Life has come full circle for Nicole Fleetwood.
Growing up in Hamilton. Graduating from Miami University. Giving back by sharing her experiences with students.
Now, Fleetwood has added another stop on the circle that keeps leading her to southwest Ohio: Miami’s spring commencement speaker.
“It’s probably more like a concentric circle,” Fleetwood joked.
Near the center of that circle is Miami University. A 1994 graduate from Miami’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies Western College Program, Fleetwood is an academic, curator, and author. The inaugural James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, Fleetwood won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2021 and recently published the book “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” winner of the National Book Critics Award in Criticism, among other awards. She is also the curator of an art exhibition of the same name, which was listed as “one of the most important art moments of 2020” by the New York Times.
Both the book and exhibition have earned acclaim for their focus on artists who have either been incarcerated or who are involved with prison-related issues.
“It is not only a great honor for me, but I shared the news with my mom and my aunt, and they are so delighted,” Fleetwood said of speaking at commencement on May 13, 2023. “It’s something my entire family is very honored by.”
Fleetwood said she had a “warm feeling all over” when she checked her email and saw an invitation from Miami President Gregory Crawford for the 2023 commencement. Around the same time, she also saw an Instagram post commemorating the time she visited Miami students in 2015.
That invitation had been courtesy of Miami faculty member Anita Mannur. Now a professor of English, Mannur was then leading the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Fleetwood was developing a new project – which would turn into “Marking Time” – when Mannur asked Fleetwood to present on her work in progress.
It was important, Mannur said, for students to hear from academic professionals who took the same classes.
“She’s a good role model for students of color. For students to see the kind of work Nicole is doing and to realize she got her start at Miami is invaluable,” Mannur said. “We got the sense that this new work was groundbreaking and very innovative and thoughtful. It was really powerful. She didn’t just use the art without context. She brought the artists’ voices to the forefront.”
Fleetwood’s family has been among the forefront of Butler County since the 19th century. She said her father’s side of the family is one of the first and longest established Black families in Oxford. Her great-grandmother owned a house on College Avenue, and Fleetwood would visit often as a child.
“My upbringing and my education are very connected to Miami,” said Fleetwood, a first-generation college graduate.
“I credit the excellent mentors at Miami for preparing me for the professional success that I have humbly experienced and am very grateful for. I feel like I got a really good foundation, not just at Miami but also in the Hamilton public school system.”
Fleetwood isn’t done with Miami just yet – or southwest Ohio. She is currently working on a fourth book, this one focusing on her life growing up, and Miami appears as a setting.
“I am going to have fun thinking it through and working on it,” Fleetwood said of her commencement speech. “I am sure that part of what I will be sharing is what’s happening in the book.”