Get to Know Terrance Dean, CMA's First Aminah Robinson Scholar-in-Residence

The Denison University professor is the first Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Scholar-in-Residence at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
Terrance Dean is the Columbus Museum of Art's new Aminah Robinson Scholar-in-Residence.

This month, the Columbus Museum of Art announced the appointment of its first Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Scholar-in-Residence, Terrance Dean, Ph.D., who assumed the role in January. A published author, assistant professor of Black studies and founder/director of the William Payne Innovation Lab for Racial, Social, Political and Communal Sustainability at Denison University, Dean’s background in the entertainment industry and journalism eventually led him to academia. He earned his doctorate in religion and African American diaspora studies from Vanderbilt University before moving to Central Ohio in 2019 to teach at Denison.

“I've had such a storied path that's led to where I am today, which is part of my journey as a writer, as a journalist, as someone who's very curious about the world,” he says. “I've always had an interest in stories, and who gets to tell stories.”

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Since January, Dean has spearheaded an effort to rebuild, organize and archive the extensive library of Columbus native and prolific artist Aminah Robinson, who left most of her estate to the Columbus Museum of Art when she died in 2015. That library “tells a unique story of who she was as a historian, as an intellect, and herself, even, as a scholar,” Dean says. “She was very interested in Black culture, Black life, Black experiences. She was very interested in the world and how the world works.”

Columbus Monthly reached Dean by phone in late March to discuss the residency and his goals for the program. The following interview has been edited for length.

How did you become familiar with Aminah and her work, and when did you decide this was a project you wanted to be involved in?

I became familiar with her work because I am a transplant to Ohio. During the pandemic, I began doing research on my own family, who migrated to Detroit. I understood my family to migrate from Georgia to Detroit. But once I started doing the ancestry work and I began digging more into the archives of my own family tree, I learned that my grandmother's mother actually migrated from Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. And my grandmother was born in Columbus in 1920.

So, I found that history and I literally just delved into the area where she was born, where they lived, who they were as a people. And I found the street, actually, where they lived at one time in Columbus. I literally could've walked there, because I didn't realize how close it was. [laughs] I don't know if you know where Capital University is, the law school, but they lived in that area. And I was so fascinated. I said, “Wow, all this time I've been living in Columbus, I've literally lived not too far from where my grandmother was born.”

As I dug into that work, I came across Aminah and the King-Lincoln Bronzeville area, and I just became so fascinated with who she was, the story she was telling. And I wondered more about my people, my family and the relationship to that area of Downtown and what that meant for so many people who were migrating, post-slavery, during Reconstruction. Then, when the museum had the exhibition of her work [Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Robinson’s House and Journals, Nov. 21, 2020–Oct. 3, 2021], seeing it in person just brought so much to fruition for me—understanding Ohio as a free state for so many Black persons who were escaping the South. So for me, I really want to tell more of that complexity of that story.

The press release announcing your appointment mentioned that one of the topics you’ll develop content around is Aminah’s work and Afrofuturism, which I thought was interesting because a lot of her work is rooted in looking backward toward ancestral influence. Can you tell us about the connection there?

I look at her through the Afrofuturism concept of how she places religion and religious iconography within her work. And there's this looking back, but also looking forward, like, what is the hope for Black persons? Because for us, there's a term that we use in new Black study and discourse of religion: post-slavery. And what does that look like for people who have these religious tentacles that are part of their everyday experience and how they look to a future—the hopefulness of the beyond? I think that's what Aminah is also telling us—there's something more for us, there's something even greater.

The looking back is when she connects us to Africa, and part of Afrofuturism is the connection to the ancestral home of Africa and how we reimagine our future and our lives in a possible hopefulness, a possible optimism, that we can see ourselves free living and communal and connecting our roots back to our historical homes of Africa. And we talk about science fiction a lot in Afrofuturism: Where do we see ourselves in the future? And how do we make ourselves humane and visible within that future?

