Dr. Sherita L. Johnson is an associate professor of English at The University of Southern Mississippi, where she specializes in 19th-century African-American Literature, black women writers, Jim Crow literature and cultural studies. She has also taught study abroad courses of Caribbean literature in Jamaica with USM’s International Programs. Johnson is the author of Black Women in New South Literature and Culture (Routledge, 2010), and she has served as guest editor of The Southern Quarterly for two themed-issues: "'My Southern Home': The Lives and Literature of 19th-Century Southern Black Writers" (Spring 2008) and “Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary” (Fall 2014). For her current project, Johnson is examining “the negro problem” in light of early developments of a civil rights movement, race literature and the culture of segregation. Since 2011, she has served as the director of the Center for Black Studies at Southern Miss. Johnson took a few moments to reflect on her professional career and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.
Q: What is your hometown and educational background?
A: Gainesville, Alabama; B.A. (Alabama State University), M.A. and Ph.D. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Q: How many years have you been with Southern Miss and where did you work prior to joining the University?
A: I arrived in South Mississippi in August 2005, started working at Southern Miss just two weeks before Katrina! Prior to this time, I’d been in grad school in Illinois.
Q: What influenced your interest in English, specifically African-American Literature, for you to choose a career in it?
A: I have always loved literature, and I knew I wanted to be an English professor by my sophomore year in college. I was introduced to 19th-century African-American writers in grad school and chose it as a special field of interest for my research and teaching.
Q: As a scholar of African-American Literature and with February being Black History Month, how do you plan to celebrate and teach others about black achievement, whether it be through lessons plans, presentations, etc.?
A: All of the above! I’m teaching grad and undergraduate courses in African-American Literature, especially highlighting the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass as a prolific writer and activist. I am also delivering a “Lunch and Learn” lecture on the Gulf Park campus Feb. 23 on black writers during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877).
Q: Who is your favorite author and why?
A: Too many to choose, though I’m partial to African-American writers like Charles Chesnutt and J. California Cooper who present black folk culture authentically.
Q: What is your favorite book and why?
A: Again, I have read, taught and studied extensively black writing in America and the Caribbean. I recommend classics like David Walker’s Appeal; Frances Harper’s Sketches of a Southern Life; poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar; The Conjurer Woman by Chesnutt; poetry of Harlem Renaissance artists (Georgia Douglass Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett); Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; and J. California Cooper’s A Piece of Mine.
Q: Are there any literary figures you admire or major influencers that have impacted your life? How so?
A: Anna Julia Cooper and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, both as intellectuals-activists-writers.
Q: If you could travel back in time, which period would you visit and for what reason?
A: A trip to the 19th century in America might not sound ideal, but I have always had a natural curiosity about slavery. No, I do not want to experience it (Douglass and other writers present it realistically enough). I am most interested in witnessing the survival of my own family who has a history traceable to domestic servitude in rural Alabama.
Q: What has been your proudest accomplishment while working at the University and why?
A: Teaching has its just rewards!
Q: What is your favorite aspect of working in a university environment?
A: Working in a place I have always felt most comfortable as a “nerd.”
Q: If you weren’t employed in your current job, what else might you be doing and why?
A: I haven’t considered the possibility. I’m doing what I love!
Q: What do you like to do during your spare time when you’re not working?
A: What “spare time”?! Occasionally, listening to jazz, walking, and/or antique store hunting.
Q: What little known fact would people find surprising about you?
A: I am the youngest of 10 children.
Q: What is the best advice you ever received and from whom?
A: “Take a seat at the table.” A dear friend and mentor interested in preserving my mental health and encouraging me to take advantage of the privilege of having a voice in matters of importance.
Q: What advice would you give to others?
A: Find and define “balance” for yourself.