“Politically, there are profound implications for critical studies of race and architecture,” says Syndey Jones ’15. In a year in which newsfeeds were full of young black men dead at the hands of the police, Jones’ English thesis, “Bodies Under Construction: Architectures of Pleasure and Whiteness in Chesnutt’s ‘Po Sandy,’” was especially apt. Her project examined how African American author, activist, and lawyer Charles W. Chesnutt embedded racialized tensions into architectural structures in his 1899 short story.
“For instance, one of the story’s characters, Po Sandy, having been transformed into a tree by a conjure woman, is brutally sawed into lumber for the plantation’s new kitchen,” says Jones. “Chesnutt makes literal the very real way that architecture has the power to consolidate—or perform violence on—certain bodies, and the rest of my work grew out of my attempt to work through the nuances and politics of his architectural vision.”
Though her source material was more than 100 years old, Jones’ work was also shaped by the events of today. She was inspired as much by her research as she was by the experiences she shared with fellow classmates.
“I would like to thank the Haverford BSU and Sons of Africa for organizing transportation to the Millions March in New York and coordinating countless on-campus events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “These conversations and experiences affected me deeply and certainly shaped my thinking on my thesis topic.”
How did you collaborate with your thesis advisor?
[Assistant Professor of English Lindsay] Reckson was incredibly helpful and supportive at every step of this process, from painstakingly and generously reading three full drafts to wading through an email full of my pun-laden title ideas to give me suggestions. I met with her every week, and her comments certainly shaped the direction and content of my thesis in deeply important ways. In fact, Professor Reckson recommended the critic whose ideas form a central foundation for my own work to me. Most importantly, Professor Reckson took my work seriously on its own terms, even when I didn’t, and helped to give me the confidence to engage my critics in a reciprocal academic conversation.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I was surprised by how intensely collaborative the thesis process was. When I declared as an English major, I dreaded the idea of picking a thesis topic; it seemed like the topic was supposed to be a culminating indicator of your interests and passions as an undergraduate, a kind of “academic spirit animal.” If you accidentally picked the stick insect of thesis topics, well, that was unfortunate. It would be your representative emblem, your Haverford mascot, and there was no going back. But looking back on my project, I believe now that my thesis was representative of my time at Haverford mostly in the sense that it was, in many important ways, not purely my own. Professor Reckson, the critics I engaged with—and, in several cases, emailed with—and my friends and family all shaped my work profoundly. I love that my thesis is the product of a community, and I know that the ability to think with, through, and against others will continue to be important for me.
The photo of Charles W. Chesnutt is courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.