You mentioned the religious iconography in Aminah’s work, and that’s been a major area of study for you in your master’s and doctoral programs. Was that a big draw for you to this program, beyond the connection to your own family history?

Yeah! Yes. I love when you walked in [to Raggin’ On], the door becomes a portal, almost, like walking into this space of a sanctimonious experience. Because there's an altar when you walked into the exhibition; it was a shrine. Those who are familiar with altars or shrines, and how she makes use of all of those materials—it's almost like she's paying homage to our past, to the ancestors.

And she uses so much of the Jesus iconography throughout her work. The praising, the lifting of hands, the saints looking to the sky, and the way she reimagines Jesus as a Black figure becomes so crucial to the African American experience. Because for many Black persons, Jesus becomes a central figure in our experience, because of his relationship to the poor, his relationship to those who have been oppressed and marginalized. So that becomes such a huge, tantamount component for us to make access throughout religious experiences.

Looking forward to your plans for the rest of the residency: Are you planning any connections with the Aminah Robinson Writer-in-Residence, Darlene Taylor?

Yeah, great question! Once she gets here and she gets settled, we're planning for her to do a talk and to share more about her work, what her research will entail. And she's also planning, I think, to make connections with the local community, particularly the young people. So hopefully we'll be able to see what comes out of that work and get young people involved.

That's really true of a lot of the work we want to do too, is reintroduce Aminah to a younger audience. For me, introducing students at Denison, Ohio State, Otterbein and all these other institutions in Ohio [is key], because I think so many young people who grew up in Columbus who are aspiring artists themselves are telling stories. I share with them about Aminah, and they're like, “Wow, like, I didn't even know.” I'm like, “Yes, literally in your backyard.”

The press release also talked about your intentions to create programming for younger students too, at Columbus City Schools, right?

Exactly, exactly. Because it's such a rich history, and her story just expands beyond the borders of Columbus even to greater Ohio, but you know, the world itself beyond Ohio. So that's one of the things too—we're going to bring in critical thinkers and scholars, but also other artists from outside of Ohio whose work has been influenced by Aminah and allow them to come back and tell their story as well.

What about potential for collaboration at the Payne Innovation Lab at Denison?

So, that's about migration. William Payne was a Black man who graduated from Denison in 1908. He was a schoolteacher in Ohio, and he was inspired by Booker T. Washington to go west. After he graduates from Denison, he comes to Los Angeles, where he meets Allen Allensworth, and these two men come up with a plan to create their own town. And the town actually exists today—it’s called Allensworth.

It’s an amazing story, William Payne’s resiliency to travel from the Midwest, Ohio, to California to create this Black town. It’s a fascinating story. The town becomes a flourishing, popular destination for many Blacks who moved there and relocated to Allensworth.

For with this project with Aminah, again, we’re talking about migratory patterns of people who were escaping [the South], looking to settle or resettle their lives, form their own community and have their own intellectual community and spaces to create and have their own economic, political and social lives.

So those stories have, I think, something very similar. We made those connections to what Aminah was saying about creating community, the visibility of all of us and the power that each of us have to do and become who we are in the world when we are no longer facing oppression.

Any other plans or programs you can share with us?

We just want to make sure to get young people involved and to have access to this work. We want to do another exhibition of her work, introducing the public to more of it. They’ll have another residency where someone will go and live in Aminah’s home as well, so we want to keep that rotation going. We want to—I want to say “canonize” Aminah, in the way we canonize other Black artists. I think Aminah deserves that—a rightful place in the canonizing of her and her work.

This is a fascinating opportunity. I'm very grateful to the museum for creating a space and opportunity such as this, because then it allows for the academy to get involved and for scholars and thinkers to really make sense of what Aminah was doing and to uplift those stories. But more importantly, to delve more into her life, because I think there's so much we know, but a lot we don't know. So, this library and the work that we are doing will help create a starting point for others who can come along after I'm done, to continue building on her legacy.