Anything is possible
A conversation with Florida Humanities’ new Executive Director Nashid Madyun
By Jacki Levine and Keith Simmons
Featured image above: “The ability to know your neighbor helps you truly know yourself and, ultimately, contribute to a fair and vibrant society,” says Nashid Madyun, photographed on the grounds of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Long before Dr. Nashid Madyun became Florida Humanities’ new executive director in May, he had witnessed the power of the humanities in telling our unfolding stories.
He saw it first in his hometown of Helena, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River, as it worked to interpret its rich and complex Civil War history. Union-occupied, it was a haven for freedom-seeking slaves, site of a major battle, home to a Confederate cemetery, and a beacon of African-American leadership during Reconstruction.
Then, in his post-college work at the Department of Arkansas Heritage, he delved into the tragedy of the 1919 Elaine Massacre, which happened in his own home county. In an incident whose true details had taken years to uncover, untold numbers of Black sharecroppers lost their lives in a confrontation sparked by an attempt to organize for fairer treatment. And he collected the oral histories of folk artists, agricultural workers and those who made their living on the Mississippi River.
Later, he absorbed and shared the stories of musical legends as the first director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, which he helped launch.
In another chapter of his two-decade long career, he witnessed the story-telling power of the world’s first collection of African-American fine art, housed at the Art Museum and Archives of Hampton University in Virginia, where he was director. His Florida journey began as director of the Carrie Meek and James Eaton Sr. Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee.
Through it all, he has shared his knowledge as a college lecturer in humanities, African American art, U.S. history and business.
Now, Nashid Madyun brings his experiences as an archivist, researcher, storyteller, and leader to his new role helming Florida Humanities.
Can you share a favorite childhood memory of growing up in Phillips County, Arkansas?
My fondest memories are of the Arkansas Education for the Gifted in the summer; Weekend Wizards, a county-supported program to inspire and cultivate creative thinking; and the visits to the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park. Those three cultural influences always remind me of the spark and richness that rural places like Arkansas can have for a child. Fun fact, my father was a newspaper man and ran the Community Consultant out of the front of the house and we lived in the back. My mom, Audrey Madyun, a paralegal, was recognized for her baking skills and still competes to this day — her Tropical Sunshine Flatcakes recipe got national attention in 2008.
If you had two minutes to describe the humanities, how would you convince your listener it is important?
Never overlook the opportunity to learn about the culture of your neighbor, their passion for cuisine, art, or the influence nature and the environment may have had on them. The ability to know your neighbor helps you truly know yourself and, ultimately, contribute to a fair and vibrant society.
As a matter of fact, let me tell you a story from my past that illustrates this. It involves a rhythm guitar, a Hammond B3 organ, an abandoned movie theater, and a young black music prodigy. In the heart of Memphis, during the civil rights-charged ’60s, Booker T. Jones Jr., the 14-year-old prodigy, walked into a movie theater that had been converted into a music studio and record store looking for work. Skilled on many instruments, he quickly became the lead for the house band consisting of two black gentlemen and two white gentlemen. With Booker T. on the Hammond B3 organ, and Steve Cropper, a young white kid, on the rhythm guitar, Booker T. and the M.G.s, was one of the first racially integrated rock groups in the U.S. Consider their hits “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight,” examples of lifelong collaboration and bridge building in the heart of a divisive world. More than serendipity, this inspired me to believe that anything is possible.
Was there a pivotal experience that inspired your interest in the humanities as a life’s work?
There was an English teacher-turned-librarian in my high school who vented frustration about a free blues festival in town. The festival was staged downtown, and while it didn’t block off access to the streets where the white businesses were, it did block off the Black businesses. Traffic couldn’t get through.
So it created a tension: On one hand, here was a festival celebrating Black heritage, but while the white businesses benefited, the Black businesses were shunted out of it. The blues festival was great, but what about the Black businesses that weren’t making money with thousands of people coming into town?
This was a rabbit hole that grabbed my attention. I realized that history can’t always be what you see on the surface. You can’t always take everything at face value – you need to look at both sides. You need to get the background. There’s what’s in the history books and another story that doesn’t always make it in. We need to interview people and tell those stories that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.
