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Professor Dagmawi Woubshet Featured in Penn Today

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Through first-year seminar, a glimpse of Black queer traditions

Dagmawi Woubshet, an associate professor of English, led a new first-year seminar in the fall that explores Black queer media and its intersection with history and politics.

Stepping into his Black Queer Traditions class, Dagmawi Woubshet says, feels like entering a concert hall. He can feel the murmur of an orchestra tuning, as students laugh and talk and bond at a time of morning often suited to sleeping, ready to be swept away in the ensuing discussion of luminaries like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Barry Jenkins, and more.

“I wish I’d had this class when I was a freshman,” says Woubshet.

Woubshet, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Associate Professor of English, taught the first-year seminar Black Queer Traditions for the first time in the fall 2023 semester, supported by a First-Year Seminar Grant from The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation and the College of Arts & Sciences. Woubshet led a group of 15 students in discussions surrounding Black queer literature, art, and politics, ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to works of the present—one as recent as “Fat Ham,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that reimagines Hamlet through the lens of a young queer Black man, written by James Ijames and staged at Center City’s Wilma Theater in December.

“Traditions,” he says, was a keyword when coming up with the course.
“The plural, ‘Traditions,’ was a way to signal, or a different way of arriving at or constructing, what constitutes a rich and diverse set of Black queer experience and art,” Woubshet explains. “Sure, a figure like James Baldwin or Audre Lorde will be there no matter how you draw up a course like this, but other figures we consider like Gladys Bentley may not be in the foreground. Like all courses, of course, this one has its own limitations. It doesn’t include a comparative element, for example, and leaves out an even more expansive repertoire.”

The idea: There is no singular Black queer tradition, but a chorus. And while the course focuses on African American queer traditions, there also exists a Black queer tradition of the African diaspora.

But the notion of traditions remains one of significance, all the same. He notes that queer people “graft ourselves onto a larger political history like Stonewall or the AIDS crisis, or onto people like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, and others as our forebears,” and becomes a way of thinking about genealogy. Meanwhile, traditions are alive and iterate constantly. To illustrate this, Woubshet led the class on a tour of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, where they explored Giovani’s Room, the first LGBT bookstore in the U.S.; the William Way LGBT Community Center; and three murals depicting the first African American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke, yes, but also Lil Nas X.

“This is one way, a local, immediate, tangible way, for them to see themselves in a larger tapestry,” Woubshet says.

There are also, of course, elements of history: Students learned about the queerness of the early stages of the blues music genre and queer contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. Students are encouraged to think about these traditions and histories through their own worldview.

“These are students who, sure, they may not be well-versed in the art and history of this tradition, but they know how to think about matters of sexuality with such insight and also think about intersectional politics with such incisiveness,” says Woubshet. “And in part that’s because our public vocabulary has shifted and an idea or word like intersectionality has become a kind of lingua franca for thinking about identity matters, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago.”

The course is also, frankly, possible in a way that it might not have been not so long ago.

“It’s such a different generation of students now,” says Woubshet. “I knew this course would have immediate appeal compared to when I started teaching 17 years ago.”

It was also made possible through support from The Sachs Program, which supplied funds for students to tour Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, purchase books from Giovani’s Room, and see a performance of “Fat Ham.”

“[Professor Woubshet’s] class exemplifies the innovative approach behind First-Year Seminar Grants, a collaborative initiative with the College of Arts & Sciences: providing real world experiences on critical social issues and movements, with the arts serving as a platform for stepping outside the classroom and exploring the intersectional and historical arc of, in this case, Black queer life, art and culture,” says Chloe Reison, associate director of The Sachs Program. “Such intimate and inter-personal experiences exemplify the many first-year seminars we have been able to support.”

Truth Woods, a first-year student from Washington, D.C., studying psychology and on a pre-med track, says it was refreshing to have a space to discuss Black queer voices not as a footnote, but as a central focus.

“I feel like I’m usually not super interested in history, but all the readings, I found myself really invested in what they were talking about, and specifically when we started getting into Audre Lorde and her poetry, that resonated with me as a Black female lost voice,” Woods says. “It resonated with me to talk about pieces on the power of transforming silence into language … Her talking about how silence can be dangerous for people in that identity, and using your voice can only help you and not harm you, that resonated with me a lot.”

Woods says they also learned from peers and gained a “broader perspective” from them. Woods was also thrilled to have Woubshet as a professor who was “open, welcoming, and kind in the space he sets.

“I think that’s really important to create a space of engagement and actual interest in what we’re learning, because it’s hard not to be focused and actually invested when he’s also showing you he’s very invested in the content, and you, and the grasping of the content,” Woods says.

Woubshet hopes the next iteration of the course will be able to expand into more of the diaspora. He’s also conducted archival work recently at William Way and uncovered local materials to be incorporated into the syllabus.