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ND's Erskine Peters Fellows flourish in doctoral work

Author: Arts and Letters


The work of Erskine A. Peters, professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Notre Dame, was as much ministry as scholarship. When he died of pneumonia, at the age of 49, his poetry was just beginning to attract the attention and appreciation it increasingly enjoys, but his kindly and authoritative mentorship of the fledgling writers and scholars among his students already was legendary. He was fond of quoting a Zulu aphorism: “It is danced, and a chance is given to others.”

A year after Peters’ death on March 9, 1998, the University established the Erskine A. Peters Dissertation Year Fellowship in his memory. The fellowship supports the work of outstanding African-American doctoral candidates in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The 2008-09 fellows show a bountiful and diverse yield on Peters’ legacy. Denise Challenger, a doctoral candidate in history at York University in Toronto, studies gender history, Caribbean history, British colonial history and the social history of medicine. The dissertation on which she is now at work, “Constructing the Colonial Moral Order,” concerns morality, sexuality, race and political power in Barbados from 1816 to 1897, when that island’s society underwent a transition from slavery to emancipation and full citizenship.

“As a Peters fellow, I continue to find my experience at Notre Dame to be rewarding,” Challenger said. “We have just completed professionalization seminars in preparation for the job
market. At these bi-weekly seminars, various faculty members met with us to review our CVs, cover letters and dissertation abstracts. Their feedback has been invaluable in helping me to best represent myself on paper, which is not as easy as it at first seems.”

Seth Markle, a doctoral candidate in history at New York University, studies African American history, back-to-Africa movements, black internationalism, civil rights and black power politics, anti-colonial nationalist movements, postcolonial state formation, and hip-hop culture in Africa. His dissertation, “‘We Are Not Tourists’: The Black Power Movement and the Making of Socialist Tanzania, 1964 to 1974,” examines the effects of the Tanzanian state on the ideologies, strategies, tactics, networks of solidarity and identity of the U.S. Black Power movement, many of whose members traveled to Tanzania during the 1960s and 1970s.

“One of the reasons I chose the Peters fellowship was its prestigious reputation,” Markle said. “In New York City, the cost of living on a graduate student stipend was nearly impossible, and I was working two extra jobs with little time to finish writing my dissertation. Although I’m still adjusting to the slow pace, the weather and the football culture, the faculty and staff at the Africana department have been amazing in their support of its fellows. Not only does this fellowship give me the much needed time, space and resources to complete my dissertation, it also provides professional workshops that have prepared me for going on the job market. It’s a great fellowship.”

Jessica Graham, a doctoral student in history at the University of Chicago, studies U.S. and Brazilian racial ideologies and national identity formation, the racial implications of state policy, culture in the African Diaspora and the racial dynamics of sport. Her dissertation, “Representations of Racial Democracy: State Cultural Policy, Race, and National Identity in the U.S. and Brazil, 1922 to 1945,” examines the evolution of nationalist rhetoric in both countries in relation to race and its mutual effects.

“The Peters Fellowship is something Notre Dame should be very proud of,” Graham said. “It has become one of the preeminent fellowships of its kind in the nation. Off the campus, the fellowship has created buzz among rising young African-American scholars, who were either previous Peters fellows or finalists. In fact, I applied for the fellowship because I knew past fellows and they spoke very favorably about the merits of the program and its workshops, the faculty, the Africana studies department, and the intellectual culture of the University at large. As a Peters fellow, I have not been disappointed and I find myself encouraging friends and colleagues to apply for the fellowship for these same reasons.”

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at on February 02, 2009.