You know middle school. A rough experience of growth, blossoming adolescent hormones and angst, and learning to navigate the complex maps of this messy new societal experience. For Halee Robinson, this universal middle school challenge was coupled with a complex twist: her father was joining her life and family for the first time. As if this wasn't enough for a middle school Halee to piece together into a cohesive, successful experience, there's another twist. Halee's father is Black, and her mother is white. Which means that Halee had grown up as a biracial child in McKinney, Texas, with a clear marker of difference - her skin color - but with no previous support from a Black community or exposure to Black culture.
Halee's hometown of McKinney is a city with roughly 150,000 inhabitants and three major high schools. It's also around 60% white, 20% Hispanic and 12% Black. Up through her senior year in AP classes at McKinney North High School, Halee was often one of the only, if not the only, Black face in the classroom. And up until sixth grade, she had to live that experience without the connection of a Black community or parent who could understand or empathize.
I asked Halee how her exploration of her Black identity was impacted once her father (and his extended family and community -- they started going to a Black church) was there. She's quick to correct me, "It wasn't so much an exploration of my Black identity as a rejection of it," she emphasizes. In school, most people just want to fit in, and with skin color as a visible marker of difference, it's understandable that she didn't need any more uncertainty to deal with in her life. The rejection of her Blackness was a self-preservation mechanism. One can only deal with so much life change and chaos at a time. Of course, this isn’t the end of the story.
Halee's a junior in the Class of 2019 at Vanderbilt University. She's majoring in History and Political Science, and this summer she's doing research surrounding the lives of Black women before and after emancipation. Halee writes about her research at shatteringsilences.wordpress.com, which was where I first started reading about it. I knew Halee from our first semester at Vanderbilt freshman year when we were both enrolled in a Sex and Society class, and I knew I had to hear more about her research and her story.
We sat down for coffee on a beautiful day in late June and dove right in. Halee's research largely surrounds the story of a woman named Savanna McGavock Carter. You can read a synopsis of her research project here, but suffice it to say that Halee's quest is to give voices to those whose narratives have been marginalized by white power structures (specifically slavery and post-emancipation oppression). Susanna McGavock Carter is one of those women whose stories have been erased and shrouded in myth, and Halee’s on a quest to give her a voice and discover her true story. Halee's also interested in how sexual violence affected Black women and men during slavery and post-emancipation. I wanted to know the story of how Halee ended up doing this research with her advisor Brandon Byrd, and like all stories, this one is complex.
At first, Halee thought she was going to be an English major. She's always loved reading, and like most prolific middle school readers, she found a start in the Twilight and Rick Riordan books. Eventually, young adult fiction became a consistent staple -- one that she still consistently enjoys. She also loves Shakespeare, and these loves would carry her into the path of an English major. She didn't rule out her love for history though, and Halee credits her AP US History teacher with helping her forge the skills related to this other potential future major. While she's taken several English classes at Vanderbilt, it was the two classes surrounding topics of African American History with her future advisor Brandon Byrd that finally pushed her to walk into the Arts & Science administration office in Buttrick Hall and declare that major in History. United States History, even at the Advanced Placement level, marginalizes the stories of non-white groups, and Halee set out to tell those stories. And along the way, it became a way to explore her own story and Black identity.
Before Vandy, Halee more or less rejected her Blackness as a self preservation mechanism. When she got to Vandy for her first year though, it was a different world than McKinney, Texas. "People were publicly recognizing and embracing their Blackness," and the presence of strong Black organizations like the Black Students Association and cultural communities like "Black Vandy" helped Halee embrace and begin to explore her own Black identity. Although she has never been a direct member of these groups, their public pride in their Blackness was contagious and inspiring.
Coincidentally, the hit hip-hop musical Hamilton was becoming a cultural phenomenon around the same time Halee began to further delve into and explore her Blackness. She had never liked hip-hop. (In fact, she has memories of being upset with her father for playing rap music in the car and telling her mother about it). But this new Hamilton thing, this was different. It was a wonderfully composed historical musical, right up the alley for a history major and former high school choir enthusiast. Well, you know what they say, Hamilton is a gateway musical to hip-hop and further exploration of your own racial identity. I'm not sure if anyone actually says that, but in this case it's entirely true. Hamilton opened the world of Tupac and Kendrick Lamar to Halee, and rap became a new space for Halee to interact with race. And, just as importantly, it became a topic of mutual interest for her and her father.
As Halee was exploring this world of racial identity, she was also applying to work for the summer as an undergraduate summer researcher at the behest of Professor Byrd, her History major advisor. When she was accepted into the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program, her research giving a voice to the marginalized Black voices of history also metamorphosed into another chance to discover her own voice. After undergrad, Halee wants to get her Ph.D in history and continue to research the stories of Black women around the emancipation period. She hopes to eventually work at the National Archives.
Halee is accomplished, like almost every Vanderbilt student. But what sets her apart is her obvious curiosity, willingness to engage in conversation about any topic (we talked nonstop for two hours and could've easily talked for two more), and her combination of vulnerability and self awareness. Halee has an understanding of her own story that's rare to see at any age, let alone for a college undergraduate. I think Halee's story is a superb example of the complexity of human experience; often, we simplify identities and stories so we can categorize them. This is a natural human habit - it helps our minds keep track of information without constantly overloading. There's beauty in stepping back and complicating these stories, though. When we do, we almost always learn something that has been left unsaid.
You can learn more about Halee's research project and read her updates at shatteringsilences.wordpress.com.