Catching Up with the Winners of the 2021 Library Research Prize

In May, we awarded the 12th annual Library Research Prize to Aarushi Vijay ‘22 and Jerri Bell ’21, who topped the undergraduate and graduate categories, respectively. The award ceremony took place over Zoom on May 5th with an audience that included Fairfield University Deans, President Nemec, Provost Siegel, library staff, faculty, staff, students, and community members, who came together to celebrate our four accomplished scholars and to hear more about their research. To further underline how impressed the selection committee was with our award recipients, we decided to reach out to them to discuss their work further.

Hi Aarushi, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Let’s start with what, or perhaps who, encouraged you to submit your research?

My faculty advisor, Dr. Epstein, encouraged me to submit my research for the Prize.

Can you give us a little bit of a background of what interested you in the research topic?

While I was doing my research on tragedy plays of Shakespeare, I read about the cultural interpretations of Shakespeare, and that combined with my Indian background got me interested in my research topic.

Did your research question change at all during the process?

Yes, I think it changed from studying the general interpretations of Shakespearean plays in the West cinema, to studying the cultural interpretations of Shakespeare in North and South India.

Which library resources did you find most helpful in your research process?

I don’t think it was one particular thing that was most helpful, but a powerful combination of all the resources provided by the Library, ranging from newspaper articles to 24/7 chat services and Interlibrary Loan. These resources were really important to me as I was a remote student and my project would have not been finished without the dedicated resources of the library!

If you can, would you mind summarizing your conclusions for our readers?

Through an analysis of Indian adaptations from the North and the South regions, I concluded that the South-Indian adaptations deploy the regional art and ritual forms to use Shakespeare as a medium for social commentary, whereas the North-Indian adaptations enforce regional issues to use Shakespeare as a medium for political commentary.

This further goes on to show us that the tragedy of Othello is the same across cultures and regions. The conflict of Othello, originally rooted in race, can be translated to regional issues, and even though race played an important part in Othello’s downfall, it was his internal misogyny and Iago’s mastermind that helped sway Othello. Seeing different executions of these themes in different regional adaptations, we can conclude that the tragedy of Othello will forever remain a tragedy universally, as long as social inequalities exist, either of race and caste or of gender. In contemporary Indian Hamlet adaptations, one sees that Hamlet becomes so much more than just Hamlet. Even though the main themes of revenge and madness stay the same across the cultures, they are portrayed in different ways. It also sheds light on how revenge is viewed in different cultures.

During the Library Research Prize reception, I and the rest of the audience were moved to hear your plans to contribute part of the prize to a COVID-19 relief effort for India. Would you like to take this opportunity to say anything about that charitable action or provide our readers with additional information about the situation in India?

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who contributed to the COVID-19 relief effort for India. I was able to donate half of the amount from the research prize to help deliver PPE (Personal protective equipment) kits to hospital staff to aid in the fight against COVID-19. The situation in India is still not good and the hospitals do not have enough PPE kits or oxygen cylinders. It would mean a lot if people can keep donating to the cause and other countries struggling with the delta variant of COVID-19.

Hi Jerri, thanks for doing this! What, or perhaps who, encouraged you to submit your research?

My spring semester mentor in the MFA program, Eugenia Kim, brought the award to my attention and encouraged me to submit my research. Because the program is low-residency and our residency periods are either on Enders Island or, since the beginning of the pandemic, over Zoom and Quip, being encouraged to submit my project was a lovely reminder that students in the MFA program are indeed part of the wider Fairfield University community. The essay I submitted was inspired by nonfiction author Adriana Páramo, whose generative workshop on “hermit crab” essays suggested the form.

Can you give us a little bit of a background of what interested you in the research topic?

I first ran across a reference to the “Golden Fourteen”—the first African American women to serve officially in the U.S Armed Forces, and openly as Black women—in 2015, when colleague Tracy Crow and I were researching historical context for pieces that we included in our anthology of women veterans’ writing, It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, 2017). Historians who had written about the women to date seemed to believe that all record of their naval service in World War I had been lost, except for their names, “homes of record,” and the name of their supervisor in the Bureau of Navigation. Tracy and I knew that representation matters to marginalized populations—we wrote our book to increase the visibility of women in the armed forces, and our target audience was young women just beginning their military careers. The history of women’s participation in the armed forces was not taught at all during our accession training, and we spent a combined total of 30 years of military service not knowing on whose shoulders we stood. If representation mattered to white women like us, how much more must it mean to women whom the intersection of gender and race makes doubly invisible? These 14 Black women were pioneers, and I just couldn’t bear to let them remain invisible.

