Our Work

VFOA currently consists of three main projects involved with the following communities:

Panamanians of West Indian Descent

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened. It was the result of the death-defying labor of hundreds of thousands of Black British West Indian men, recruited by the U.S. from their home islands with both true and false promises about the presumably golden opportunity of building the canal. The canal, the Panama Railroad, the United Fruit Company, and the promise of economic opportunity, more generally, attracted British West Indians to Panama throughout the first half of the twentieth century. This segment of VFOA works to capture the beautiful and ugly experiences of modern-day Panamanian West Indians in their own words, and guides interested individuals and groups in using that material to expand awareness of these histories and stories in Panama and in the U.S.

VFOA has conducted over 100 interviews with community members in Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and Colón. Listen to some of their Voices. If you are a researcher, teacher, or community organization leader and wish to use these interviews for your project, class, or program, feel free to Contact Us. We have also organized or participated in over 30 events in the Republic. See our Activities and Events page for a sampling. Learn more about our Partners, including the Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama (SAMAAP), Esteban Lan author of the Almanaque Lan (the Lan Almanac), and Asociación Amigos del Museo Etnocarbeño de Bocas del Toro. This segment of the project has been made possible, in part, by support from the Center for Latin American Studies, the Department of English, the College of Arts and Science Dean's Office and the Center for the Americas.

Middle Tennessee Worldviews

This segment of VFOA seeks to collect, compile, and disseminate narratives from this diverse and growing region. One branch focuses on gathering and disseminating stories of local African-American life in order to provide insight into the experiences of this ethnic group in Tennessee. In addition to providing new insights into how living under segregation shaped individuals' childhood dreams, educational experiences, and sense of self and community, the project explores subsequent effects of those experiences on the lives of African Americans as they went on to pursue dreams, raise families, and understand themselves in relation to their increasingly multi-national and multi-cultural community and region. The other branch centers on collecting narratives of Caribbean, Latin American, and African immigrants to the region, providing a basis for educational materials, programs, and policies that advance inter-ethnic understanding and education.

We have begun conducting interviews in the region, in addition to helping local community organizations with the planning and enacting of programs. Our priority has been and will continue to be building relationships with local partners, identifying mutual interests, and undertaking collaborative strategic planning and program development based on those interests. If you are interested in having us work with your community, organization, or school, feel free to contact us. This work is being supported, in part, by grants from the Vanderbilt International Office, Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and Humanities Tennessee and the College of Arts and Science Dean's Office.

In addition, with a grant from Humanities Tennessee, VFOA is leading a year-long humanities educational outreach program for economically disadvantaged youth and their families in Middle Tennessee. The purpose of this collaborative program is to provide these participants with opportunities to learn about, critically engage in, contextualize, and develop well-grounded perspectives on the history of their community by interacting with living primary sources, print primary sources, distinguished humanities scholars, educators, and creative writers.

Contact us if you'd like us to start a similar program in your area, city, state, or country.

Black Women Travelers

This segment of VFOA works to compile scholarly and popular views of Black women's mobility through interviews with, and educational workshops on, African-American and Caribbean women expatriates, migrants, and tourists. Countering the ubiquity of the now iconic image of Stella from How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the absence of attention to Black women in Immigration Studies scholarship and from discourses on cosmopolitanism, this section aims to generate new primary sources that will expand and enrich the range of stories told about Black women within and beyond academia.

The initial interviews for this segment were done with African American and Caribbean expatriate women in Panama. We have built on that work by gathering narratives from and on women in the U.S., Canada, among other sites, and by conducting archival research on the migrations and travels of Black Women at key moments in the twentieth century-the interwar period, the era of decolonization, and the turn of the twenty-first century. Support for this segment has come, in part, Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and the Department of English