URI names Oklahoma professor Catherine John-Camara to lead Department of Africana Studies

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 30, 2021 – The University of Rhode Island has appointed Catherine John-Camara, Ph.D., an English professor at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in African American and Caribbean literature, chair of the nearly-year-old Department of Africana Studies. John-Camara started at URI in July.

John-Camara, who also served as interim chair of the English department at Oklahoma, will take over an interdisciplinary program that draws on arts, humanities and social sciences, and which was awarded departmental status in October 2020. The program was started in 1972 and was given a boost in the early 1990s with the hiring of renowned Black studies scholar, Cynthia Hamilton. Vanessa Wynder Quainoo, associate professor of Communication Studies and a longtime affiliate of the Africana Studies program, has overseen the program for the last decade, along with recently retired professor of Art and Africana Studies, Bob Dilworth.

“We are excited to welcome Professor John-Camara to URI’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Africana Studies Department,” said Jeannette Riley, dean of the College. “In addition to being an award-winning teacher, Professor John-Camara is an established scholar, and our students will benefit from her expertise in mid- to late-20th century African American and Afro-Caribbean literature and culture. Further, her administrative experience positions her to be an effective chair. I look forward to collaborating with Professor John-Camara and her colleagues to further the growth of Africana Studies at URI.”

John-Camara, who grew up in Boston after emigrating from Jamaica with her family as a teenager, was attracted to URI’s academic culture along with its emphasis on teaching and research. She also was attracted to the prospect of helping to shape the vision of an emerging Africana studies department.

“My mantra when I came to meet the URI community was that if Black lives matter, then Black studies is essential,” said John-Camara. “Black lives can’t matter if people don’t understand the positive visible and invisible impacts that Black people had and continue to have on society.”

“As I settle into the post, the most important things will be recrafting the curriculum; recruiting, cultivating and supporting students who major or minor in the discipline, and increasing the public knowledge about the validity of this degree in terms of both the soft skills and the hard skills,” she added. “It’s also important for each department, but specifically Black studies, to have a scholarly personality. I’m invested in helping to develop a scholarly personality that’s based on the strengths of the faculty as well as things that are unique and specific to Rhode Island and Rhode Island Black history.”

John-Camara was selected from a field of four finalists after a national search that attracted about two dozen candidates. A six-member search committee, comprised of representatives of College of Arts and Sciences departments affiliated with Africana Studies, identified nine candidates, who were interviewed in March. In April and May, four finalists – including three who visited campus – met with faculty, staff and community members connected to the new department, including members of campus organizations such as The Women of Color Network; the Faculty and Staff Association of the African Diaspora; the Talent Development program; the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity; the URI Honors Program, the Multicultural Student Services Center, and chairs of Arts and Sciences departments and programs.

“Our search yielded an impressive, diverse, and highly competitive field of applicants with regard to ethnicity, race, gender, and candidate qualifications and experience,” said Marcus Nevius, associate professor of history and chair of the search committee. “Within this context, Dr. John-Camara’s dossier was among the very best and most promising. She is an accomplished and current scholar in her fields of study, and brings deep experience in college department level administration from the University of Oklahoma.

“During the interview process, she consistently articulated a vision for the new Department of Africana Studies that promises collaboration and exciting new directions for students and faculty,” he added. “We anticipate her leadership to be characterized by intelligent advocacy for the new department and to be informed by careful attention to the concerns and ideas of students, faculty, and community members.”

At the University of Oklahoma, John-Camara was named assistant professor in 1998, and associate professor in 2004. She served as interim chair of English in 2013 and 2014, and as faculty-in-residence from 2017 to 2020. At Oklahoma, she designed and implemented courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels and pioneered two overseas study abroad programs to the Caribbean. She was also co-creator of the faculty and staff workshop on Unlearning Racism.

Her research and teaching focuses on African American and Afro-Caribbean literature, Black Atlantic and African diaspora cultural studies, French Caribbean literature, hip-hop studies, Black independent cinema, and postcolonial theory. She is the author of “Clear Word and Third Sight: Folk Groundings and Diasporic Consciousness in African Caribbean Writing” and the yet-to-be-published “Afro-Indigenization and Marasa Consciousness: A Theory of Grassroots Cultural Practice.” Her work has been disseminated in more than 30 scholarly articles, conference papers and invited presentations.

John-Camara earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Boston College, and her Ph.D. in literature with an emphasis in African diaspora literary and cultural studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz.