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Commanding a learning legacy: Alumnus leads the way in world-renowned museum

By Jenna Johnson | June 13, 2024
Photos provided by Smithsonian Institute.

With a name like Dr. Commander, one may visualize a modern-day superhero who seeks justice for the defenseless—or who leads an army as the top-ranked official. For one particular Charleston Southern alumnus, her cape may be figurative, but her climb to the top as a protector of our nation’s treasures and history is reality.

Dr. Michelle Commander ’00 is a leading lady in the world’s largest museum complex—the Smithsonian—serving as the deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. A known scholar of slavery and memory, Black geographies and mobility, and the speculative arts, Commander is the author of numerous works, including Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke University Press, 2017) and Avidly Reads: Passages (NYU Press, 2021). She has worked in New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery.

Commander is charged with being the right-hand person for the director and is involved in strategic conversations across the museum as well as day-to-day operations in the publications office. She writes grants, develops partnerships, and cultivates an environment of learning and engagement across the Smithsonian museums. Commander also supports the work on the current Living History campaign and ensuring the museum meets its goal to reach every corner of the digital world.

Purpose vs. Plan

As purpose filled as she is, working for a Smithsonian Museum wasn’t exactly a part of Commander’s life plan. 

Hailing originally from South Carolina’s lower Richland County, Commander is a first-generation college graduate who grew up thinking that she would choose the nursing profession or something in the science field. College was always a part of her future—the result of both environment and her natural gifts. 

View from inside the museum by Jenna Johnson.

“I saw how hard my parents worked and the value they placed on education,” she recalled. “There were always books and encyclopedias in our house. I picture my parents coming home from work—they were always behind a newspaper, passing each other their favorite section.”

Commander thrived in school. In fact, winning a state high school competition in extemporaneous writing may have been a revelation of her future career. 

And though it was impressed upon her that college was in her future, Commander remembered that nagging anxiety that most high school students feel when their K-12 career comes to an end: “I just had to find my purpose.”

Commander remembers her first tour of the CSU campus: “I was slightly afraid of going to USC and being at a school that was a little bit large. I loved the intimacy of the CSU campus and the professors that we met on the tour. I felt like I could be away from home and grow up, but also be close enough to get back home an hour and a half away. It aligned with my beliefs and faith at the time especially, and it felt like a good place to spread my wings.”

Choosing CSU “set the stage for what was to come,” according to Commander. She credits some favorite faculty members for helping her find her footing as a student and guiding her on a pathway to purpose: Dr. Don Clerico for his passion and encouragement, Dr. Nancy Barendse for her affirmation and support, and Dr. Scott Yarbrough for his motivation and preparation.

“I was really pushed by these professors and had a solid writing foundation that set me up to successfully communicate in that way,” Commander said.

Yarbrough, now vice president for student success, said he remembers Commander’s determination to excel in her work. “I am and have ever been astounded by Michelle’s drive and work ethic. Those attributes alone don’t necessarily guarantee someone the success which Michelle has attained, but if you tie a fierce intelligence and intellect to those characteristics and unite them with intellectual curiosity and a willingness to keep expanding her knowledge base, then the sky seems to be the limit, as Michelle has demonstrated.”

Her college experience was a full one. On a partial music scholarship with a minor in music, Commander played clarinet and bass clarinet in band. A woman of many talents and interests, she also won Miss Congeniality in the Miss Charleston Southern University pageant. 

She walked the stage with a degree in English with an English education minor.

After graduation, Commander continued to gain advanced degrees, receiving an MS in curriculum and instruction from Florida State University and a PhD and MA in American studies and ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She is also a recipient of prestigious research fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Fulbright Scholar Program. 

A self-proclaimed country girl, Commander said that she was surrounded by others every step of the way who kept her motivated to advance as far as she wanted to go. “I saw people who were young getting their PhDs, other people of color,” she said. “And I hadn’t had too many examples in my life of people who had gone on to get their graduate degrees. Seeing them do it made me feel like I could do it. So, I just kept going. I was in school for 28 years—from age 4 to 32—a lifelong learner.”

