In the fall of 2018, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies welcomed Dr. Lydia Kelow-Bennett to the team as an Assistant Professor. Having just received her Ph.D. in Africana Studies from Brown University that year and her master’s in Communication, Culture & Technology in 2011, Dr. Kelow-Bennett was “ready and raring to go.” Even prior to attending graduate school, she found herself in a multitude of roles within the realm of academia.

“I worked for a Women’s Studies Department as an administrative assistant and at a charter school as a business and operations manager,” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said. “But, ultimately, I felt like what really drew me to pursue my Ph.D. was that I just enjoy teaching, and I was finding myself in teaching situations one way or another- facilitating workshops or running reading groups.”

These roles contributed to her appreciation of learning and the inner workings of an academic institution.

“I really value my time as an administrative assistant and working on the staff side of universities because I think that it gives me a different kind of view when I’m teaching and doing research, and kind of the ecosystem of the university and how we’re actually able to accomplish all of this amazing stuff that we can do here,” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said.

Her dissertation, which primarily centered on Black feminism, Black feminist use of popular culture, and the development of Black feminist theory, tied together her passions for studying the media and Black culture, which she shared involves “the advantages and the pitfalls of Black popular culture being a site of meaning-making for Black feminists.” These interests have transcended her research and made their way into the courses she teaches at the University of Michigan, which have ranged from undergraduate offerings such as “Black Women in Popular Culture” (AAS 275) and “Black Queer Studies” (AAS 482), to graduate offerings such as “Gender and Sexuality in Black Popular Culture” and “Blackness and Belonging” (AAS 601). Additionally, these passions have helped her foster aspirations for the students enrolled in her courses. One of her aspirations pertains to our interpretation of the media.

“Media makes so much meaning in our lives, and especially with social media now, so many things move around so rapidly, (and) so many things pose as facts,” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said. “But also, the images we consume, the representations we consume, those things aren’t neutral. They create a lot of meaning in our world, and I want for students to be able to take a step back from kind of the emotional experience of those things and really question what kinds of meanings are being made.”

Another aspiration surrounds students’ understanding and appreciation of Black culture. In particular, recognizing and appreciating the “incredible richness and beauty to Blackness, not just in the United States, but diasporically.”

“I also really want for students to be able to see the incredible possibilities in Black liberation, and that Black liberation can benefit everybody,” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said. “Yes, it benefits Black people, but it also benefits so many people because free Black people means free societies in our world right now. I want for students to also encounter the beauty and the value of Black people, of Black culture, and of Black life and struggle because it is often the case that Blackness, Black culture, Black life, [and] Black people are so devalued in our way of moving around the world.”

She also shared that she aims to have her students take a more hopeful and open-minded approach to social justice. Specifically, for them to find meaning in even the smallest of results.

“We live in a time right now where it can be really hard to want to make things better because things look so horrible sometimes, especially I think for young students as they’re looking at climate change and all of the craziness that’s going on right now, and they’re like ‘what’s the point?,’” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said. “I want them to walk away from my classroom with a sense that even if you can’t change all of the things, the small things that you can make a difference in do matter.”

These changes influence people on a mass level, as well as on a personal level. Learning and bettering yourself through research and activism is a form of social change in itself.

“Even your own growth as a human being in learning how to critically think, learning how to be a better community member to people who are different than you, learning to open yourself up to forms of difference in human life are also all worthy and worthwhile causes that can actually make a seismic change in the communities that you come to be a part of.”

Dr. Kelow-Bennett is teaching two courses during the Winter 2023 semester: AAS 201: Introduction to Afro-American Studies and AAS 482: Black Queer Theory, which satisfies the Upper-Level Writing Requirement for LSA students. Dr. Kelow-Bennett encourages students to enroll in her future courses, which she believes to be a lot of fun.

“I want for students to be able to find the actual joy in learning, not just the memorization, or the ‘what are these facts,’ but the joy in curiosity, and in failure, and in trying something and it doesn’t work,” Dr. Kelow-Bennett said. “Black Studies is an incredible place (and) an incredible lens to learn about the world through.”