Celebrating African American History with a French Perspective

While working as an intern last fall at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on the groundbreaking Bronzeville to Harlem exhibit, psychology major De’Jah Donahue became fascinated by the impact made by Black Americans around the world – especially in France. However, she also noticed many of these figures who are household names in France are little known to the American public.

She wanted to change that.

Fruits of her efforts can be seen in the current exhibit of posters, located throughout Bradley Hall, commemorating key African American figures in the French-speaking world. This is one of the more unique, student-driven ways Black History Month is being marked on the Bradley campus.

The posters highlight the lives and careers of luminaries like legendary performer and beloved wartime heroine Josephine Baker, pioneering aviatrix Bessie Coleman, artist Lois Mailou Jones and author Richard Wright. Donahue took on double duty, focusing both on author Ta-Nehisi Coates and the legendary Harlem Hellfighters.

She proposed the idea to her French professor, Priscilla Charrat-Nelson, who thought it would be a great idea for an independent studies program. Interest in the program grew quickly, and

soon nearly a dozen other students signed up to do this on their own time.

“It’s real testament to their enthusiasm and dedication to this project,” said Charrat-Nelson.

International Business and French double major Alejandro Mendoza found the project an important opportunity to learn more about these important yet lesser-known figures. He wished he had the chance to learn more about individuals like author James Baldwin, his chosen subject, while growing up.

“We tend to overlook people of color,” he said. “Some of these figures are trailblazers and we take that for granted.”

As the students also wanted to contribute to Black History Month, they decided on creating posters of their chosen figure. The current exhibit is in English, to reach the greater Bradley community.

They’ll finish this independent study course by writing a paper and delivering a presentation to second-year French-language students later in the semester – all in French, of course.

Charrat-Nelson is a proponent of innovative ways to expand language learning opportunities, especially by creating a real sense of community among language-learners and to focus on topics that interest learners.

This is evidenced by many of the students choosing to challenge themselves by using French language source material for their research. “It is a much more lively, engaging, and participative way to learn,” she said.

The exhibit – and the class – has gained attention among language teachers on social media, many voicing interest in doing similar projects. Donahue and Charrat-Nelson hope this promotes both out-of-the-box language teaching and language learning, which they believe is essential for students in a globalized world.

And importantly – for Paris-born Charrat-Nelson – for students to think big, to think globally.

“I think it also makes a great point to all Americans students that they can have a cultural impact on other countries even if they weren’t born or raised there.”

- Mel Huang

Some media in Bradley University's current print, video and online materials was acquired before the COVID-19 pandemic. Media acquired after the pandemic began was done so in compliance with Bradley's COVID-19 safety protocols at the time. The ongoing safety of our faculty, staff and students is of the utmost concern during these unprecedented times.

De’Jah Donahue's presentation