A perspective from the ivory tower

SRU's first Frederick Douglass Institute Fellow reflects on identity and academia

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Growing up, Clitha Mason didn’t have an African American studies or African studies class until her late 30s. Now, she is teaching two courses at Slippery Rock University and its first Frederick Douglass Institute Fellow.

A Chicago native, Mason is currently working on her dissertation through Bowling Green University. Needing financial support to finish her dissertation and searching for opportunities for growth, Mason found support from a friend who was a scholar of color in the program.

The Frederick Douglass Scholar Fellowships provide teaching, mentoring and potential employment opportunities to universities committed to cultural diversity. According to its website for universities within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), “applicants from diverse cultural backgrounds, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, are encouraged to apply.”

“I resonated with that personally, morally, philosophically,” Mason said. “I needed what they provided, which was a stipend and opportunity to grow and learn and to continue to write my dissertation so that I can graduate so that I won’t be another person that doesn’t make it through a program or remains all but dissertation and never gets the Ph.D.”

Mason applied for seven different schools within the program and was approached by four. Ultimately, her research on each school’s missions, visions and initiatives drew her to Slippery Rock University.

“I want to contribute to this program and take what they’re doing already and make it better, make it grow, make it bigger, as well as use the program for my own personal support as an academic and a scholar with my own research and my own project.”

Growing up, Mason attended a Black Catholic school during the late ’60s and ’70s during the Black Power, Black Pride movements. In her early education, her schools did not have courses on Black history or culture.

“As a kid growing up in that environment, I did have a sense of beauty and pride and stuff like that and Black history, but from that point on, like really in high school and in college, I’ve never even seen the courses offered, much less was it included in any of the courses of the programs I was taking,” Mason said.

While she described herself as a liberal, artsy-type kid and trivia and popular American culture fan, she did not see cultural studies of an area of academic study until later in life.

“I didn’t think anything of [American cultural studies], but what I didn’t think was that it would ever become an academic study or something to pursue,” Mason said.

Mason spent over 20 years in the cosmetology and fashion industries. As a single mom, Mason also went to business school at Fayetteville State University, a historically Black university in North Carolina. At her time in business school, one of her final classes was a film class with Charles Tryon.

At this time, even though professors were urging her to pursue an MBA program, she decided on a change of focus.

“All I could think to myself was, ‘There’s no way you’re going to push me into a corporate American setting,'” Mason said. “Wanting to be in the corporate culture was never anything that was an interest for me. For me, I just thought it’d be easy to get a job and get my daughter grown up and everything and live and not be homeless and all these other struggles that we had to face.”

During her pursuit of cultural studies, Mason said she was more interested in examining films and filmmakers’ techniques, which was when she discovered gaps in the film industry, not only in production, but also in scholarship.

“That meant that there were very few Blacks, fewer Black Women, and so on and so forth,” Mason said. “All the marginalized and minority cultures were not showing up in cinematic studies or as great directors or having any significant contributions, other than acting to the field, and including teaching it.”

Then, Mason sought to fill that gap.

She became the first Black woman to graduate with a master’s degree from North Carolina State University’s film studies department. To Mason, this confirmed her theory of these gaps.

“No one was reaching out to recruit, but no one was turning you away, but no one way making it available,” Mason said. “It’s just assumed that that’s a white male thing, film studies and film production and stuff like that.”

As a professor, Mason views her perspective of academia from a variety of intersections, describing herself as a dark-skinned Black, fat and poor woman. At the same time, she states that a lot of people are not aware of disparities in culture.

“The classes or the people who I reach would rarely hear from a person that exists from my standpoint, because we’re not supposed to have been here. A fat girl, a poor girl, a Black girl, a former crack smoker, a single mom, a former homeless person or a person that was born and bred in the general American’s worst ghetto,” Mason said. “I’m not supposed to be here in the ivory tower giving you an opinion or teaching your white children these things that I have been omitted from the historical narrative, but I’m here.”

As the Frederick Douglass Institute Fellow at SRU, Mason teaches two courses: Intro to Gender Studies and Intro to Race and Ethnic Diversity. Both classes are housed in the nonprofit management, empowerment and diversity studies department, attracting students from a variety of academic disciplines.

In her gender studies course specifically, she teaches from an intersectional perspective, focusing away from whiteness and focusing instead on color, gender and disability, to name a few. In these courses, Mason talks about fatness, LGBTQ+ culture, sexuality, eating disorders, race and ethnicity, and class.

“All the things that get pushed to the margins,” Mason said. “I bring to the center and I push the mainstream and the dominant to the margins but that’s difficult to do because that’s why they’re dominant and mainstream. It’s a difficult course to navigate, and to get the students to participate in the ride with you, and it is a ride because I use so many mediums.”

As the first fellow through this institute at the university, Mason views the role as a big responsibility and takes it as such. She wants SRU’s program to be the best program, describing herself as a high overachiever.

“The nature of me is to be a pioneer, to be innovative,” Mason said. “I just think that I want the program to be different, but different in a better way, not to be better than the other programs but to be innovative, to take risks.”

Reflecting on her time at Slippery Rock, she specifically praised Dan Bauer, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Ursula Payne, the director of SRU’s Frederick Douglass Institute who is currently on sabbatical; and Alice Del Vecchio, assistant professor of interdisciplinary programs and the chair of Mason’s department.

“I’ve had great opportunities, and it’s been a very, very great welcoming opportunity to work at the school and environment,” Mason said.

Mason is going to advocate for another year in the program with the dean and provost as she feels that she couldn’t “get it done, do it justice in a semester and make everything work well.”

However, Mason said this experience has been overwhelming and could be better designed.

“I hope my contribution and the information I share becomes a way to make the program even better for the next person,” Mason said, specifically suggesting to add more than one fellow at a time or extend the program because “it’s just overwhelming.”

Looking forward, Mason’s biggest plan is to be on track to finish her dissertation by December. Ultimately, she wants to return to get a master’s degree in librarianship, as she is interested in archives, museums, galleries and cultural institutions.

In terms of the pandemic overall, Mason emphasized that while we should hopefully all be paying more attention to ourselves, our health and our mental health, people who have already suffered traumas—especially women, people of color, marginalized groups and homeless students—are likely feeling the impact more.

“We need our allies to be there for us and to continue to speak when we can’t on anti-racism in this country and closing some of these disparities and gaps that should be, that don’t have to be, that only exist because people are different,” Mason said.

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Hannah is a senior secondary English education major and communication minor entering her third year on The Rocket staff and her second year as editor-in-chief. Previously, she served as assistant news editor and covered Student Government Association affairs. After graduation, she hopes to teach English, communications and journalism to high school students. Hannah has won numerous awards for her writing and design work with The Rocket and was named SRU's Student Leader of the Year in 2020. Outside of The Rocket, Hannah is also part of WSRU-TV, Sigma Tau Delta and the Honors College.

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