Rutgers University graduate student Marlene Gaynair has reason to celebrate. She was just named a William Lyon Mackenzie King postdoctoral fellow for the 2021-2022 academic year at Harvard University. Every year this prestigious fellowship is awarded to just 2 fellows engaged in US-Canada comparative research and teaching. The fellowship provides an annual stipend, additional funding for research, and teaching opportunities. Gaynair's research focuses on the social, cultural, and digital histories of the modern Black Atlantic, with a focus on North America and the Caribbean. The Africana studies department had the privilege of asking Marlene a few questions about the important work she is doing. Undergraduate student and Africana studies website manager Izzy Mizell conducted an interview with Marlene.
Izzy: Hi Marlene! Congratulations on receiving the William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellowship. Can you give me a brief description of the fellowship itself?
Marlene: I received the 2021-22 The Canada Program at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs -- William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellowship. It is named after Mackenzie King, who was Canada's tenth Prime Minister, and the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history. He attended Harvard and earned an MA and Ph.D. there, and was John D. Rockefeller's close friend and advisor. However, his policies on immigration were problematic, since he wanted to preserve the white demographics of Canada. The website says "The endowment was established in 1967 following a campaign spearheaded by David Rockefeller, who wished to honor William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874–1950), a great friend of his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr." As a historian who studies race and immigration in Canada, I recognize how the Mackenzie King administration created policies to prohibit certain races and people from entering Canada. However, in 2021, I will be supported by a Mackenzie King endowment to continue my research in understanding the development of race and immigration policies shaped and influenced by political leaders in the twentieth century such as Mackenzie King and those after him.
Izzy: How does this fellowship help your research?
Marlene: My research which focuses on the social and cultural contributions of the Jamaican communities in Toronto and New York City uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine how both cities facilitated a particular notion of Jamaican diasporic identities. Comparative immigration histories, particularly those that examine understudied spaces, are especially important in that they highlight how the “local” differently shape similar communities unlike anywhere else in the world. By looking at the hybridized identities that Jamaican peoples create in Toronto and NYC disrupts the narrative of a monolithic Jamaican identity and challenges what it means to be Canadian or American in the twentieth century. I am fortunate that my research in Canadian Studies and the Black Atlantic is supported by the Canada Program at Harvard. As a Mackenzie King Fellow, I will be able to explore these ideas further as I develop my book proposal, and expand my digital humanities project titled Islands in the North. I want to go into the archives to find interviews, photographs, newspaper articles, music videos, flyers, and other pieces of culture read as "Black Caribbean" to map the West Indian communities in urban Canada and the United States. I really want to look at Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights and Little Jamaica in Toronto, as both West Indian communities are undergoing gentrification and closures due to the pandemic. We have to record and preserve our rich past before it disappears forever. The creation of this digital archive and project is an emancipatory effort to make our histories accessible to everyone and to center our lived experience.
Izzy: What are some of your future plans? Do you have any upcoming research?
Marlene: My future plans? To think about how to expand my digital history work and to join more collaborative projects with scholars and the people in our communities to tell the stories and histories that are typically ignored or marginalized. How can we utilize the technological tools at our disposal to create educational opportunities that can be shared locally and globally? How can we as academics and scholars return the love and intellectual labor that we ask our subjects and participants to share with us? I am still thinking about how this can work, especially in the digital space so we can learn and teach and share knowledge and understanding diasporically, you know?
Izzy: Amazing. Congratulations again on receiving such a prestigious fellowship! Thank you so much for your time and I wish you the best of luck with your future research.
Written by Izzy Mizell