Africana Research Center welcomes 2016-17 fellows

Penn State's Africana Research Center welcomed five fellows for the 2016-17 academic year on Aug. 22. Pictured, from left, are fellows Sarah Stefana Smith, Veronica Hicks, Laura Vrana and Olivenne Skinner. Absent from the photo is postdoctoral fellow Amira Rose Davis.  Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's Africana Research Center recently announced its three postdoctoral and two dissertation fellows for the 2016-17 year and held its orientation on Aug. 22. The program supports early career scholars and junior faculty who conduct research centered on or related to Africa and the African Diaspora and assists them in establishing themselves in academia.

The ARC Fellows are typically housed in departments within the College of the Liberal Arts. During their residency, fellows have opportunities to showcase their research and scholarship, as well as to engage with noted scholars in their respective fields. The fellows have no teaching or administrative responsibilities, allowing them undistracted time to focus on research and publication, as well as professional development. Each fellow is also matched with a mentor.

Two types of fellowships are available through the ARC: the postdoctoral fellowship and the Humanities Dissertation fellowship. The goal of this program is to support doctoral students at Penn State who have completed all but their dissertation and are researching topics related to Africa and the African Diaspora. Dissertation fellows also have no teaching or related duties.

For 2016-17, the Africana Research Center Fellows are:

Postdoctoral Fellows

Amira Rose Davis — Joint Postdoctoral Fellow of the Richards Civil War Era, College of the Liberal Arts
History, Johns Hopkins University, 2016

Amira Rose Davis received her doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2016. Her research interests include African-American gender history, sports, politics, and the history of black institutions. Her dissertation, “Watch What We Do: The Politics and Possibilities of Black Women’s Athletics, 1910-1970” examines the intellectual and institutional development of recreational, competitive and professional sporting opportunities for black women in the United States. In tracing the long history of black women’s athletic participation, this research explores the ways in which gendered power dynamics, particularly intra-racial ones, mediated black Americans’ engagement with athletics and physical culture. The study draws on a wide array of sources, including black newspapers, black college and university records, and oral histories. Her article, “No League of their Own: Baseball, Black Women and the Politics of Representation,” is forthcoming from the Radical History Review. She will spend her fellowship year completing follow-up oral history interviews, working on an article on black college protests in the 1920s, and revising her dissertation for publication.

Olivenne Skinner — Postdoctoral Fellow for Human Development and Family Studies, College of Health and Human Development
Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2014

Olivenne Skinner received her doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. Broadly, her research focuses on understanding how race and gender influence African-American youth’s development. She is also interested in understanding gender dynamics in African-American families, with an emphasis on mothers’ and fathers’ relationships with sons and daughters, and parents’ and adolescents’ gendered roles and their implications for youth’s interests, achievement and well-being. Over the past year, Skinner has worked under the mentorship of Susan McHale preparing manuscripts for publication and presenting at national conferences. During the upcoming year, she will continue to prepare manuscripts for publication and explore innovative ways to understand African-American families’ roles and functioning and their implications for adolescent’s development. Skinner is a 2016 participant of the CIC's Professorial Advancement Postdoctoral Program funded by the National Institute of Science.

Sarah Stefana Smith — Postdoctoral Fellow for African American Studies, College of the Liberal Arts
Social justice education, University of Toronto, 2016

Sarah Stefana Smith is a visual artist and scholar. She obtained her doctorate in social justice education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in June 2016. Her research communicates between the fields of black art and culture, queer theory and affect studies, visuality and aesthetics. Her dissertation, “Towards a Poetics of Bafflement” argues that black women and queer artists negotiate deeply dissatisfying forms of blackness and belonging. This negotiation, termed a ‘poetics of bafflement,’ is foregrounded by racial slavery and offers methodological tools to generate other possibilities for world making. She has lectured on women and the media, theories of feminism and visual culture at the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus. Smith was a recipient of an Art and Change Grant from the Leeway Foundation, Ontario Arts Council Grant, and the John Pavlis Fellowship as an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. She most recently was the recipient of the Bremen International Student Fellowship at the University of Bremen in 2013. Her article, “Appetites: Destabilizing the Notion of Normalcy and Deviance through the Work of Wangechi Mutu and Octavia Butler,” was published in Ruptures: Anti-colonial and Anti-Racist Feminist Theorizing. She will spend the year revising her manuscript for publication and writing two articles — one on bafflement and black visual art and the other on black affects. For more information, visit

2016-17 Dissertation Fellows

Veronica Hicks, dual doctorate in art education and Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (spring 2017)

Veronica Hicks explores relationships between art students and teachers who are labeled with triple jeopardy — a term referring to an individual who is black, disabled, and a woman. In a collaborative feminist art project, Veronica, a past triple jeopardy art student, and their illustrator are designing a narrative script and artwork for a co-authored graphic novel that is made by and for women of color labeled with disabilities. Veronica has been an invited lecturer for Penn State study abroad programs at Kwame Nkrumah University in Kumasi, Ghana, and at the Universität Wien in Vienna, Austria. Veronica is an active member of The Divas with Disabilities Project and was named a Global Ambassador for DWD in 2015. She received the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award in 2015-16 and was named a Penn State Africana Research Center dissertation fellow for 2016-17 due to her dissertation research on triple jeopardy art students

Laura Elizabeth Vrana, Department of English (fall 2016)

Laura Vrana is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and a University Graduate Fellow. She received her bachelor of arts from Yale University and her master of arts at Penn State. Her dissertation, "Writing Transgressions: Publication Contexts and the Politics of Recognition in Contemporary Black Women's Poetry," provides a literary history of post-Black-Arts-Movement black female poets and a framework for examining their texts that emphasizes the importance of literary prizes, academic institutions, and textual scholarship considerations to understanding the role of poetry in the broader landscape of contemporary African-American literature. She recently published an article on Evie Shockley's poetics in Obsidian and participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities institute on Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement, and she is at work on other projects that include explorations of poetry in American anti-lynching discourse from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

For more information about the Fellows Programs or the Africana Research Center, contact Nan Woodruff, interim fellows coordinator, at or visit

Last Updated August 25, 2016