Charmaine A. Nelson
Charmaine A. Nelson took her first art history course as an undergraduate English major at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada—an upper-level elective that was far too advanced, in which she received the worst grade of her university career. But she fell in love with the subject, and the department chair encouraged her to pursue it. She switched her major to art history and was off and running.
As she delved deeper into the discipline, Nelson quickly realized she wasn’t represented there as a Black woman.
“I always say to my students, don't be afraid of the absence of yourself in a discipline because that means your questions haven’t been posed yet. If I had been afraid of that, I would have left right away,” said Nelson, who today is provost professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department at UMass Amherst, specializing in Black diasporic art and visual culture.
In Nelson’s classes at Concordia, works by Black artists were painfully absent, but professors frequently showed works by white artists depicting Black women—often unclothed. “But the professors would talk around the Black woman as if she wasn't in the painting. They didn’t know how to address race and the intersection of gender and sexuality. I noticed a difference in the representation of these subjects compared to white women in works from the same period and even the same artists,” she said. Nelson’s professors could not answer the incisive questions she posed, “but to their credit, they encouraged me to pursue these topics for my research papers.”
Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, Nelson had encountered the erasure of Black Canadian history long before college. Her parents, Maxwell and Barbara, both immigrants from Jamaica, supplemented her Canadian education by teaching her about the parts of history that were not being taught: specifically, histories of Transatlantic Slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, which were completely absent in any critical fashion from her elementary and high school education.
Moreover, Nelson said, she didn’t have a single Black teacher or professor from kindergarten through her MA (all undertaken in Canada), nor her PhD, which she earned from the University of Manchester (England) in 2001. In fact, with her appointment at Western University (London, Ontario), she became the first-ever Black tenured or tenure-track professor of art history in Canada, a distinction she held for two decades. Even now, she said, there are only a handful of scholars in Canada of any race studying Canadian Slavery.
For Nelson, being the first meant confronting unique challenges in her academic career. While she found supportive friends and colleagues around the world, she also faced disrespect and questioning of her intellectual capacity, objectivity, and the merit of her scholarly interests from colleagues and students alike. She quickly came to learn that among Black academics, this experience was common.
“Black professors constantly have to decide how much energy to put into self-defense versus doing their work,” Nelson said. “I am very blessed to be at this stage after going through such terrible experiences of institutional racism and being the first in my discipline, because it wasn’t pretty.”
Despite these obstacles, Nelson has soared to become a preeminent scholar in her field. She is the author of seven books and has received several prestigious fellowships and appointments. In 2022, she was elected as a member of the American Antiquarian Society and inducted as a fellow by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), which recognizes Canada’s leading intellectuals, scholars, researchers, and artists.
I always say to my students, don't be afraid of the absence of yourself in a discipline because that means your questions haven’t been posed yet.
Nelson takes her responsibility as a trailblazer seriously and strives to increase both scholarship and public awareness of the histories of the Black Diaspora and slavery, particularly for regions where it is less well-known like Canada and the American North. After teaching at McGill University for 17 years, she was appointed a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement at NSCAD University, Halifax, Canada. There, she had the opportunity to establish the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, the first research center to focus on the country’s 200-year participation in Transatlantic Slavery. In joining the faculty at UMass Amherst in fall 2022, she brings to the university the Slavery North initiative, which expands on this work to include the American North.
Nelson is eager to tap into UMass scholarship on the African Diaspora and slavery already being done across many departments. Ultimately, she hopes to grow the initiative into a research and public outreach hub, and to fund on-site fellowships which provide traditional scholars and artists-in-residence with the financial and scholarly support to nurture their research and creative production focused on slavery in Canada and the American North.
Nelson is also helping to enable the work of scholars around the world by building an accessible, searchable digital archive of historical information on slavery in Canada, with assistance from students. Currently, most of this information is only available on microfilm in various provincial archives, she said.
Nelson also engages with the public through frequent lectures, blogs, publications, and appearances in the media. In contrast to the U.S., where public intellectuals commonly appear on TV to debate issues of race and racism, the Canadian media landscape lacks the same robust culture and such topics rarely receive public airing, she said. “I see it as a part of my responsibility to share my work with multiple audiences beyond academia, because that’s how real change will happen.”
Nelson prioritizes training her undergraduate students to conduct original research and sharing this research with the world. Since 2014, she has published an open access, undergraduate student e-journal, Chrysalis: A Critical Student Journal of Transformative Art History, which she plans to continue at UMass.
When advising her students on their future career plans, Nelson always tells them it’s a certain type of person who enjoys the solitude of engaging in archival research. Personally, she finds deep satisfaction in getting lost in historical documents and artworks.
“Learning about enslaved people in centuries past allows me to contemplate the complexity of their unimaginable experiences. I am filled with gratitude for their ingenuity, bravery, and ability to survive, and I am fortunate to be able to study their histories and cultures,” she said.
Yet studying the brutal violence of slavery can also be emotionally taxing, and Nelson thanks her husband, Ellis Ramirez Ortiz, and parents for all their support. What’s more, she is mindful that she stands on the shoulders of her enslaved ancestors and feels grateful to be able to recover their stories.
“What excites me is being able to try to center the experiences and perspectives of enslaved black people,” she said. “It is a privilege to be able to do this work.”