Haverford Heritage: Four Questions for Diamond Howell-Shields

As Haverford celebrates Black History Month, we asked members of our community to share what their heritage means to them.

In this installment, Dr. Howell-Shields, director of the Race and Ethnicity Education Office, discusses persistence, versatility, and why grandparents are her favorite people.

Hi, Diamond. To start, can you tell us, from your perspective, what it means to be Black?
That question is vastly interesting because it’s all that I know, so it’s cool to have a second to sit down and think about it. I think if I were given the choice to pick what ethnicity, what culture I was, I would always pick being Black. So, that’s one of the best parts about it. 

For me, a lot of adjectives come to mind when you think about what it means to be Black, or what Blackness is. Some of them are persistence, community, and family, whether that’s a chosen family or how you construct it, such as close friends or neighbors who are part of your family.

It also means crafting a lineage, especially in the United States, for those of us who don’t know where our peoples may be from. That means crafting histories and lineages that work for us, that show us our legacies and our strength here in the United States.

So, it’s not really a full answer, but for me, being Black, it’s everything. It’s just ingrained in who I am.

What’s one thing about being Black that’s especially important to you?
For me, it would be versatility. That’s versatility in our hair, versatility in the way that we choose to dress, versatility in the various cuisines that fall into the category of what Black cuisine would be, epistemological frames of thought, and theoretical understandings of self. Versatility is definitely the adjective that comes to mind, as well as persistence and grit. 

I think that we all know that Black peoples have had various barriers and struggles lauded against them for a very, very long time. In spite of all of these things, we figure out ways to flourish and push those barriers down to blaze trails for those who are coming after us. 

In what ways do you manifest or express your identity as a Black person at Haverford, if at all?
I think that’s a great question. Just being here is how I do that is my easy answer. 

One of the most interesting things about being at a primarily white institution, as a student and now as a staff member, is giving permission to myself and the students I want to support to take up space and to push for changes in rules and regulations that will allow ourselves to be seen is really, really important to me. 

One of the ways that I put that forth on campus is just showing up to spaces unapologetically myself, often as a voice of understanding and listening, and sometimes as a voice of dissent and change, hopeful for different things coming to light and fruition in the future. I think, honestly, just being here is enough because, phenotypically, people can see that I’m something, and that sends a message in and of itself.

Is there a Black historical figure, author, artist, or celebrity who inspires you in your personal or professional life?
This one’s a hard one. 

Immediately, a Black person or Black people who inspire me are my grandparents. They raised me. They’re both from the South, both children of sharecroppers, which was continued enslavement. They made a lot of progress, sacrifices, and commitments for my brother and me so we could live lives in which we could flourish.

But if I were to land on a celebrity, I’d probably say Tracee Ellis Ross. Her hair is always taking up space, and it’s unapologetically Black. Maybe that’s also because I grew up, since I lived with my grandparents, listening to a lot of Diana Ross, and so now she’s my generation’s link to that. The way that she acts is just beautiful. Her messages and philanthropy are beautiful. Her haircare line really caters to curly hair and tries to make sure that people feel beautiful and their hair is moisturized and catered to.

I’m sure there are other celebrities that would come to mind, but for me, it’s really about the lessons, and love, and craft, and dedication that my grandparents put into me. They’re kind of my celebrities, and I often say that grandparents are my favorite humans. They’re really, really special relationships to be able to have. I also had the chance to know my great-grandparents. 

Knowing those connections and histories of peoples who have come before me is what guides my life.