Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles, Celebrating Black Voices

Frederick Rethinks Conversation Around Blackness, Historicizes BC’s Black History

Throughout her 25 years at Boston College, Rhonda Frederick has watched the on-campus conversation about Blackness evolve, shaping her identity as well as her colleagues and students. Today, she said she prefers to describe Black identities as “fantastical” and believes discussions around Blackness should be approached with admiration and optimism rather than pity.

Historicizing the experience of BC’s Black students, faculty, and staff is one focus of Frederick’s work at BC. In the 2019–20 academic year, she curated the Black BC Walking Tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of BC’s African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) program. This tour is laid out on a website that showcases stories linked to different locations at BC and a timeline of Black history at the University. 

“To recognize a long-standing and durable presence at BC, that’s where my initial motivation came from,” said Frederick, an associate English professor. “Every part of BC has some kind of history, and I wanted to document that.”

When she is having conversations about the history of BC, Frederick said most of what she hears revolves around its Irish and working-class origins. She hopes the BC community will expand these perceptions about BC’s history to include everybody—that way, the University can embrace the many facets of its past and present.

Most members of the BC community do not know much about BC’s historical Black presence, but this does not mean it has not been prominent and impactful, Frederick said. This is why she wanted to memorialize events integral to BC’s history through the Black BC Walking Tour. 

“This is BC, not necessarily in the Black version, or the brown version, or the white version,” Frederick said. “It is part of the BC experience, so I wanted to raise that to, I guess, the general consciousness of the University.” 

Frederick said the most profoundly interesting detail she highlighted in the tour is the Black Talent Program, which led to the eventual creation of the Black studies department. 

The University started the Black Talent Program in 1968 as an attempt to recruit more Black students to attend BC, Frederick said. These students then ended up forming the Black studies program in 1969 and even took on administrative responsibilities within the newly created department. The Black Talent Program also advocated for BC administrators to hire more Black faculty members. Frederick said all of these events are outlined throughout different locations and dates on the Black BC Walking Tour, solidifying their importance in BC’s history.

“Students as activists on this campus really had touched very different parts of the University, and from my perspective, shaped the University in really progressive ways,” Frederick said. 

Beyond advocating for BC’s Black community through her work creating the tour, Frederick served as the AADS director from 2009 to 2014. 

During her time in the position, Frederick said her most proud moment was reviving the Blacks in Boston Conference. The Blacks in Boston Conference started under BC’s first Black studies director, Amanda V. Houston, but Frederick said the conference eventually faded out. By bringing it back in 2016, Frederick said she reinstated an important event at BC. 

“That was a regular conference that put BC on the map, in the city, but also nationally and internationally,” Frederick said. “We had very important folks participate in it.” 

Through efforts like the Blacks in Boston Conference or the Black BC Walking Tour, Frederick said she hopes to create an archive where Black history at BC is celebrated and memorialized. 

“I wanted the University and every member of the University to understand how Black students, faculty, and staff changed this institution,” Frederick said. “BC is BC because of the contributions of everybody, but this is a contribution that I think folks tend not to know.” 

Throughout her time teaching at BC, Frederick has also mentored many students and colleagues, including assistant professor Jovonna Jones, who said Frederick positively impacted her confidence and identity. 

“We’ve constantly been learning from each other, and I think that’s just made me feel settled here, confident, like I’m valued here, and like what I am bringing is valued here,” Jones said. 

According to Jones, one of Frederick’s greatest strengths is her creativity. She is both an artist and a creative thinker, and Jones said she optimizes these skills to help those around her.

“She has this creativity, plus these high standards, and encourages or guides students to feel like they can do the same thing,” Jones said. “Her strength is being able to share that creativity and pull it out of other people.” 

Frederick has used this creativity in her classes when discussing Blackness through the lens of fictional characters. As a professor in the English department, her classes focus on Black literature, and she has found that her perspective on Blackness has expanded as she continues to read different books following different Black characters. 

She illustrates the concept of Blackness as “fantastical” in her book, Evidence of Things Not Seen: Fantastical Blackness in Genre Fiction, which was published in July 2022. In this book, Frederick analyzes how Black people shape their identities.

“The ability of Black people to be able to be something other than what was prescribed is fantastical,” Frederick said. “That is a skillset, to be able to know oneself as not limited by oppressive circumstances.”

This perspective is important because it does not focus on the victimization of Black people, but instead highlights the ways in which Black people define themselves, Frederick said. 

Frederick exemplifies the lessons she teaches by demonstrating confidence in her identity, said Kristin Reed, BC’s assistant director of education and training initiatives and BC ’10. Frederick was a mentor for Kristin Reed when she attended BC, serving as her thesis advisor senior year. 

“She’s really incredible at being honest and authentic in her self-expression as a Black woman but also as an academic person, and she holds those together very well,” Reed said.

Frederick first connected with Reed as her mentor in the Benjamin E. Mays Mentoring Program at BC, a program providing support for AHANA, multiracial, and Options Through Education freshmen. 

Reed said Frederick gave a lot of practical guidance, but she also served as a role model for how to be a successful Black woman on campus.

“So, I think she modeled a lot for me, the kind of woman that I hope to be,” Reed said.

February 22, 2023