On the Record with Michael Boyd Roman; Assistant Professor of Design and Black Visual Culture


Phyllis Graber Jensen

Assistant Professor Michael Roman

Michael Boyd Roman is an assistant professor of design and Black visual culture in the Studio Art and Africana Studies departments. He focuses on exploring the concepts of beauty and divinity within the Black community. Recently, he facilitated a collage workshop titled, “Collaging and Storytelling Circle,” inspired by Mickalene Thomas. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What type of art do you create? 

My work is dealing with this large theme of divinity within Blackness and what that looks like on an everyday level. The great thing about being an artist is that I don’t have to be an expert in all these different fields in order to have a conversation about it. But so much of Black culture and history boils down to a disconnect with this sense of divinity in ourselves as a people. We are one of the few peoples in the world where our spiritual belief system does not revolve around creatures that look like us. For example, in a Black American context, we were given white Jesus. We don’t have images of Black Jesus in our art. So it was this idea that we don’t have a belief system — a spiritual belief system that revolves around us — and my art explores what that does to your psyche.

What made you come to Oberlin?

Oberlin was attractive for a lot of reasons, [including] the community and the sense of history. I’ve been to and taught at a range of different types of higher education institutions — small liberal arts colleges, massive state schools, HBCUs — but the Black community in Oberlin is connected in a way that I have not seen in other places, and that’s actually really unique. When I first interviewed here two years ago, I was really intrigued in what that would look like for me and what I could do with that sense of support. You know Black students have Afrikan Heritage House and in that, a lounge, dining hall, and dorm to hang out in. Yale’s the only other place that’s also done that in my personal experience. It’s just those kind of day-to-day things where, if I want to see my people, I can go there. No matter what, if I need to be supported, I can go right there.

This Tuesday you worked on a workshop titled “Collaging and Storytelling Circle.” Would you expand on the purpose of the workshop?

So the Allen Memorial Art Museum reached out and asked if I would be interested in facilitating a workshop on collaging and storytelling based on the work of Mickalene Thomas as a starting point. One of her pieces is on display right now in one of the little mini exhibits in the front of the AMAM. Mickalene Thomas is a fantastic Black-American, female- identifying artist. Her work speaks to a wide range of not just race and feminine issues, but also dealing with issues within male homosexuality and femininity. She really kind of pulls from the history of the female nude — what that looks like and the way that that’s changed over the years — and that’s where the Black body comes into how her art has been continued in Black spaces and conversations. The workshops were really cool, and I was nervous because I haven’t done one of these here and collage isn’t really my medium, not in the way Mickalene Thomas does it. It was fun to hear students chatting it up and getting into the medium in whichever way they wish, though.

Do you want to start incorporating more African diaspora classes when it comes to art?

It’s kind of tricky because I don’t want to get into the trappings of trying to teach how to make Black art — building a studio class around how to make Black art is really problematic and hard to do. What I do is crosslist everything that I teach with Africana Studies. For example, I am teaching a graphic novel seminar right now, and at some point, I’d like to be able to kind of specialize that class toward African-American graphic novels. However, then you get into conversations around appropriation, things like that. That’s a conversation to have with my Africana Studies colleagues about how they navigate that space, because you never want to turn someone off from learning about Black culture. It’s those types of moments when, as a professor, I want people to kind of grow and expand. You don’t want to feel like your work, your struggle, is being tokenized or anything like that, though. All in all, I want to find a way to offer Africana diasporic knowledge in a way that allows students to get something out of it and for myself to still get something out of it.

Do you enjoy being an assistant professor? Especially with the turnover rate within the department?

The department is always in flux because of the number of visiting professors that come through, and in a very real way that’s been by design. I can understand from a student perspective how that might get frustrating because you hire someone as a visiting professor and even if it’s for a two- or three-year term, visiting professor is always temporary. From the faculty standpoint, even if you get a visiting position, if a tenure track position opens up somewhere, you’re gonna shoot your shot because they don’t always open up. So, I can understand how there’s a lot of turnover in that way.