Francille Rusan Wilson is an associate professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California. An intellectual and labor historian, her current research examines the intersections between Black labor movements, Black social scientists, and Black women’s history during the Jim Crow era. Before taking part in the panel discussion for “How Have Women’s Protests Changed History?,” the first of a three-event Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County series, she stopped by the green room to discuss what’s hanging on her file cabinet, the author N.K. Jemisin, and the power of good advice.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Initially, I wanted to be a doctor like my dad. Then I thought, maybe I wasn’t so crazy about blood. Then I wanted to be a lawyer, so I shadowed a lawyer who was a friend of my father’s. And I discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, either. So then, I was going to be a Russian translator, but it was not going well in French in college, so that postponed that.
How did you jump to Russian translator?
I don’t know. It seemed exciting, and in school we did [model] UN. One year, I was the U.S., and one year I was Cuba. And it did seem exciting to be a translator at the UN or something like that. It’s one of those things that a kid growing up in the Midwest just thinks, you know, how can I get out of here?
What’s hanging on your refrigerator?
My refrigerator, especially right now that it’s on the fritz—things don’t stick to it. So, let me tell you about what’s on my file cabinet. I have a small poster that says “Say her name” and has a picture of Sandra Bland, from a film that was shown in February 2019 at USC. I have a bunch of magnets, including one from artist Jacob Lawrence of his “Migration” series. I have some of those sheets that you can make notes on—for what size the air conditioner filter is, and what kind of wine glasses we already have—and I have a magnet that has stamps of Black women gospel singers. It must be pretty old, because they cost 32 cents. They’re of Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I have a 50-year celebration of the Black student organization Ethos at Wellesley College, which I was a cofounder of.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever gotten?
My husband, I have to say, gets me some really great gifts from his travels. But I’ll say two. One is, I have a friend who, early in my career, my husband and I were in Nigeria and I got very sick, and I had my birthday in the hospital there. And since then, on my birthday no matter where he is in the world, he calls me to say happy birthday. That’s gone on for over 40 years. He’s more faithful, in some ways, than my own two sons. But the second-best gift is that I have a dear friend and colleague named Elsa Barkley Brown. She’s an amazing historian. And when I was trying to finish my book, she gave me three months of editing—a day or two a week for three months—and it was just lifesaving. I was so grateful. It was something I would never ask of anybody, and I appreciate it even more now.
Do you have a favorite local band or musician?
I feel like I’m stuck in the music I grew up with. When I was growing up in St. Louis, I had a friend who lived next door to Chuck Berry. And also, we lived in Maryland for many, and I became very fond of go-go music, which is very much a local D.C. thing. So, I would say Chuck Brown, who is the king of go-go.
What do you like to do to decompress?
I like to read mysteries. Especially mysteries that take me to another country or place. I also like to go to the ocean, which I don’t do often enough. Sometimes I don’t believe that I live near the ocean. The ocean really helps soothe me. My favorite beach is in Martha’s Vineyard. Walking along the beach in Oak Bluffs is my favorite thing to decompress; sometimes, I just get that walk in my mind’s eye. For me, it’s the light. The light is different there than it is on the West Coast somehow. I find it relaxing and stimulating at once.
What’s your favorite novel?
Beloved may be one of my all-time favorite novels, although every time I read it, I get something else from Toni Morrison. Right now, I’m really into the writer N.K. Jemison. I read The Fifth Season, and I’m halfway through the second book of the trilogy. I kind of just don’t want it to end. I don’t know whether to call it science fiction—it’s more like speculative fiction. She’s just created this whole world. More recently, I find her tweets to be very interesting. I think her mind is amazing.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I started college I was told students at Wellesley who went to public schools would start off at a little bit of a disadvantage than the students who had gone to boarding schools, but not to worry about it—that before the end of freshman year, you’d be totally caught up, and that you’d been chosen for a reason. I had a tough freshman year, and that advice made me feel like I could actually do the work. So I’d say, the best kinds of advice that I’ve gotten over the years has been encouraging, saying, you may make a mistake, you may not do well, but you have value.