Did your research question change at all during the process?

Completely. I started out wondering how and why the Navy had only managed to recruit 14 Black women, across such a wide geographic range. The women’s homes of record were Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Mississippi; and Texas. Hadn’t they recruited in New England, or elsewhere in the South? Were these 14 women uniquely qualified for clerical work somehow?

It turned out to be exactly the wrong question. The Navy hadn’t recruited these women—or any other Black women. In fact, they had made a deliberate effort to prevent Black women from exercising their civic responsibility to support the war effort by enlisting in the armed forces, and were turning Black women away when they attempted to enlist. More importantly, they were working to deny Black women (and men) all of the benefits and privileges of military service.

The question then became: Given the Navy’s unwritten “Jim Crow” recruiting practices and personnel assignment policies, and given that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels had been not only a white supremacist, but had used his newspaper to instigate the Wilmington (N.C.) Massacre of 1898, how had these 14 women managed to enlist?

Which library resources did you find most helpful in your research process?

Three were absolutely critical, especially during the pandemic. Mat, one of the research librarians, was able to connect me to a digital archive of historic Black newspapers that I could not have accessed through my local public library.

Because of JSTOR’s paywall, had it not been for Fairfield’s subscription, the research would have cost hundreds or perhaps even thousands of dollars more to complete. Also, many of the books I needed had been published in very limited runs, and copies were often held in only one or two libraries (usually in the South) that had curated significant collections of material on African American history and culture. The Library was able to borrow almost every book I requested; when a book would arrive at Fairfield, John Cayer would send it to me in Maryland by FedEx, with a prepaid return label—again saving me hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

If you can, would you mind summarizing your conclusions for our readers?

The 14 women who enlisted in the Navy and served openly as Black women in World War I endured humiliation, risked public censure and dishonorable discharge, and were even exposed to the possibility of retaliatory physical violence in order to serve and claim their place in a country that considered them “less than” and “other”—a country that still denied African Americans their full civil rights. They did so to advocate for their rights, for integration, and for the uplift of their entire race. The story of their service, that political act, was then carefully and deliberately suppressed. The Armed Forces continue to struggle with racial inequity more than a hundred years after the 14 women of the Golden Fourteen were demobilized. Equity must begin with a candid and truthful reckoning with the social injustices of the past: hopefully publication of the story of the Golden Fourteen will contribute some small thing to that reckoning.

What’s next for this work? I remember you saying that it will soon be published? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I’m still working to complete the manuscript: I’m trying to footnote my sources carefully and accurately. I hope for a late 2022 or early 2023 release of the book—and in the publishing industry, that’s “soon!"

During the Library Research Prize reception, I and the rest of the audience were moved to hear how you planned to use the prize. Would you mind telling our readers about that charitable act?

It’s a little uncomfortable: Jesus commanded us in Matthew 6:1-4 to do our charitable giving “in secret”—not for an earthly reward of attention or approval. So, here’s what I’d like to share about my use of the prize money, in hopes that it will offer an opportunity for reflection in these difficult times.

Activist Ijeoma Oluo says that when White people do solidarity work with people of color, we need to be wary of doing anything that isn’t actually felt by people of color. She says, “I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does it actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.” (Stewart, 2020). While a book about the Golden Fourteen might be something that African American readers can actually feel, that didn’t feel like sufficient solidarity work to me. As a White writer, I feel that I have no business profiting financially from a story about Black women. I resolved as soon as I had the book under contract that I wasn’t going to keep a single penny earned from the story, before or after publication. I wanted to turn the prize into something that the community I was writing about could spend.

The early work of several of the “Golden Fourteen” and their elders inspired the direction for the donation: they had been pioneering educators in Mississippi’s segregated schools. In the course of the research for the book, I developed a relationship with some of the current residents of the small Mississippi town where the grandmother and great-aunt of the first of the women to enlist had lived. These two women, Harriet Greene and Fannie Royster Carter, had founded the town’s first school for Black students in the late 1870s, in the face of opposition and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan. Klansmen had burned Black schools across Mississippi, and beaten teachers who educated Black students, for a number of years after the Civil War ended. That didn’t deter Mrs. Greene and Mrs. Carter in their determination to give Black students the best possible education. Can we do any less, in an easier time?

That town now has a majority-Black population. I worked with administrators at the local public school to donate the prize money so that it could be used in whatever manner the school administrators deemed most useful to their students. I understand that half is being awarded to a high school student as a scholarship in memory of the town’s first two Black educators, and half will fund the behavioral incentives program at the middle school. I like to think that the ladies of the Golden Fourteen would approve.

To learn more about the Library Research Prize, visit: