Celebrating 75 Years of Fulbright Stories
In celebration of the Fulbright program’s 75th Anniversary, we are looking back at experiences of Fulbrighters, which span decades and generations. This fall, FA’s Assistant Director for Philanthropy Claire Jagla interviewed two Fulbright alumni with intertwining fields of study, the anti-colonial movement and the anti-apartheid movement, and a 40-year difference between their grant years.
Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim grew up in New York. In 1975, she traveled to Nigeria on a Fulbright grant, studying African history and the experiences of African women under colonialism. She now serves as Provost and Senior VP of Academic Affairs at Dominican University.
Dr. Jonathan Freeman grew up in Memphis, Kansas City, and the Mississippi Delta. He traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright grant in 2016-17 to advance his research on protest music and the anti-apartheid boycott movement. He now works as an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Baltimore.
The two scholars shared about their experiences on the African continent, their collective musical background, the changes they’ve observed in their respective Fulbright destinations, and the knowledge they gained for themselves from their travels.
JAGLA: Can you tell me both where you are calling in from today?
FREEMAN: Baltimore, Maryland.
JOHNSON-ODIM: Evanston, Illinois, right outside of Chicago.
JAGLA: So, when did your Fulbrights take place? What were you expecting to learn when you left and what did you end up learning?
FREEMAN: I completed my Fulbright in 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the University of the Witwatersrand. My project at the time was investigating the role of protest music during the anti-apartheid movement, particularly during the 70s and 80s.
JOHNSON-ODIM: My Fulbright was long ago; it was 1975-76. It was in Nigeria. I was affiliated with the Institute of African Studies at University of Ibadan. I went to look at the role of women in the anti-colonial struggle.
JAGLA: I noticed from reading about the both of you that you had a musical childhood: there was a strong influence by music early in life for you. Johnathan, can you talk about that? Were you a musician as a kid, or were you just listening to absorb this music? What was your cultural connection to it?
FREEMAN: Throughout junior high school and high school I was in the band. As early as the fourth grade I played the violin for a year. It wasn’t until 2001, when we relocated to Mississippi from Missouri that I joined the band to play trumpet, [which I played] throughout my entire junior high and high school up until senior year when I was move to French Horn.
JAGLA: Cheryl, I read that you sang on a radio show with Harry Belafonte as a kid. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how that impacted your understanding of the world?
JOHNSON-ODIM: Actually, it wasn’t a radio show, it was an album: The Streets I Have Walked, and it was the voices of children singing songs from around the world with him. At the time, Harry Belafonte, who had long been engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle, was supporting a troop of South African dancers that were then called the South African Boot Dancers, who were going all around the United States and performing to raise money for the anti-apartheid struggle. [We met] in New York, which is where I grew up. Harry Belafonte went out of his way to talk about apartheid. I was 12 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever heard of apartheid.
JAGLA: Jonathan, one of the things that I read in your course of study was this concept of “protest music,” which I think you’ve touched on, Cheryl, as well. Can you share a little bit more about that Jonathan? What is this “protest music”?
FREEMAN: So, primarily during the 70s and 80s, which is the period that I focused on, there were many artists that collaborated with one another to make protest music in protest of apartheid in South Africa. What was most fascinating about the use of protest music is that music is a universal language. I don’t know a person that’s walking the Earth right now that does not listen to some form of music. Those songs for a lot of it were a rallying cry in terms of “these are the conditions in which black people in South Africa are having to live under.” Protest music was a key way of being able to get the word out.
JAGLA: I noticed when I was reading your blog that one of the things that stood out to me is that you were in South Africa during the 2016 presidential election. How did it influence your Fulbright experience overall?
FREEMAN: Yes, it was quite an experience. Everywhere that I went, whether I was in a car, in an Uber, or at a restaurant, [I was asked] “What did I think about Hillary Clinton, what do I think about Donald Trump?” It just made me realize, or it rather reaffirmed [for me], that although our election cycles are very polarizing, the world was literally watching. I remember speaking with a group of high school students at Phomolong Secondary School in Tembisa, a township outside of Johannesburg, in February 2017. I was invited on behalf of the U.S. Consulate to give a talk on the work that I was doing there. Quite a few of them had questions on American politics and policies. It was amazing to see how engaged they were not just on a national awareness, but a global awareness of what’s occurring throughout the globe and particularly in the West.
JAGLA: Cheryl, what was your experience with talking about global things in Nigeria 40 years before? What were conversations that you had with people? What was going on? What was important during that time?
JOHNSON-ODIM: I was in Nigeria when Soweto happened in 1976. You know, so that was like a fulcrum to show me [what was happening] both in the United States and in Nigeria, but [also] in Africa more broadly.
One of the things that was interesting to me was that people in Nigeria knew so much more about what was going on in the world than people in the United States. I even found out that publications like Time Magazine and others had an international version, and then a version for the United States. In the international version, [they talk] about things with which most Americans will be totally unfamiliar. So, I found myself able to talk to average Nigerians about things that were happening.
