footnote of a book I was reading.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?

Readers will discover a prodigiously gifted African American woman thinker who wrote and spoke about a broad range of issues and topics. I think many of the pieces about voting rights, equality, and justice will resonate with readers.

Kelisha B. Graves

How did you research this book?

I approached this project with an archeological mindset. My goal was to excavate Burroughs’s intellectual history from obscurity, to rescue her from oversight, and introduce her to the world in a new way. Much of the research was conducted using primary source documents from the Burroughs manuscript collection from the Library of Congress, newspapers, and books written by Burroughs. I took a qualitative methodological approach and sought to identify a broad range of writings that reflected the various dimensions of Burroughs’s thinking. After identifying the writings, I drew lines of continuity between them to understand how to best frame them in the book.

What did you learn while writing it?

I learned how incredibly gifted and intelligent Burroughs was. She was not only an institution-builder but a great writer and orator. Burroughs is part of a pantheon of great African American women doers and thinkers.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I always intended to compile a volume that reflected the depth and incredible breadth of Burroughs’s mind. The end result was a volume that included substantially more primary sources than I originally anticipated at the beginning.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

Rather than one person, there are a host of significant people. My parents, Kelvin and Carletta Graves, are the biggest influences in my life and work. I pursued teaching and education because of my parents. Also, I have always admired Coretta Scott King. My interest in Mrs. King’s life and work sparked a deeper and wider interest in the lives of unheralded historical African American women leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.

What is your writing schedule like?

Writing is a process. There are two phases for me: inspiration and inscription. First, there’s the inspiration phase, which is largely spontaneous. I’m prone to inspiration from a variety of sources. I surround myself with a lot of inputs which generates creativity and deep thought. I can be inspired by a line from a movie, a chapter in a book, or actors in a stage play. Finally, there’s the inscription or scribe phase—I can inscribe my thoughts in a word document proper, on the edge of a tissue, or a scrap of paper. My best focus occurs late at night. The majority of my book on Burroughs came to fruition in the “wee” hours.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

My advice would be simple: start. The first step to a book—is a sentence. Also, it’s important to understand where the gaps in the current literature are so that one can firmly articulate the value-add of one’s project.

Who would you like to read Nannie Helen Burroughs and why?

This book is appropriate for all audiences and will be of interest to anyone who desires to understand a critical period in American history wherein African American women carved out pathways for upward mobility and advancement.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I love this question! I’m prone to reading across genres and subjects. I’m a lateral reader, rather than a sequential reader. I tend to read lots of books concurrently. A sample of my reading list is the following:

  • My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi
  • Prey by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Fugitive Pedagogy by Jarvis Givens
  • Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha Blain
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s You Don’t Know Us Negroes edited by Henry Louis Gates and Genevieve West
  • The Next Africa by Jack Bright and Aubrey Hruby
  • US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik by Herman Cohen

What book or project are you working on next?

Two projects are at the top of mind for me. My next project resides at the nexus of education and the global Africana experience and brings together my interests in Africa and her people, the development of the African world, historically black colleges and universities, and sustainability. A longer term objective for me is a project on Coretta Scott King.

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