During her graduate program, she felt her interests shift from high school education to something else. Instead, she thought about what it could mean to be a professor. Commander was an instructor at Florida A&M, Florida State, and the University of Ghana—and she was a professor in the Department of English and Program in Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee where she taught for eight years and earned awards and tenure. 

Telling Stories for Legacy and Learning

Through her path to where she is today, Commander said she kept the faith. God placed people in her life who embraced her and took her under their wing. Along the way, she realized she had a set of skills that could be transferred to other careers. 

“I still could never have imagined being in what feels like a dream position,” she said. “It feels like a blessing. It feels like confirmation that the steps that I’ve taken were the right steps. The sacrifices that I’ve made were worth it for this moment to not only realize something amazing professionally, but to be in service to the nation and the world to help tell this full American story.”

Commander reflects on what it means to work in a place where she is an integral part of presenting history in an educational, meaningful way.

“This is a place where I can be re-centered or even when I’m dealing with the minutia of the day that may be frustrating, I can see the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument right outside my door and feel as if I can almost touch it—I can see the White House. And it reminds me of the stakes of the work that we do—how important it is, the ways we want to embrace everyone in America and be able to have these conversations and think about history and think about how we can move together into the future in ways that are not so separated from one another.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture provides visitors the opportunity to explore African American life, history, and culture through interactive exhibitions, artifacts, and resources. It became the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution upon its opening in September 2016. Commander gave a personal tour to the 10 millionth visitor last fall. 

Her favorite part of the museum? As a location, she pins Heritage Hall. But her favorite part?

“I love shadowing groups of families and hearing how they respond to certain parts of the museum and the conversations they’re having,” she said. “Whenever you’re writing label copy, you don’t want to be too didactic or tell people how to think. You want to present things and allow room for them to interrogate how they may feel about a particular subject matter. And so, it’s really awesome to see the ‘aha’ moments, and the ways that people are moved and see themselves in the story, whether or not they have a family connection, or whether or not they’re an African American. They can see a human story and build those connections in those kinds of ways.”

Being from a small town in South Carolina isn’t lost on Commander. Her goal is to ensure that permanent exhibitions are accessible to those not able to travel to D.C. Through her digital publications, Commander and her team tell “new and dynamic stories in new and dynamic ways using digital tools.” She added, “Our permanent exhibitions help us tell larger stories, and we are embracing the tools for new generations.”

Back Where It All Began

In a review of Commander’s impressive resume, Yarbrough said that Michelle’s work in literature, history, American Studies, and Africana Studies shows the benefits of a broad-based liberal arts degree. “In her work as a student, scholar, teacher, professor, museum director and curator, and now the deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with the Smithsonian, she has been able to draw upon all her strengths in these disciplines which tie closely together while remaining distinctive. The focus on critical reasoning and reading, on writing and communication, on history and the arts she learned at CSU have provided a launching pad for her continued upward trajectory. The firm foundation of faith integration in her coursework here has enabled her to keep in mind the truth that through God and Christ all things are possible.”

Commander credits CSU as that launching point thanks to “the foundation that I got at Charleston Southern and the push that I got from my professors there.” 

Core memories like when Dr. Barendse gave her a review during her student teaching. “She wrote that I was a natural teacher, and that is something to tell someone that they are natural. It looks like it comes easy to them, and it was sort of an affirmation of me as a professional and that was so important to my trajectory. Believing—helping me to believe in myself. That sort of support from those professors that I’ve named was instrumental to me, feeling like I could go on, and that I belonged in the rooms that I stepped into. That is powerful, too.”

When she thinks about those moments and where she is today, she hopes to leave a legacy. “I think of those people in small places, or places that they don’t think or don’t know that they can get out of or make a difference in, that they can see me and my example as someone who demonstrates that you can make a difference in your field,” said Commander. “You can make a difference in your world. It doesn’t mean you always have to leave home, but that there are opportunities to find your voice. You have to sometimes step out on faith and see where the path will take you.”

Dr. Michelle Commander gave us a sneak peek into current and upcoming projects for the museum publications:

  • Game Changers, a story series
  • Double Exposure, new book series based on photography collection
  • Reckoning, a visual art exhibition
  • Children’s books – in time for the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026, stay tuned!

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