I went to college as a business student, but I quickly came back to the humanities, because I never left that rabbit hole.
It’s the weekend: What are your go-to pastimes?
Golf, chess, watching sports, reading obscure book finds, closing my eyes and grabbing vinyl for a needle, trying to duplicate a meal at home that touched my soul in a restaurant.
Favorite teams: Steelers, Celtics, Razorbacks.
Favorite meal: Steak street-tacos made fresh with pico de gallo, green chile sauce, cilantro, and queso – though you can’t go wrong with blackened grouper and asparagus if you know how to use a cast iron skillet.
Do you have a favorite place that evokes “quintessential” Florida?
From the Panhandle to what I have seen of the Gulf coast, the Florida landscape is remarkably laced with flowing trees and waterways. St. George’s Island and the Sarasota beaches could probably compete with my golf days. I have to say that the way people absorb live music in Central Florida seems to be synonymous with their enjoyment of the sunsets on the beaches. I don’t think Florida would be Florida without some blend of fine music, a sunny beach, and a good sunset meal at a food truck during your weekend.
Are there books, movies, or music that have inspired you as a humanities professional and advocate?
Gil Scott-Heron’s recording, “Don’t Give Up,” James T. Cobb’s book, The Most Southern Place on Earth, the films “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” I believe, speak to me as much as the artistic expressions of the “Great Migration” series by Jacob Lawrence or the “Black Belt” by Archibald Motley. The “Black Belt” shares a scene of promise and fun during the ’30s as the Great Depression looms. The Cobb book shares the truth and reality behind peonage, paternalism, and what fueled the Great Migration. The “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting” provide inspirational snapshots on the theme of “open your eyes; seize the day.”
We know you’ve hardly had time to get your bags unpacked, but what is your initial vision for where you’d like to lead Florida Humanities?
In some way or form we need to capture the eclectic essence of Florida’s cultural diversity and become the statewide champion for what it truly means to be a Floridian. Consider an environment where a child and a senior citizen are versed in Florida’s diversity and can substantially talk together about a new documentary or exhibition.
How would you describe Florida Humanities’ relationship with libraries, museums, and historical societies?
Over the past five decades, it appears Florida Humanities has found a brilliant way to accomplish feats via modest means. If you think big, we can help support the dialogue, exhibition, or public programming to help your vision impact, influence and resonate with your audience. That seems to describe the impression these entities have shared regarding the work that we do.
What do you see as the greatest challenges the humanities sector faces? What impact has the pandemic had on this?
“Humanities” is a broad-but-focused definition of human cultural expression. It can be a challenge to address the gaps in age, ethnicity, and cultural immersion that a melting-pot state like ours can bring. The pandemic has brought an intensity to the exploration of who we are and curiosity about who our neighbors and friends are. It has forced us to close the digital divide in some respects, challenging many organizations to reconsider the meaning of “public-facing” programs — such as in-person lectures, touring exhibitions, and panel discussions — and opening up to the realm of online. Now we’ve become comfortable with learning from our laptops, and it may lead to more online offerings.
As a humanities professional and an educator, what suggestions might you have for improving lifelong education in the humanities?
Education delivery changes, so change with it. Perspectives on humanity change, so be prepared to be reflexive and work with traditional and emerging audiences — those individuals who prefer digital and those that are more comfortable with traditional, in-person settings. Clearly, when we define the humanities, most would agree that it incorporates history and popular culture. But the debate as to where the line is drawn can lead to the exclusion of some very important disciplines, such as visual culture and classical music. Find a way to meet your audience where they dwell.
How can an appreciation for the history, culture, and literature of Florida — in other words, Florida’s humanities — bring us together as citizens of this large and diverse state?
That question may also be the answer. Knowing that there exists such a broad array of humanities expressions in an equally broad state, means that your approach should be objective, yet ravenous, in your hunger to learn. A servant leader leads by example and need. He or she supports the humanities not just by learning, but by sharing and sparking the desire to learn in others.
Want to learn more about our new executive director? Click here.
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