By Nichelle Smith and Monique Calello
The Associated Press via The News Leader
As a historically Black institution of higher learning, Norfolk State University teaches students their history, including slavery, as they pursue career tracks such as business, engineering and technology.
Founded in 1935, the school is adding the country’s first master’s program in cyberpsychology this year — something that faculty members see as another tool in the educational arsenal for teaching African-American students how to be free.
For students in the program, learning how to fight cyber attacks will begin with an understanding of how psychological manipulation works, said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor and dean of Norfolk State’s College of Liberal Arts, which houses the program.
“Not everybody thinks the same way,” Newby-Alexander said. “When you’re thinking and designing ways to secure, you have to have a real understanding of the human element. It’s never a good idea to fall prey to anybody using your fears, your hate. That level of manipulation is really a constant in our society.”
Knowing how to recognize and resist attempts at manipulation, combined with a background in history, literature, art, music and science, allows students to better understand and maneuver in their world, Newby-Alexander said.
“All of these different fields together teach you how to be free because it gives you knowledge in a wide variety of areas … so you can be the master of your own life. Otherwise, you are a cog in a wheel and you’re going to be manipulated.”
More than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought in chains to what is now Virginia, Newby-Alexander punctuated her point about maintaining mental freedom as her students in the fine arts program crossed the Hampton Roads harbor last fall to visit Norfolk State’s friendly rival, Hampton University.
It was the last day of an exhibit at the Hampton University Museum: “A Taste for the Beautiful: African Impact on American Culture,” a commemoration of the 1619 landing of the First Africans at nearby Point Comfort. The two floors of galleries at Hampton, founded in 1868, comprise the oldest African-American museum in the country with one of the largest private collections.
A painting by Mozambican artist Malangatana Valente Ngwenya is senior D’Shea Downey’s favorite piece. She says she loves the texture and earth tones and talks about the importance of understanding each artist’s interpretation. As she browsed the exhibits, she absorbed nuances she intends to reflect on as she moves forward in the world.
“One of the artist’s purposes is to document what’s going on,” Downey said. “A powerful and very strong history,” she says.
Newby-Alexander and Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, the Hampton museum’s director, were appointed last year by Gov. Ralph Northam to help rewrite African-American history as taught in Virginia public schools.
Newby-Alexander predicts the 21st century will be “an untangling of history” that she likens to the blurred background in a photograph. That, she said, will allow the country to begin with a clean slate in the 22nd century.
“If we dismiss the slaves almost as a ‘thing,’ not human beings who brought technology and a culture with them that impacted everybody, then you miss the whole story.”
Rising powerfully from the ground on Hampton University’s campus is the immense Emancipation Oak bearing a history of slavery in its ancient tangled branches. It was under this oak that a free Black woman, Mary Smith Peake, taught 20 Black students in 1861 in defiance of Virginia laws prohibiting the education of Blacks. It was also here in 1863 that Black people, enslaved and free, gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read for the first time in the South. (The Union controlled nearby Fort Monroe throughout the Civl War, so the area provided a haven.)
One of Newby-Alexander’s historical touchpoints is a photograph on her office wall called “The Ancestors.” When she gave a presentation two years ago on 1619 at Fort Monroe, a National Park Service site that includes the landing site of the First Africans, she received the photograph as a gift.
“It’s from the vantage point of looking out on the body of water called the Hampton Roads, looking out from Fort Monroe,” she says.
The faces of African men, women and children are superimposed onto the rocks and in the waters as a way of remembering the people who came to the shores.
“When I saw it, tears came to my eyes,” says Newby-Alexander.
“If you include the full story then you understand better what people are doing today,” Newby-Alexander said. “Our narratives all need to change. The way we think about the origins of America needs to change.”
“My hope is that Virginia will become once again a leader in pioneering a much more accurate, balanced narrative about not only who we really are but who we have been. As a society and as a nation.”