Professor Tracy Vaughn-Manley spent seven years at the Northwestern campus in Qatar (NU-Q). She teaches African American studies and quilts in her free time. Her colorful quilts have adorned the Department of African American Studies office, the Dittmar Memorial Gallery (twice!) and the frontpage photo for the New York Times’ 2015 interview with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Vaughn-Manley is back on the Evanston campus as a recent recipient of the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction award. We caught up with her to talk about her artistic pursuits and her experience at NU-Q.
I love every aspect of it. There is the initial part of the process when you are kind of planning the design, sometimes I know what exactly I want to do; there are other times when I don’t, but I have found a piece of fabric that I find inspirational. I have also done a quilt for the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. She was like, “You know, it’s been a while since I’ve had a quilt.” I asked if she wanted to schedule some time where she could see [my quilts] or anything like that. She said, “No, just do it.” Princeton gave her a celebration at the Lincoln Center in New York. President Clinton was there. We went on stage and I unraveled the quilt, and she got very emotional. It was a wonderful moment.
The benefits of having professors of color
I was a computer science major at California State University, San Bernardino, but I always took English courses. I enrolled in a course in my junior year on the Harlem Renaissance. On the first day, everyone was all kind of waiting for the professor to come in. This door opened, and this black woman walked in. It really was a transformative moment. She blew us all away. I remember being angry that I had reached this age of my life, and I never had a Black woman teach me. She walked with me to the registrar and I changed my major that day, and here we are.
In Qatar, because of religious laws, young women have to have permission from their fathers to go to school. They’re excited, they want to learn, they work hard, they read everything you give them. They were just so excited to have literature courses, it made me more than ever want to be excellent for them. I’m not saying I wasn’t before, but there is just a kind of renewed sense, and I love that.
Making the most out of college
I would recommend students be less focused on getting this degree to get a job. Take a class you may have just a remote interest in, allow yourself the luxury to do, and not be so focused on getting all your requirements. Indulge your curiosity – this is going to be one of the few opportunities that you have to do it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.