June at Virginia Tech is a time of reflection. The campus appears quiet, even as the Duck Pond gently laps its shores alongside Solitude, the oldest structure on campus, and the Fraction Family House, which honors the enslaved families who worked on the Solitude estate. 

But the university, much like the Duck Pond, has much happening beneath its surface. June, after all, encompasses Juneteenth. Held on June 19, the annual event recognizes the end of slavery in the United States and celebrates the culture and achievements of people of African descent. The occasion has also inspired the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences to create an academic project in its name — the Juneteenth Scholars Program.

As voices rise with spoken words around current-day social justice issues, the Juneteenth Scholars Program recognizes the importance of university scholarship in understanding connections between the Juneteenth holiday and contemporary struggles against institutional racism, the exposure of structural inequality, and support for vulnerable populations. 

The program, started in 2020 as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, provides encouragement and backing to early-career researchers who study topics related to inequity, emancipatory movements, structures of oppression, and institutional silences about violence. They champion the courage of activists and the need for systemic structural change in the United States and throughout the world. 

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences has named its 2021–22 cohort of faculty members from eight of its departments and schools.

Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, an assistant professor of sociology, will research Black feminism related to sports. She plans to collect literature in the fields of Black feminisms and the sociology of sport, as well as compile data from news and magazine articles featuring sportswomen for an upcoming book project.

Mauro Caraccioli, an assistant professor of political science and a core faculty in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT), conducts research on the racial hierarchy and political theology of the Spanish Empire. His work for the Juneteenth Scholars Program will involve an examination of two case studies. The first is on the political context of production for the Jesuit Alonso de Sandoval’s ethnographic study of African slavery, which details the early evangelization of African slaves into the Spanish Empire. The second traces the intellectual legacies of the Afro-Peruvian mystic Ursula de Jesus and the institutionalization of Black religious servants into Roman Catholic convents.

Bikrum Singh Gill, an assistant professor of political science and a core faculty member of ASPECT, will continue his research on the intersection of race, environmental justice, and political economy. He argues that a racialized naivety that involves the dehumanization of Indigenous and Black people informs the global economy. He will review the extent to which prominent contemporary ecological restoration projects either advance or work against anti-racist and decolonial futures.

Tameka Grimes, an assistant professor of counselor education in the School of Education, explores the impact of racial trauma on the schooling experiences of Black students from kindergarten through 12th grade in predominantly white rural communities. This research builds on her previous work on rural school counselors’ professional identity construction and their role in advocating for marginalized students.

For Rebecca Hester, an assistant professor in science, technology, and society, the focus will be on the relationship between racism and health in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided ample proof of the pathogenic entanglements between structural racism and public health. Her research examines how racism becomes embodied as chronic inflammation and then how that inflammation leads to chronic illness, an important predictor of death during the pandemic. Her research will inform a larger project on the contested terrain of who and what makes up “biological danger” in public and global health.

Javiera Jaque Hidalgo, an assistant professor of Spanish, analyzes the dynamics of Indigenous resistance in the context of funeral festivities in the colonial city of Santiago, Chile, in the 17th century. She focuses her attention on the political implications of confraternities, lay religious brotherhoods, or sodalities that were founded or participated in by Indigenous people of varied origins. She argues that these funeral rituals in colonial urban contexts give crucial information to understand past and present emancipatory Indigenous modes of resistance against colonial and postcolonial oppression.

Audrey Reeves, an assistant professor of political science and a core faculty member of ASPECT, will research the work of activists, artists, and curators involved in the project of “decolonizing” museums and memorials in the United States. Her research, which focuses on activism directed at heritage sites commemorating armed conflicts from World War II onward, looks at museums and world politics and considers the role of museum visits in shaping prevalent understandings of legitimate warfare.

Balbir K. Singh, an assistant professor of religion and culture and a core faculty member of ASPECT, will conduct research for a book she in writing on the visual culture, opacity, and the body politics of Muslims, Sikhs, and other minoritarian subjects under the rise of global Islamophobia and contemporary surveillance culture. As part of her Juneteenth Scholars project, she will study the politics of hair, race, nature, and the sacred through different sites of analysis, including The Crown (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, in combating hair-based discrimination. She will also examine the maintenance of long hair by diasporic Sikhs and Native peoples, as well as contemporary art by Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists who use hair as material in their work. 

Philip Yaure, an assistant professor of philosophy, will continue his work on Frederick Douglass’ Abolitionist Republicanism. He will complete a critical examination of Douglass’ account of American citizenship as the basis for a pluralistic, inclusive republicanism.

These scholars will receive funding for research conducted between July 1 to August 10 of this year. Each scholar will also receive the support of an undergraduate researcher, partly funded by the university’s Office for Inclusion and Diversity.

In addition, two Juneteenth Graduate Scholars have been named. Joining the college in the Fall 2021 semester will be Tamar Ballard in the Department of Sociology and Simple Rajrah in ASPECT. Both graduate students will support Juneteenth Faculty Scholar projects in the spring and summer of 2022.  

The college will invite the faculty scholars and the students to present their research at a college forum during the next academic year.

“We are incredibly pleased to recognize these outstanding scholars,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, “and we’re very proud of the Juneteenth Scholars Program, a potent example of our college’s commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Written by Leslie King