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For the future of Black studies

Banner displayed on the Commonwealth Institute of Black Studies' website.

The Commonwealth Institute of Black Studies’ mission is to answer some of the most urgent questions of today through Black studies.

Anastasia Curwood was a founder of the Commonwealth Institute of Black Studies (CIBS) and has been with the institute since its inception in the summer of 2020. She became the organization’s first official director and has held that position since.

CIBS conducts research while also serving as an incubator and showcase for that research. Both things only happen because of its scholars.

“We have a world-class faculty,” Curwood said.

CIBS also collaborates with the community, doing as much outreach as possible. “We connect [our work] to the community,” Curwood said.

DaMaris B. Hill, a scholar and professor at the University of Kentucky, coined the term “glocal” to describe this type of outreach, which combines global and local elements.

The CIBS vision is built on five research pillars: slavery and inequality, particularly in central Kentucky; race and sports; Black futures, including the digital realm, imagination and speculative fiction; and gender and sexuality. They seek to understand what Blackness is around the globe, from Appalachia to Zimbabwe.

When Curwood and her fellow founders created the institute, they decided that all African-American and Africana Studies scholars would automatically become members of CIBS.

“Every scholar we have has a national reputation,” Curwood said. Since its creation, CIBS has grown its faculty by conducting national searches.

“One thing that’s different about the University of Kentucky from smaller institutions is that we are a research priority university,” Curwood said. “We have one of the very highest standards for how we get our research done.”

As a result of that high standard, all the university’s faculty were selected in an international search. Almost all of them are conducting cutting-edge research.

The research conducted by CIBS scholars is mostly published as books and articles. Curwood’s office contains stacks upon stacks of her fellow scholars’ published works, including her own. She recently published a book about Shirley Chisholm, titled "Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics.”

“Before Kamala Harris, before Obama, before Jesse Jackson, there was Shirley Chisholm,” Curwood said. “They all stand on her shoulders.” Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to run for president for the Democratic Party in 1972. Having never heard of Chisholm before, I noted that this type of information isn’t often taught to us. “No, it’s taught that Black people don’t run for president,” Curwood said.

Curwood also has copies of several other important works in her collection, including Aria Halliday’s book, “Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed US Pop Culture;” Vanessa Holden’s book “Surviving Southampton: African-American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community;” and Francis Musoni’s book “Border Jumping and the Control of Migration in Southern Africa.”

“We’re all writing. We’re all doing big projects,” Curwood said.

Currently, CIBS scholars are working on a database that will include all the deeds of Fayette County’s enslaved people. The archive will digitize and transcribe these deeds for easy access in the future.

They are also currently researching and writing biographies about all the Black people who were lynched in Kentucky.

“Usually, we know about them from their deaths, but we want to know who they were,” Curwood said.

The primary focus of CIBS, as opposed to every other primary research unit on campus, is on the perspectives and experiences of Black people.

“We start with Black people, and we look from there,” Curwood said. Unlike most research projects, CIBS research never begs the question: Were Black people involved? When you do that, you see different angles of vision and get new insights.

“It’s like we say in our motto: It’s impossible to understand where we’ve been or where we’re going without Black studies,” Curwood said.

Despite their work, Curwood is well aware of CIBS’ obscurity across campus. Although few people are aware of their existence, their impact is interdisciplinary.

Fortunately, one Black student on campus, Kat Kat, learned about CIBS through the STEM program, and he is eager to see more from them. He said he wants to see CIBS explore more of the social anthropology of Blackness.

“I’d like to see more of how our culture influences, how much we actually reach and how much equality we affect,” Kat said.

Curwood herself is dissatisfied with the CIBS’s impact on the community. “We have a lot of work to do,” she said. She hopes to increase their visibility, programming and the number of students they assist in learning and conducting research.


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