As a poet, professor for the African American studies department, and director of the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation, Natalie Graham said she hopes to give her community the representation they deserve.
Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Graham is an alumni from the University of Florida and has been a part of Cal State Fullerton for eight years.
Prior to her career in higher education, Graham said she did not have any intentions of being a professor, but after a couple of English and anthropology classes in college, she realized her passion for culture and the arts.
“I love teaching students something that they didn’t know about a history that they’re really familiar with. It kind of opens up the world to them to think differently about very familiar, recognizable histories,” Graham said.
Graham said her goal is to always inspire her students to see history and culture in different perspectives to what they are normally accustomed to.
In 2017, Graham published her poetry book titled “Begin with a Failed Body,” a collection of poems that dive into the roots of the South that many people are not used to seeing, poems about the trauma people in broken societies go through. The project began while she was finishing college and wrote the poems for her master’s thesis.
“I really wanted to think a lot about what it means from a place or be from a culture that’s not considered perfect or might be considered broken,” Graham said.
The book was published by the University of Georgia Press and won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which is awarded to individuals who have written exceptional poetry from African descent.
Even while being an accomplished author, Graham said she is most proud of the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation at Cal State Fullerton.
“I think it just has so much room to grow and serve our students and our community. I love, more than anything, creating conversations or facilitating conversations among people and allowing people to have access to the art and allowing students to have access to different ideas,” Graham said.
The Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation was designed to support and include Black people, culture, creative arts and history at CSUF.
Graham has influenced the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation and has been given the opportunity to take the African American Studies department and the students that go through it to the next level, said Vincent T. Harris, the director of the Males Success Initiative at CSUF.
Harris said that when he first began teaching in the department, Graham was just beginning the idea around the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation institute and is now amazed by the progress she’s made.
“The fact that she’s having conversations with artists around Black imagination in the scope of social citizenship, reimagining what citizenship is for Black and African American people, that was just to me really groundbreaking,” Harris said.
Graham said that being director of the program made sense to her because of her background and the misrepresentation she saw growing up.
“I think that it’s important to really institutionalise Black presence, to invite people to come back and say ‘Yes, you’re welcome. Yes, you can drive here. Yes, you can start moving here,’” Graham said. “There are people here that will support you.”
Graham said that it’s important to acknowledge the absence of Black people in Orange County, and why that poses a challenge for those that need a community in the area.
“I think a lot of the time people point to ‘Well that’s only 2% of the population,’ but even on campus 2% of 40,000 is a lot of people, so I think what I wanted to do is acknowledge that we are not even represented,” Graham said.
The racism and misrepresentation she experienced while growing up and while attending school only encouraged her more and is a key reason for why she became an educator and why she pushes students to be better, she said.
“I’m grateful for all my experiences. There are a few things I go back to in my life and say ‘Gosh, I wish it never happened in that way,’ because I think everything, every challenge, every difficulty is an opportunity to learn and to grow and to be better,” Graham said.
Siobhan Brooks, associate professor in the African American Studies department, said she arrived at CSUF the same year as Graham, and has formed a tight bond with her colleague.
“I think she is very passionate in the classroom about tapping into her students ability to produce creative work, to produce intellectual ideas, I think she is very gifted in the classroom and outside of the classroom,” Brooks said.
Gwendolyn Alexis, professor in the African American studies department, has been working with Graham for eight years. She said Graham is able to see different subjects through a historical and creative lens, and make it better for her students.
“She is so brilliant and what is important for her to teach is our experience and she teaches the African American experience in different ways because she’s a creative,” Alexis said.
Mei-Ling Malone, lecturer in the African American studies department, said Graham has a great passion for preparing students for their futures.
“She pushes students because she wants them to be well equipped when they leave the university, and not a lot of professors mention that,” Malone said. “She’s always thinking about students and their future.”