People in Nigeria [were acting] in a very anti-American way because they saw the United States as a supporter of apartheid, which in fact it was, so no lie there. They didn’t target individual Americans but certainly I had conversations with people who lashed out at the United States or its international policies, and Soweto was a real vehicle for that.
The only other thing that happened while I was there which was very interesting [was that] there was a major women’s conference in the United States in 1976 and a number of African women from the university with whom I was associated attended it. They came back terribly disappointed saying basically [that] feminists in the United States and Western feminists in general, in their observations, were just completely unaware of the important role of racism and colonialism in the women question. What they [white Western feminists] identified as the ultimate enemy was patriarchy with so little understanding of the intersectionality of the experiences of Black women in the United States and African women.
A number of African women wrote and said the conference was caca, basically. In effect it was totally deaf to the experiences of most women around the world.
JAGLA: Thanks for sharing that. In terms of this situation changing at all for women in Nigeria over the last 40 years, has there been advancement of any sort, Cheryl?
JOHNSON-ODIM: Yes and no. [Imagine] a line going straight up to show progress. Progress hasn’t been like that; it’s been more like an undulating line. So, it has gone up and it has come down, come down, gone up, and come down. Now, each downward turn is perhaps going a little bit higher. I think there has been some change in Africa, not just in Nigeria, but I think that it’s true of the position of women all over the world: that we are still very much engaged in a struggle about gender equality. Nigeria is part of that struggle that the world is undergoing at this point. But also, there has never been a woman president of the United States. I believe it is nine different African countries who have had female presidents or leaders. So that says something about change.
JAGLA: Jonathan, knowing that your Fulbright was five years ago, there are probably fewer changes, but are there things that you’ve heard have changed in South Africa since you were there?
FREEMAN: I was there when Jacob Zuma was in office as President of South Africa and there’s a lot of corruption in South Africa, up to the executive level. His presidency was riddled with corruption, and I know since then they’ve elected a new president.
Also, while I was there for the first maybe two and a half months or so, I lived on campus at The University of the Witwatersrand or Wits for short. The week after I arrived at Wits, the FeesMustFall movement [started, so] there were student protests. That campus essentially turned into a police state. I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a space like that, not even in the US, even back in 2014 and 2015, where incidences of racism were breaking out of colleges and universities all over the country.
[It was] not only a direct result of capitalism in South Africa, but also with the legacy of apartheid. It has to do with people in the 21st century in South Africa still not being able to have access to higher education, having access to the funds that they need to complete their academic studies. I was able to have conversations with students about “So, what’s going on here?”
JAGLA: What are your hopes for the future of this movement and the anti-apartheid movement, what are your hopes for the future of students in South Africa? What you want for them? What do they want for themselves? Can you give a little voice to that?
FREEMAN: Absolutely. South Africa is a young nation. My hope is that more adults my age, Millennials and Generation Z, take the helm and fight for what is rightfully theirs, what they deserve: basic rights to an education, to resources, to access to capital, to housing. My hope is that in my lifetime, I’ll be able to see that happen for South Africa, and for the betterment of not just Black people there but for all people there.
JAGLA: It sounds like you both have a lot of wisdom insight to offer in terms of understanding Africa-United States relationships. I wondered if you had any messages for your fellow Fulbrighters about your work, why this is important, or anything at all you would like to share with them?
FREEMAN: Sure, I’ll start. These are issues that are not just central to South Africans Black, white, or anyone else in between. These are global issues; there are parallels that I could draw from the United States but [also to] other parts of the globe as well. I tell my students all the time, everything that has happened tends to happen again, so there are going to be, unfortunately, more issues: issues that have gone unchecked and unresolved.
I just like to say: be mindful of [to] what you can bring your impact, be solution oriented, be agile. [My] experience just really opened my eyes to how strong I am as a person. Be open to working with other people across differences. Don’t run away from a challenge regardless of how difficult it is, because there’s always a way to tackle it, and it could be one that just the smallest idea of going about it. I’ll leave it at that.
JOHNSON-ODIM: I’ve heard people say that [you learn] as much or more about yourself from travel, as you do about any place to which you travel. I think that in order for that to be truly accurate, you have to keep an open mind; you have to recognize that knowledge flows in both directions. You don’t just go to take knowledge to people, but you go to get knowledge from them. I think the Fulbright Program is one of the great federal programs, because it is really by meeting people and going places that we begin to understand ourselves as part of the world.
I really advise people to keep a journal. I think keeping a journal is really helpful to make you reflect and think, even while you’re still there. Even when you come back to write about the experience, [you’ll] know what it felt like to be some places, what it felt like to interact with other environments and other people.
Perhaps last but not least, [I] encourage particularly underrepresented communities to apply [to Fulbright] and to realize that this kind of an opportunity is available for them to take.
Fulbright Interns Samuel Lachance and Nathan Vince contributed to this piece.
Photo 1: Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim
Photo 2: Dr. Jonathan Freeman and students in South Africa
Photo 3: Dr. Cheryl John-Odim and friends in Nigeria
Photo 4: Dr. Jonathan Freeman in Braamfontein, South Africa