Arts and Humanities People and Community

Scholar champions the arts and underserved communities

Donette Francis, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for Global Black Studies at the University of Miami, explores the intersection between race, arts, and the environment in her research and teaching.
Donette Francis is co-director for the Center for Global Black Studies and past director the American Studies Program at the University of Miami. An Associate Professor of English and founding member of the Hemispheric Caribbean Studies Collective, she specializes in Caribbean literary and intellectual histories, American immigrant literatures, African diaspora literary studies, globalization and transnational feminist studies, and theories of sexuality and citizenship. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami
Donette Francis specializes in Caribbean literary and intellectual histories, American immigrant literatures, African diaspora literary studies, globalization and transnational feminist studies, and theories of sexuality and citizenship. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

When Donette Francis was in junior high school, she received two meaningful books. Her aunt gave her “The Poems of Phillis Wheatley,” which was written by an enslaved black woman who lived in Boston during the 1700s. And her best friend’s mom gifted her “Sula,” a coming-of-age novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. The books changed the course of her life

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, and growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Francis lived in a thriving Black neighborhood, but she had never read any texts by Black women. 

“Those two books had a big impact on me,” said Francis, associate professor of English at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for Global Black Studies. “I was seeing Black female writers and learning that they could create worlds for me. Whether it was in the form of poetry or the novel, they were taking me to other places away from Brooklyn.” 

That love of literature encouraged her to pursue a Master’s in English at Howard University and a Ph.D. in American Studies at New York University. In her research and teaching, Francis explores the intersection between race, arts, and the environment.

At the University, Francis teaches interdisciplinary courses that address issues of race, migration, feminism, colonialism, visual culture, and African diasporic and Caribbean literatures and cultures, just to name a few. Arts and the migrant experience have shaped her identity, she noted.

Brendi Wilmore, a junior and a Stamps Scholar who has taken courses with Francis, describes her as “intense in a good way.”

According to Wilmore, “she is very open and welcoming and connects students with others who can help them. She is a real educator and is dedicated to teaching and empowering the lives of students.” 

Francis has been at the University of Miami for the past 10 years, teaching courses in literature with an interdisciplinary approach. That method attracted Nhadya S. Lawes, a 2022 alumna.

Lawes, who is now associate for the arts program at the Knight Foundation, recalled when she enrolled in the course Black Housing in the Literary Imagination, which was created and taught by Francis. She led the students to see the city of Miami as an important African American city, also defined by Afro-Caribbean migrations. 

Through books, films—including “Moonlight,” the 2017 Oscar Award winner filmed in Miami—and articles, the students explored the richness of Black culture and iconography that makes up the city.  

“It was in Dr. Francis’ class that I really began to reframe my relationships to Blackness and arts and culture in South Florida,” said Lawes. “Because this was home, I had not seen it as a viable place of scholarship. Usually, we turn to New York, Atlanta, or Chicago as sites for Black studies, but now I could apply that lens critically to my home and our distinctive diasporic communities.”

Besides studying the many ways that Black people have faced discrimination and disenfranchisement in housing, Francis made the students aware of the richness that Black lives can bring to an area.

“The conventional way to think about how Black people inhabit cities is to focus on racial disparity, but there are other ways that the Black presence shows up—in the cultural arts, in politics, and in various civic organizations that create spaces for Black empowerment,” she said.

As director of the Center for Global Black Studies, Francis has strived to create a reciprocal relationship between the University and the community. Partnering with Africana Studies, the center now offers a class, Black Miami Studies, that brings in a diverse group of experts from inside and outside the University to discuss their area of expertise and issues of race, especially as it impacts Black Miami. 

The center builds on four interconnected pillars: research, education, community engagement, and scholarship. The community scholars-in-residence fellowship is a key initiative that creates an opportunity for local experts to share their expertise with students and faculty both inside and outside of the classroom.  

The first scholar-in-residence was Nadege Green, a journalist who has created Black-Miami-Dade, a digital storytelling and history platform that highlights the history of Black Miami. This year Charles Humes Jr., a multimedia visual artist and retired Miami-Dade arts teacher, is the artist-in-residence. 

“I am excited because we are at a point where interconnectedness between the center’s pillars and our various initiatives productively influence each other,” Francis said. 

Francis has been a lover of the arts since she was a teenager, when she was allowed to roam freely through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That love has continued. She frequently writes on the arts for academic essays and for art catalogues. She is also a member of several local arts and community organizations. 

If a community organization asks me to write something, I do it,” she said. It is a way to be present in the community and for her academic voice to be in service to the community, she added.  

She was chosen by the Knight Foundation as a 2022 Champion of the Arts for her work in the arts community. The prize comes with a $10,000 grant that is awarded to anyone creating arts in the community. Francis chose to pay it forward to two local Black dancers, Herman Payne, a professor at New World School of the Arts as well as an instructor of musical theatre, and Kelly Robotham, dance director at Miami Arts Charter Homestead. They both also teach at Amour Dance Theatre and work tirelessly throughout Miami-Dade County to make dance more accessible to more people, Francis pointed out.

Rosie Gordon Wallace, founder of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, a local group that represents Caribbean artists, has worked closely with Francis. 

Francis is a “champion of neighborhood initiatives that are grounded in community work that embraces art, racial justice, and equity,” Gordon Wallace said.  

“She uses her position as professor at UM and is empowered by it to offer support and ideas to artists and organizations such as Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator,” Gordon Wallace added. “She turns up in the community supporting visual artists and mentoring graduate students in the community. She is tireless in her commitment to support Black and Brown artists, many who have been ignored in the past.”