Spotlight: Peggy Wright-Cleveland, U.S.A to Côte d’Ivoire

Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Fulbright Researcher to the U.S., spoke with Peggy Wright-Cleveland, a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar from U.S.A about her exciting journey to Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Professor Peggy Wright-Cleveland

1. Why did you choose to go to Côte d’Ivoire for your Fulbright?

Because my work in American Literature focuses on the presentation of race, I have long wanted to go to West Africa which figured prominently in the slave trade. My work does not address slavery directly, but all constructions of race in American culture are tied to that historical institution and the work is done to justify and protect it. Additionally, Blackness and Whiteness are defined by colonialism, not by the slave trade in West Africa, and experiencing this other global manifestation of Blackness was important to my learning and understanding of race and racial construction in literature.

2. Where were you based and what organization were you affiliated with?

I was affiliated with the Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan. I taught undergraduate and graduate classes there.

3. What was the topic of your Fulbright project/research?

My Fulbright project was to translate the poems of Bernard Binlin Dadié and to learn as much about the reception of those poems as I could. I worked with a translator to learn colloquialisms and cultural references in the poems and I was privileged to meet Dadié himself. He was 100 years old when I met and had recently been awarded the Grand Prix des Mécènes presented by the Grand Prix of Literary Associations. I attended the award ceremony and relished in the connections between slam poets, rappers, musicians, and Dadié’s writing. My time talking with Dadié was the highlight of my trip. He was gracious, healthy, so smart, and very much still involved in politics. After this meeting, I was invited to attend a colloquium of international Dadié scholars. Truly being in-country gave me access to experiences and ideas I could never have engaged from across the ocean.

Mud paintings at Korhogo.

4. How did you get involved in your community outside of your direct research project?

I spent the year with my daughter who was 14 years old at the time. Though she did not attend Ivorian school (one thing I would change if I had to do it all over again), she did attend dance classes and volunteered her time speaking with Ivorian teenagers learning English. My daughter was a primary source of my engagement with the community. I was also fortunate to rent housing in the compound of a prominent Ivorian family. Getting to live in the community made all the difference. The matriarch of our host family invited us to attend the local and traditional wedding of a national politician’s daughter. This was another highlight of our time in Côte d’Ivoire.

Scenes from a wedding attended by Professor Wright-Cleveland during her Fulbright.

5. How was Côte d’Ivoire different as compared to the U.S?

My daughter and I commented to each other that while everything in Côte d’Ivoire felt different from the U.S., everything also felt very familiar. Honestly, we live in the Southern United States and I do believe the ways I learned from Black people in the American South – Black people descended from West African slaves – were the reason I felt so at home in Côte d’Ivoire. The emphasis on food, gathering, caretaking of the community, as well as privacy were very familiar. Perhaps the most striking difference from current American life was a lived valuing of family overwork. Early in my tenure there I had a faculty meeting scheduled at the same time that my daughter’s dance class ended. I was not yet comfortable with her hailing a taxi on her own (that would come later) and needed to pick her up. When I apologized and told the faculty member in charge of the meeting, he responded, “No worries. Family first. You must pick up your daughter.” I can’t imagine that being said in an American university.

6. What were some highlights?

Daily, the food was a highlight – the poulet braisé was so fresh and the alloco was a regular guilty pleasure. I also loved bissap though my daughter found it too sweet. And we employed a lovely and generous cook who prepared beautiful meals and did most of the grocery shopping. Also, the markets were fabulous and trips to the beach in Grand Bassam were a regular respite.

Professor Wright-Cleveland’s daughter Abigail Cleveland with the seamstress.

Equivalent in “wow factor” to meeting Dadié and attending a traditional Ivorian wedding, was a trip arranged by a family friend, also on a Fulbright. Our two families and a local friend hired a driver and van and travelled from Abidjan to Korhogo with a stop in Bouake. There were five adults – I had a second daughter with me at the time – and four children, ages 14, 8, 6, and 2. The Korhogo area is full of traditional arts and we saw weavers, bead-makers, potters, mask-carvers, and ironsmiths. We purchased some of everything, including mud paintings (a personal favourite). I also appreciated seeing the landscape of almost the entire country and being out of the city for a while.

Finally, I was privileged to be there during the first peaceful election since the 2010 election that incited the Second Ivorian Civil War and criminal charges against the losing and sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. People were nervous, but there was no violence in 2015 and I was there to see it.

A Korhogo weaver.

7. What do you miss the most about your time in Côte d’Ivoire?

First, I miss the friends I made there and the students I taught there. We keep in touch a bit through WhatsApp and texting but I do miss sharing a meal with them. I also miss the pace of life that even in retrospect seems more balanced to me. I miss the bright colours that were everywhere. Especially now during COVID distancing, I miss how peopled my life felt in Côte d’Ivoire. I could just walk out my door and find a friendly soul to talk to or to smile at me.

8. How has the Fulbright grant helped you after coming back to the U.S?

The Fulbright grant launched my Dadié project and it has only become bigger since my time back in the U.S. I now have a website and am working to better integrate ideas of decolonization into my thinking about and presentation of Dadié’s poems in English. The Fulbright grant gave me a network of scholars I can engage in this work and my time in Côte d’Ivoire increased my ability to evaluate scholarly claims about Ivorian literature and life and to ask more meaningful and constructive questions. I could not do this project with any effectiveness had I spent no time in Côte d’Ivoire.

9. Why should prospective researchers apply to Côte d’Ivoire?

Côte d’Ivoire is a welcoming place and its scholars and students are energetic and equipped for their engagement with Western thinking. My former students continue to earn placements at universities in Europe and North America as they extend their studies. My former students also continue to initiate, build, and oversee major agencies of education and social justice in Côte d’Ivoire. For others interested in American Studies, there is one American Culture center at the university in Bouake and one in Abidjan proper. Both provide opportunities to engage the community. Additionally, Abidjan is a growing, thriving city. There is much to be enjoyed there.

Peggy Wright-Cleveland is the Director of Faculty Development at Florida State University, U.S.A. Her scholarship focuses on the presentation of race in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and its role in defining American identity. As a Fulbright Scholar Côte d’Ivoire, she began translating the poetry by Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadiė into English as part of a larger project investigating the dialogue between anti-colonialism and anti-racism and its relationship to national identity. She blogs on https://mwcfulbright.tumblr.com and you may look into her project entitled Dadié Project on http://mewright.com which got launched due to her Fulbright journey and experience.

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